wocket in my pocket

Looking for the unexpected in the mundane.

The Smartest Kids in the World

on January 4, 2017

“The sign at the door says the purple tags are 90% off,” I mentioned to the clerk. “Does that include things like these roller blades?” She looked blankly at me for a bit, then said, “Yeah, 90% off all purple tags.”

“That’s great. I will take them,” I replied. It was a good deal. The blades were tagged $24.99 and looked new. I dug in my purse for $2.50. When I looked up, the clerk was gone, threading her way across the store with a calculator in hand, calling for the manager. I heard the instructions, “Just take 24.99 times point 10. That’s your price.”

I didn’t want to show my incredulity, but really??? Every 5th grader in our great nation is supposed to learn percentages and 10% is the easiest one to do in your head when you are 11 years old.

I  just finished reading The Smartest Kids in the World, where the author explores how it is that American school children are scoring so very low by international standards. Why is it that entire countries full of children (Finland, Korea, Poland) tend to score much higher than  our American students in matters that require common sense and thinking through problems?

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I  have always thought that my goal is to teach my children to THINK. Yes, I want them to enjoy learning, but that is my secondary goal. If they cannot apply what they are storing in their heads, it doesn’t do much good.

There is a relatively new test called PISA (Program for International Student Assessment) where we U Sers are getting our butts whipped, especially in math. This is the language of logic, of disciplined, organized thinking. There are rules to follow and when you follow them, you get the right answer. I quote Ms Ripley, “Mastering the language of logic helps to embed higher order habits in kids’ minds: the ability to reason, detect patterns, make informed guesses.” (pg. 70)

As a nation we do a lot better in reading comprehension, which is good news. This also means that without the background of logic, we are a nation of people who can feel for others, empathize, recognize problems, etc, yet have no foggy idea of any absolutes or certain outcomes that follow certain behaviors.  Add to this the self-esteem movement, where teachers and coaches dole out praise trophies for just showing up, no effort required. There was a huge outcry in some states when it was proposed that high school students cannot just put in the time in class, but must actually pass exams in order to receive a diploma. Again I give you a pithy quote, “Vague, insincere, or excessive praise tends to discourage hard work and attempting new things.”

The poor children raised under the “You are the specialest person in the world and can always have anything you want” quickly find out in the adult world that they are pretty small stuff unless they are actually prepared to work hard and think carefully about their choices.

PISA also has a lengthy section after the academic questions where participating students spend nearly an hour answering a questionnaire on their background, motivation, and family habits.  The interesting thing about this survey is that there are no right answers. The researchers are looking for diligence, to see if there is a link to overall success. Well. Duh. Those kids who had learned to persist, even through seemingly meaningless assignments, tended to score higher overall.

The author calls it rigor.  It is what they have in Finland, where people have been determined survivors of long, sunless winters and the neighboring Big Guys for centuries. They focus on motivation, self-control, persistence. We might call it character. They don’t skip recess either, even in bad weather. Turns out rigor is a bigger deal than interactive white boards in every classroom and multi-million dollar sports programs where the vast majority of the students sit in bleachers and cheer for the favored few.

Admittedly, there are big problems when education is so dead serious that Korean children have been known to become suicidal if they fail a test. Recognizing this, the government actually has task forces assigned to patrol at night to be sure the tutoring schools close before midnight. These children literally go to school all day. They know how to think, but they don’t really have a life.

Then there was Poland, a country that scored discouragingly low in the first PISA test they participated in, in 2000. The next year they introduced some sweeping reforms: dumbed-down textbooks got replaced with rigorous ones, many of their teachers were required to improve their own education, and fundamental goals were set countrywide with accountability in the form of standardized tests. By 2009 Poland outperformed the U.S. despite spending half as much per student. They don’t have the fancy stuff in their classrooms, but they decided to implement the grit that has kept them alive through some of the most horrendous wars in history. They quit expecting failure in school.

What really matters? How can we best help our children learn to think? Toward the end of the book, Amanda Ripley condenses a vast subject into a few fairly simple expressions:

Conscientiousness > smarts

Self-discipline > IQ scores

Rigor > Self-esteem

In my head I knitted all these concepts about educational systems with our cultural bias against sweat and rules and moral absolutes, and it all makes sense. We are in trouble here in America, but we do not need to despair. We can teach our children to think and to work past failure. Someday it will save them.

I highly recommend this book for anyone who is concerned about their child’s education. It will put some steel into your spine when your child/student thinks Algebra is dumb and research reports are too much work and nobody should ever have to do speed drills. Too bad, sonny. This is about your survival! This is about how much I love you. (This is so that you can instantly figure 10% at the cash register.)

 

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6 responses to “The Smartest Kids in the World

  1. Hillarey says:

    This is going on my reading list! I need it! Since our chats about work and chores I’ve really been working hard at having the kids work with me and doling out consequences (No screen time! No sweets!) for work done in an untimely manner or bad attitudes. Still growing in consistency, but seeing changes in my kids! There was that day though when my eldest said, “You just want me to grow up to be a lady!” when it was time to fold socks. I left that one for his dad. Haha!

  2. merryjoyous says:

    You read some interesting books! It sort of astounds me that we are researching whether diligence could result in success. I like that word “rigor.” It’s a good reminder!

  3. LH says:

    This one is being passed on to the teacher husband who hears all the time that the material he is teaching will not be needed in adult life. 🙂 Interesting that the above commenters are people I really like… and we must all be interested in the same theories and in this reading genre! 🙂

  4. Rosie says:

    Thanks for the book recommendation, which I shall read even though I have no children to benefit from the steel it will put into my spine. It sounds like the kind of encouragement that will be good for self-education and rigor, which is always a work in progress whether you’re 12 and learning algebra, or 30 and having the read a John Piper book because you signed up for it, even though his writing style makes you sigh and groan and yawn.

    • Rosie says:

      I know you’ve read some of Malcolm Gladwell’s works, but have you read “Outliers”? I just finished it and some of the last chapters on children’s abilities to learn and succeed reminded me of this post. It’s so encouraging to know that so many things are possible if you work hard enough, and also discouraging to know that so many children in this world don’t have those necessary people in their lives to teach them to succeed.

      • deepeight says:

        No, I haven’t read it. I saw a water stained copy at a book sale once and thought I should get it, but then forgot. I shall look at the library. Thanks for the recommendation.

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