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Bruno: Still Unconvinced On The Testing/Creativity Conflict

120723_olympics-cartoon_g290Yong Zhao recently made the argument in Education Week that high test scores are incompatible with creativity and entrepreneurship. I'm a little reluctant to comment without having read his book on the subject, but his argument in this particular column rests on two pieces of international evidence, neither of which strike me as very conclusive.

First, countries' scores on the PISA exam are apparently inversely correlated with their scores on the GEM assessment of entrepreneurship. Since the GEM relies on self-assessment of ability, this may not tell us very much about actual ability even if the link was causal.

Zhao's second, more objective-seeming piece of evidence is that despite Shanghai's first-place showing on the PISA, China accounts for a disproportionately small share of international patents. 

The first thing to point out about this claim is that Shanghai is not China, and the vast majority of China's population lives elsewhere. 

Additionally, there are lots of differences between China and the United States that go well beyond their PISA scores and that might plausibly affect patent filing rates. In fact, the very same Wall Street Journal article Zhao cites on Chinese patent applications discusses some of these issues, including research culture and the politicization of R&D funding.

Perhaps the most obvious difference between China and the U.S., however, is that China is a much poorer country. GDP per capita in the U.S. is $48,387. In China that number is $8,382, almost 6x less. (Even in Shanghai it's only $12,784, an interesting data point in the "Does poverty matter?" debate, given their exceptional PISA scores.) Presumably this massive difference in wealth has implications for how individuals in China spend their time and for how the country allocates its research and development dollars.

Even if we want to take a few international correlations at face value, the WSJ article points to another problem with Zhao's argument. Japan - which scores in the top 10, and well above the U.S., on all PISA exams - files almost the same number of major international patents as the United States despite having less than half the population and spending about 1/3 as much on R&D.

Maybe it really is true that in order for students to do better on international assessments of knowledge, they must also become less creative and entrepreneurial. We seem pretty far from establishing that that's the case, however. - PB (@MrPABruno) (image source)

Comments

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This is a good counterargument. Indeed, a cursory look at the GEM survey shows it to be an unpromising means for assessing today's educational systems. The survey asks people 18-64 about various perceptions of entrepreneurial opportunities in their countries, whereas PISA is taken by 15-year-olds and TIMSS by 13-year-olds. I think the experiences of a sexagenarian Chinese, who might well have been denied an entrepreneurially supportive education during the Cultural Revolution, can be safely excluded from consideration when assessing the quality of a modern Chinese education. And this point is of broader import: Tony Wagner, in "Creating Innovators", makes an argument similar to Zhao's; but it may be fairly asked if we should particularly value the innovations of younger teenagers (I have found gangbanging dropouts to be highly creative innovators), or if, instead, we should expect most valuable innovations to come a decade or more later, after our young people have built up a base of knowledge upon which to innovate.

Good points, Bruce. I'm especially inclined to agree that even if knowing more stuff impedes some kinds of creativity - hence the overused tales of paperclips and "functional fixedness" - there are other sorts of "creativity" that knowledge does a great deal to promote.

I agree, Paul; and I think the point bears emphasis: not all forms of creativity are equal, economically speaking. I am reminded of an article I read last night that was posted by a friend who is starting a charter school in the Bay area. The article was about making time for daydreams, and linked leaving teenagers' time unscheduled to benefits for creative thinking. I agree, there is a time for daydreaming; but that isn't all the time, and I don't want our air traffic controllers to be daydreamers incapable of prolonged focused attention. There is a time for all good things; but I don't think those times are equally distributed throughout the many phases of human development. Key is to determine where individual students are on their developmental paths, and then to help them move towards goals that both they and others value.

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