The Happiness Factor
It’s only natural that adults want children to be happy. Indeed, many of the most popular education reforms of today, stripped of rhetorical flourishes, place children’s happiness on equal footing with their learning.
The pursuit of knowledge may be important, but only if it simultaneously raises student contentment and self-esteem, the thinking goes. Bill Gates wants high schools to be more relevant to kids’ lives, and grants from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation have funded change in some schools. Oprah Winfrey featured one such school, a high school where there are no books or lectures, and students work on projects reflecting their interests.
“The Silent Epidemic,” a spring 2006 study by the Gates Foundation, highlights the national problem of high school dropouts and suggests boring schoolwork drives students out of school.
If students were just more confident in their abilities, enjoyed the subject matter and were convinced of the relevance of schoolwork to everyday life — so the story goes — U.S. schools would flourish.
Call this the happiness factor in American education.
No one says schools should bore children to death or purposely make them unhappy. But the happiness factor raises questions: Does it hold the same sway in other countries as it does in the United States? Is the happiness factor related to achievement?
School Reformers, Take Note
For the answers, I looked at data from the 2003 “Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study.” Two conclusions stand out.
First, countries vary on indices of happiness; in many other countries, the happiness of children seems to take a backseat to learning.
The second conclusion is surprising. National indices of student happiness are inversely related to achievement in mathematics. That is, countries with more confident students who enjoy the subject matter — and with teachers who strive to make mathematics relevant to students’ daily lives — do not do as well as countries that rank lower on indices of confidence, enjoyment and relevance.
Let’s examine enjoyment. Do students who say they enjoy math actually know more math?
Of the 10 countries with the highest percentage of eighth-graders saying they like math, not one country’s score is above the international average. Yet the countries in the bottom 10 of this list — from Sweden to Japan to the Netherlands — all score above the international average.
I’m not arguing that student happiness causes low achievement — correlations do not prove causality. But school reformers should take note: The intuitive appeal of the idea that making students happier results in better education should be held in abeyance. Happiness is not everything, and good results will not automatically follow contented students.
To read more about student engagement, download the article Fun Versus Content: Does trying to appeal to students lead to lower expectations?
Confidence vs. test scores
Eighth-grade students in the United States and Singapore were asked whether they agreed with the statement: “I usually do well in mathematics.” About two in five U.S. students “agreed a lot” with the statement, compared with less than one in five Singapore students. Yet looking at the average scores listed in the “Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study” tells a different story. While the most confident U.S. student averaged 541, the most confident Singapore student scored 642. In fact, even the least confident Singapore students — the 12% who “disagreed a lot” with the notion they do well in math — averaged higher scores than the most confident U.S. students.
Source: TIMSS 2003 Userguide, nces.ed.gov/timss
U.S. versus Japan
“We live in transitional times. We’re moving from an industrial to an informational economy. We need what I call the three Cs: critical thinking, creativity and continuous learning,” says Art Levine, president of the Woodrow Wilson Foundation and former president at Teachers College, Columbia University. “In Japan, they’re not teaching relevant mathematics.”