May 10 2007

Fun Vs. Content

Does trying to appeal to students lead to lower expectations? A new study hints that the answer may not be as simple as you might think.

Dennis Littky, co-founder,
Big Picture Company

By Carl Vogel

For many educators, it is axiomatic that students who enjoy learning, who are confident in their abilities and who find the topic relevant to their lives are students who perform better in school. Last fall, a report on education seemed to turn those assertions right on its head. Comparing international student achievement in mathematics, countries that rank lowest in measurements of confidence, enjoyment and relevance tend to be where the students have the very highest national scores.

The correlation is no fluke. Tom Loveless, senior fellow and director of the Brown Center on Education Policy at the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C., examined 2003 data from the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study , and compared it against survey data on several factors, consistently deriving a negative correlation. The results are startling.

The international average for the TIMSS math test for fourth graders was 495. In Japan, where the national score was 570, only 10 percent of students said they agreed a lot with the statement, "I usually do well in mathematics." In Tunisia, with a national score of 339, a whopping 58 percent agreed. The Belgium-Flemish result showed 27 percent of fourth grade students agreed with the sentence, "I enjoy mathematics," and the national score was 551. In Iran, 81 percent agreed, and the national score was 389.

The report, titled "How Well Are Our Students Learning," lands in the middle of one of the most contentious issues in K-12 education: closing the international gap for American student performance in math and science. American fourth grade students averaged 518 on the 2003 TIMSS, and eighth graders scored a 504. Both were above the international average, but well below the best half-dozen countries.

Nobody suggests that U.S. schools should aim to make learning more tedious or to sap students' confidence. For Loveless, though, the results of the study are a wake-up call for educational progressives who he says value student happiness as much as student learning. Loveless writes in the report, "The intuitive attractiveness of the idea that making students happier results in better education should be held in abeyance. Happiness is not everything, and by simply producing contented students, good results do not automatically follow."

Experts Weigh In

Complex data is similar to a Rorschach test. The Brown Center report shows the final results. But the reasons are open to debate, and several education experts have expressed their opinions on Loveless' findings.

According to David Klein, a mathematics professor at California State University, Northridge, "The mainstream thought in education is to make class as fun as possible, with context really taking a back seat. If there's a conflict between fun and content, fun wins."

"I think the basic premise of the study is false. We're judging the quality of how well math is taught by measuring test-taking skills. Then countries that have extremely rigid, very disciplined mode of study and examination will do well," says Leon Botstein, the president of Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson, N.Y., which also runs the Bard High School Early College in New York.

"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 of Teachers College, Columbia University in the City of New York. "In Japan, they're not teaching relevant mathematics."

Dennis Littky is co-founder of the Big Picture Company, which began in 1995 with a student-centered high school in Providence, R. I., and now operates 38 schools nationwide. He says in our society connecting to kids is essential to making them good students.

"We try to get kids creatively engaged in their learning and want to learn. But having school being a fun place to be is not enough for us. It's unfair to have happy kids without the skills they need," Littky says.