04/10/2014 02:57 pm ET Updated Jun 10, 2014

The American Curiosity Crisis

We live in a time when we can access almost any information we need at any time, yet studies show the nation is actually less intelligent than it was 20 years ago. For example, the U.S. currently ranks 30th in mathematics, down from 23rd in 2011. When it comes to education, Americans are less passionate and curious than in the past. Students used to be more curious, educational products were geared toward curiosity, and schools encouraged cognitive approaches in problem solving.

Now, everybody is scrambling for the quick answer, or wanting to know how to beat a test, which incidentally doesn't work. Personally, I have not lost that passion of learning because I have kept myself curious and excited about the problem solving process. It is the process that I am interested in most. An excitement for learning, and the learning process, is exactly what made Einstein so successful. If people kept a healthy dose of curiosity in their daily life, and appreciated the beauty of the solution process, not only would they find the answers they're seeking, but would also actually enjoy the journey to find those answers.

In 2016 the SAT will be removing the most difficult vocabulary words from the test, but I would argue that this will be a disadvantage for many high school students. By pushing the students, testing them on these difficult vocabulary words, actually provokes them to think and use strategies, like word association. For example, for "magnanimous" using "mag" as "magnify" and that word sounds "big." Educators should use difficult concepts to encourage students and to reinforce critical thinking skills. I suggested to the College Board that on the SAT they have some math questions where the student will not be able to use a calculator so that he or she will "think out" the problem without the use of a calculator. Fortunately, they took my advice and will have calculator problems as well as non-calculator ones on the new 2016 SAT.

The core curriculum, which exists in a majority of the states in the country is inherently valuable because it deals with critical thinking and strategy. However, no one is really concentrating on the proper way it should be implemented. This is the reason why so many teachers are confused on how to use it -- ultimately, causing its downfall, just like what happened with the "New Math".

Several years ago, I did a study at Brooklyn Technical High School in New York. I asked students to solve a particular math problem. Most students, after getting the answer, showed a genuine curiosity about the problem. They wondered, if the numbers in the question changed, would the answer also change?

Many years later, I posed the same problem to students at a similar level school -- Lowell High School in San Francisco. Surprisingly, not one was interested in finding a generalization! This is a sad condition in education today, and shows why it will be more likely that the decline in American education prowess will continue -- the lack of curiosity and the lack of the desire to learn. We need to get students to be interested in the solution process, rather than just finding the answer. The beautiful thing about this, and about using strategies for thinking, is that one reduces the panic and anxiety in solving problems by almost mechanically doing the problem. However, one still enjoys the process of solving.

For example, take this problem:

What percent of 5 is 200?

If you translate "of" to "times (X)" and "is" to "equals (=)", the problem almost solves itself, without any stress or anxiety.

Finally, curiosity can help people overcome adversity. In the fifth grade, my IQ was tested and determined to be 90 -- that was below average; therefore, I was classified as "dull minded." This made me develop my curiosity. Subsequently, I found a lifelong career of developing people's passion, intelligence, creativity, and success. This may not have happened if I hadn't been told my IQ was only 90. If people got involved in the problem solving process rather than just trying to get a fast answer, they would reap the countless benefits and forge ahead with unfathomable breakthroughs.

Gary R. Gruber, Ph.D. is considered the leading authority on standardized tests and the originator of the critical thinking skills used for them. He has written 40 books with more than 7 million copies sold and was called by the Washington Post "America's Super Genius". His website is