Why the U.S. Retains the Critical Edge in the Global Education Debate

The U.S.' low PISA scores do not represent a "sputnik moment" for U.S. education. China's high test scores mask a serious problem facing Chinese education: the lack of independence, critical thinking and innovation. With all of our problems, the U.S. education system, and most importantly, our education culture, promotes new ideas, encourages competition, and rewards originality -- concepts that are outside of the traditional Chinese focus on rote memorization and quantifiable skill sets.

I'll share some personal experience in this area, but first I'd like to quote from the recent NPR report on the Shanghai school district that ranked No. 1 in the worldwide PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) test, a program sponsored by the Organization for Economic Cooperation & Development (OECD). On the one hand, you have the district administrator, understandably pleased (and smug) about the results: "All Chinese people, no matter poor or rich, they have very high expectations in education. That kind of culture pushes people to study and study and study. I think this is very important." On the other hand, you have the middle school principal who isn't so sanguine: "...the results can't cover up our problems," he says, "Why don't Chinese students dare to think? Because we insist on telling them everything. We're not getting our kids to go and find things out for themselves."

Is that what we want to become? A culture of A students who can quote chapter and verse but can't innovate their way out of a problem?

When I lectured at the Communications University of China animation school in Beijing last year, a student stood up and asked me how many minutes of film an animator typically creates in a feature animated film. He was trying to fit everything into a box, and figure out exactly what the day-to-day parameters of the job were. He was confused and unsettled by my answer. I explained to him that each animator on a big feature for the big studios (like my former colleagues at DreamWorks Animation) has a unique set of strengths, and that they are selected for the film because of these talents. One animator might be better at action, one might be better at gesture and facial expression -- so everyone contributes differently, in different proportion. It is not an assembly line where everyone just follows directions. Working in commercial feature animation is an interactive creative process. It requires constant refining and revising in order to get it right. There is no one right way to do it. It's a process that requires personal expression in service to the director's shared vision. Problems are solved by taking creative risks, and by defending and supporting one's ideas.

This is very disturbing to someone who is raised to memorize and regurgitate information; where a wrong answer is seen as a reason to be ashamed, not as an opportunity to learn and to understand. The world is moving too fast to rely solely on quantifiable information and data. We must be educated to think critically, to challenge, to debate, to engage. Despite all of our flaws and our challenges, the U.S. has been the single greatest innovator in the history of the world. Let's not forget that our innovative spirit doesn't come from our skill at taking tests. It comes from our rebelliousness, our independence, and our willingness to dream big.

Let's preserve that independent spirit and teach kids to learn because they can be powerful, not so that they can become cogs in a wheel.

This post previously appeared under the headline, "We Don't Want Our Students to Be Like Chinese Students."