Wednesday, December 5, 2007

2 Million Minutes to Face the Competition

I have finally had an opportunity to view the documentary, 2 Million Minutes.

Briefly, the film focuses on 6 high school students, two each from the United States, China and India. Each pair attends the same high school, which by the way, are all top performing schools in their respective countries. The students represent the stereotypical profile one would expect to see: the American students are high achieving and successful but are not particularly academically motivated, the Chinese students are high achieving, intense and focused and the Indian students are high achieving and hard-working but seem internally conflicted by the external pressure of their parents and Indian society. The film explores cultural attitudes about education and whether or not American students will be able to compete in the global economy in the 21st century.

I immediately wondered how the students were chosen for the film. All six of them were very bright and ranked in the upper end of their classes. At first, I thought they purposely profiled “typical” high achieving American students but picked “extraordinary” Chinese and Indian students to make a more drastic point. But as I continued viewing, I realized that all the students seemed pretty typical whithin their own cultures. As extraordinary as the Chinese and Indian students appeared to me it was evident that I was judging them through my American eyes. Although I was impressed by their commitment and fortitude, I realized they were clearly not the most distinguished students in their countries. However, those typical high achieving students in China or India are more similar to our most extraordinary students in America.

I was prepared to watch yet another documentary that mocked our broken system and hailed the Asians as superior in their methodology and resolute in their academic rigor. It is not what I found. Instead, I watched a thought provoking dialogue about the potential crisis that America may face if we don’t,

wake up and realize the new threat, the fact that we are competing with anyone anywhere in the world and we’re going to lose. We are not going to be the leaders in the next 30 years or so unless we wake up and realize that. And it takes decades to create a high performing scientist or engineer. Because these things unfold over time, people tend to overlook them. It is a crisis because by the time one recognizes what has happened it takes time to remedy the situation.

Despite the warning, I couldn’t help cheer a bit for the American students. I found comfort in their individual spirit and wholesome attitude about finding balance in their lives. The openness of our society breeds opportunities that don’t exist in other countries. As a result our high school students face different challenges and expectations. The opportunity for economic mobility, the freedom to decide what’s going to help them lead happy and fulfilling lives also adds a certain pressure that students in these other countries cannot relate to.

And then I thought about yesterday’s announcement of the winners of the 2007 Siemens competition in Math, Science and Technology. All three winners for the individual and team competitions were girls (which is fodder for another time). I went to the Siemens website to read the bios of the National finalists. I expected to find science “geeks” whose lives were absorbed only by academics. To my surprise, I found public school kids who not only excelled in the sciences but were captains of sports teams, newspaper editors, community activists, literary geniuses and accomplished musicians. Even those extraordinary American science students find time to balance their lives with other interests and commitments.

What motivates these kids? Is it their schools, their families or some internal drive that has been nurtured by a combination of both? Why are they the extreme examples of our educational system rather than the norm? Do they represent the models for our future? It would be interesting to interview these students to hear about their experience and interaction with the American educational system as well what expectations they have for themselves. I would venture to guess, that their core values may not differ much from the two students interviewed for this film. Chances are they are also seeking balance and happiness in their lives but is there a place for these values in the global market?

Although I believe that our educational system is in terrible need of repair, I don’t believe that the Chinese or Indian systems are models we should necessarily aspire to. There is no question that our students face greater challenges than earlier generations and they will certainly confront the competition of an ever increasing, highly motivated and incredibly sophisticated international workforce. But I am not sure what we, as a nation, are willing to compromise to stay ahead or even remain in the race. By who’s rules will this generation play by?

Robert Reich, former Secretary of Labor under President Clinton sums it all up in the film:

It’s not to be #1 necessarily in everything. It’s not to knock the Chinese or the Indians down, it’s to be part of an increasingly, hopefully more valuable set of human minds doing more and more complicated and more productive things.

I don’t think we need a crystal ball to look 30 years into the future, but the bigger question is, what are we going to do about it and when will it become too late? 2 Million Minutes is the springboard from which we must begin to dive into these issues.


Emily said...

I, too, wonder why some kids are motivated and others are not. How do we replicate the successes?

Julie Pippert said...

What a fascinating post...I really want to see that, and I'm glad I read this before doing so because I think it will help me keep a more open mind about a variety of factors.

I have always (always) been troubled by what I felt was a bias against intelligence and academic-focus in my peers in school...and this is an attitude I think is still there in adulthood, too.

So many say, "Oh I don't know what that is," and drop it.

Where's the curiosity, the drive to learn and know?

I am outrageously curious and can't imagine being any different.

So when someone says, I don't know what this is and don't even care enough to ask or look it up, it troubles me---why not?

Is it nature? or nurture?

Anyway, I don't believe curiosity and critical thinking is encouraged enough.

But I like the flip side to this which is that there are other cultural effects and there is generally a good balance.

I could go on and on because this was very interesting but I'll leave it at that.

Great post.

Using My Words

Neil Ahrendt said...

Thank you so much for you kind comments; they really mean a lot to me. I'm personally hoping that people will think more along your lines (as opposed to blaming me for the downfall of the American education system). I'd love to discuss more what you thought about the film, and though I can't speak for the other countries, I can explain how we were selected for the film, if you'd like to know.

Leslie said...

Emily and Julie - Thanks for your comments. This is an issue that deserves more attention. It is alot about motivation and I too am troubled by an acceptance of mediocrity in our schools.

Neil - I am so glad that you enjoyed my post. I would definitely be interested in learning more about how you were chosen for the film and share more discussion about the film. Feel free to continue to post here, or email me at

storyteller said...

What an insightful and stimulating post. I've not viewed 2 Million Minutes, but I certainly want to do so after reading your review. Thanks for pointing the way. I'm headed to the Siemens website next and will seek out this documentary soon.

The questions of "balance" and of "what motivates students" need to be examined and discussed in our society. I taught in public schools from the mid-60s until 2001, watched the trends come and go and come again. The obsession with "testing" (in some "standardized manner often based on a Bell Curve where by definition 50% will fall below the mean) is CRAZY and destructive to the educational process. If we could ask students WHY they selected the "incorrect" answers they did, we might find them to be more insightful than those who created the tests in the first place.

In the push "to leave no child behind" our educational system is all too often failing to stimulate and meet the needs of the most eager and able children in the room, not to mention adding to the boredom of those who don’t wish to be there in the first place. The curriculum gets "dumbed down" and time for questions and exploration lost. But ... lest I rant on endlessly, I'll stop here with a sincere "thank you" and move on.
Hugs and blessings,