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Memo to the World: America's Secret Sauce Isn't Made in Our Classrooms

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A few weeks ago, a couple of Japanese scholars dropped by the Fordham Institute offices for a visit. This happens every so often -- delegations of foreigners make the Washington ed-policy circuit, seeking a better understanding of America's schools. As with most Asian visitors I meet, these gentlemen were curious about how we manage to produce so many innovative leaders. They want a Bill Gates, a Steve Jobs, or a Mark Zuckerberg of their own.

To which I replied: "You're looking in the wrong place. It has nothing to do with our schools."

This isn't meant as a knock on our school system. But from ages zero to eighteen, our young people spend about 9 percent of their lives in class. Isn't it likely that the other 91 percent contributes more to such attributes as their creativity or willingness to question authority?

I asked my visitors what Japanese adolescents do when they aren't in school.

"They attend cram school," was the answer. Uh huh.

American kids, on the other hand, are engaged in all manner of extra-curricular activities: Sports, music, theater, student council, cheerleading, volunteering, church activities, and on and on.* If you are looking for sources of innovative thinking, leadership and teamwork skills, competitiveness, and creativity, aren't these better candidates than math class?**

And then there's the way we parent our kids. For better or worse, if you believe Pamela Druckerman, the author of the much-hyped Bringing up Bebe, U.S. moms and dads are terrible at teaching our kiddos self-discipline and delayed gratification. (Have you ever met an American parent that enforces a no-snacking-between meals policy? The French have no problem saying "Non!") This, she suggests, fosters out-of-control toddlers and may lead to serious problems down the road, particularly for kids growing up in neighborhoods where community bonds have frayed. On the other hand, by allowing our young to negotiate endlessly with us and stand up for what they want, we are also teaching them a form of self-assuredness. Treating little kids as equals might wreak havoc in the short term, but it's possible that it creates non-hierarchical, confident, transformational leaders in the long run.

The Japanese visitors want to know what's happening inside our schools. (A few years ago, national officials ordered Japanese schools to instruct kids to challenge authority. Consider the irony.) And for sure, some of our schools teach in ways that encourage such attributes like creative thinking.*** Getting students engaged in their own learning, asking them to solve real problems, getting them to read difficult texts and make sense of them, rather than regurgitate facts -- all of this can help at the margins.

But for their sake, I hope my new Japanese friends paid attention to what American kids were doing after school and on the weekends, because that is when our special sauce is made.

*Well, at least a lot of them are. Others are just hanging out, smoking pot, getting in trouble, etc. Some of these young people end up creating successful start-ups too!

** I've long believed that extra-curricular activities are what America's schools do best -- and deserve credit for. This Education Next article by June Kronholz buttresses that view.

*** That's why this initiative to create an "innovation index" in Massachusetts is so misguided. The impulse is right, but it's based on the assumption that creative thinking is something that can be taught in school, rather than developed all day (and night) long.

Originally published on the Fordham Institute's Flypaper blog.