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Shortly after the results of the first administration of what was then called the Third International Mathematics and Science Study, a colleague of mine and I visited Japan, Singapore and Hong Kong to see if we could understand what it was that these two countries and one large city had done to so dominate the TIMSS league tables in mathematics and science performance.

To our surprise, our hosts had very little interest in talking about what we regarded as the stunning performance of their students.  They were very focused on the global economic competition and, from their standpoint, their schools were far behind, even though they considerably outstripped the United States in mathematics and science performance.  They pointed to the low number of Nobel prizes won by Asian scientists and especially to what they saw as the paucity of entrepreneurs who could lead enterprises that leapfrogged others in the invention of new technologies and entire industries.  They were certain they would lose in the years ahead if they could not produce their own Steve Jobs and Bill Gates—lots of them.

So they pressed us hard to tell them how we taught creativity and innovation in our schools.  And we laughed.  We don’t teach creativity and innovation in our schools, we said.  The origin of American creativity and innovation lies elsewhere, mainly in the great value that the society places on the individual, rather than the group.  In sports, the arts, industry and everywhere else, it is the excelling individual we celebrate.  Our literature puts the rebel, the individual inventor, the lone pioneer, the general who disobeys orders and wins the battle because he did so and the sheriff whose town deserts him but defeats the bad guys anyway on the highest pedestal.  Again and again, these are stories about the individual who, all alone, and often in defiance of convention, society and his superiors, advances the frontier, wins the battle and invents the future.  Our schools are certainly part of this culture, but we do not, we said, teach creativity or innovation.  The larger culture creates an environment in which people have much more social support than elsewhere to invent something new, challenge the established order, rebel against those in authority or create something different.

But they did not want to hear this and did not stop asking the question.  That’s because they understood that Americans place the individual much higher than the group in the hierarchy of our values.  And they believe that it is this value that produces insolent students, disorderly schools and a great deal of violence in American society that they do not want in theirs.

In Asian culture, much higher value is placed on respect for the group, for the elderly and for those higher in the social or managerial hierarchy than in the United States.  This respect for the group is responsible for the Asian saying that it is the nail that sticks out that gets hammered down.  American youth are taught that each individual has to look out for himself.  Asian youth are taught that, if you support the group effectively, you can expect the group to look out for you; if you rebel against the group, you can expect nothing.  If you give your superiors credit for your achievements, and defer to them in many other ways, your turn will come in time, but, if you do not defer, and insist on being recognized for your achievement and openly challenge the developing consensus in the organization, you can expect no support for yourself or your views.

I came back from that trip to Asia with a strong sense of irony.  We went to Asia to find out how they produce such strong mathematics and science skills in their students only to find out that they did not value that achievement half as much as we did.  They look at the United States for ways to improve their capacity for creativity and innovation only to find out that we do not teach those things in our schools.  The United States would very much like to achieve the levels of mathematics and science competence in our students that we see in Asian students.  But we are not willing to pay the price if getting that level of competence requires us as individuals to surrender the independence of spirit that characterizes our nation.  The Asians we had met want very much to gain the kind of creativity and innovative capacity we have, but not at the price of the kind of social disorder they believe to be a consequence of our devotion to the individual over the group.

But since that time, my sense of irony has greatly diminished and I have come to see these relationships among school performance, creativity and innovative capacity as much more complicated than I did then.

We can see now that there are countries in the West that are achieving levels of student performance in mathematics and science comparable to those we see in Asia. Asian values are certainly not responsible for that.  We can now see that there are a number of specific features of the structures of education systems that the top-performing Asian countries and the top-performing Western countries both embrace.  These features are independent, then, of unique national histories or culture and a compelling case can be made that they account for a substantial amount of the ability of these countries to top the league tables year after year.

And we can also see the Asian countries funding planeload after planeload of edu-tourists to visit Western countries in a continuing effort to find something they can take home in the hope that it will enable them to produce graduates who are more creative and innovative.  I have observed that, over the years, these visiting Asians are asking ever more sophisticated questions about the origins of our capacity for creativity and innovation and are getting steadily better at adapting their systems in the light of what they are learning.

All those years ago, I was inclined to agree somewhat uncritically with the Asians who saw themselves at a great disadvantage to the West with respect to creativity and innovation, and who also worried that their devotion to the group would prove a major handicap in the economic sweepstakes ahead.  Now, I am not so sure.  It is undoubtedly true that the West, and the United States in particular, has the edge in terms of “disruptive” innovation, the kind of innovation that produces new industries and wipes out old ones in a stroke.  But the consensus style of the Asian countries, combined with the very high general level of learning in the workforce, is a very powerful engine for the kind of continuous improvement that is very difficult for the Western countries to match.  Who is to say which of these—continuous improvement or disruptive change—will prove to be more useful to national economies in the years ahead?

Which brings up my last point.  When I completed the trip to Asia all those years ago, I thought that there might be ineluctable tradeoffs in the design of national education systems.  To get more of this, you would have to settle for less of that.

Now I am not so sure.  Culture matters.  But history is full of successful attempts by nations to change their cultures in order to better adapt to a changing environment (and of the stories of those that failed to adapt).  It is possible now to construct a sort of dimension line framed by the degree to which nations are currently benchmarking their competitors in the field of education in a disciplined way and, in an equally disciplined way, taking what they find from other successful nations and adapting it to their own needs, in a never-ending round of adaptive change.  At one end of the dimension line are those countries that are bending every effort in this direction.  At the other are those barely making any effort at all.

The Asian countries, for example, are ever more determined to find ways of developing citizens who are more creative and innovative without lowering their academic standards or their tolerance for what they see as antisocial behavior.  They are not alone in their eagerness to learn and adapt.  Those are the countries I would bet on.