The Smartest Kids in the World and How They Got That Way by Amanda Ripley (Amanda’s website)
The Smartest Kids quickly became a New York Times bestseller, and it was chosen by The Economist, The Washington Post, The New York Times and Amazon as one of the most notable books of the year
Speaking at the ASTI conference yesterday on education reform, minister Quinn it seems has now been receiving death threats to him and his family. I’ve already pointed out my experience of ASTI which showed what ASTI thought of kids. The minister’s attempts to distract from thorny issues by poking at the Church wasn’t effective enough. Sheila Nunan of the INTO objected to demanding better standards of maths from entrants to teacher-training colleges by blaming ‘the men with maths who ruined the country.’ We know it wasn’t maths or men only – another red herring.
Like last year’s conferences, the teachers behaved abominably. Even the head of ASTI says he has been bullied on his own website. It seems with many of these teachers, the old adage still stands; do as I say, don’t do as I do. If the autocrats who run the unions read about education in well written informative books like Amanda Ripley’s, which I will summarise in part here, they might put their brains into action before putting their mouths into action. But from chaos comes creativity.
One thing the brouhaha with the teaching unions shows is the need, for teachers as well as students, to learn the skills of debating and critical thinking and how to collaborate.
Now for Amanda Ripley’s findings, having sent three American students to South Korea, Poland and Finland for a year.
Money and investment are not an issue. Compare Finland and Norway. Norway has less than 6% child poverty but doesn’t perform as well as its neighbour, Finland.
We need problem-solvers and communicators but not enough school-leavers have these skills.
Lacking a sense of purpose is a big problem as are bureaucracy and outdated union contracts and politics.
Immigrants have little effect on results as they alter the population by only plus or minus 3%. Spending on education has a negligible impact, it’s what’s done with the money.
PISA doesn’t test what facts kids know but the ability to do something useful with those facts. As the American Association of University Professors said, critical thinking should be the hallmark of American education.
PISA scores are important – they are indicative of long-term economic growth. PISA measures aspiration, not memorization.
The experience of Oklahama is that extra money, extra aides, extra wages and a reduction in student-teacher ratio did not improve the maths results.
In South Korea the high school graduation rates despite being less wealthy. Students wore colourful socks as this was their only expression of individuality. Class sizes were large at 30. In S. Korea school never stops which Ripley says is due to inefficient learning. Motivation and parents , libraries and tuition drove results, not the school curriculum.
U.S. schools were high-tech but there was no evidence it had paid off. After-school tutoring: Finland 1 in 10; S. Korea 7 in 10 so Finland had a better deal.
Poland – The importance of maths was emphasised – they’d earn more money after college aside from helping their thinking. Poland does not use calculators, students had learnt tricks that made maths automatic, like being fluent in another language.
Failure – kids in Poland never achieved a full 5 and were used to failing.
American kids were traumatised by failure! In Minnesota the average book size was just 225 pages. In S. Korea maths was taught differently, it was not categorized separately but basically geometry with other aspects woven in.
Teacher-training. In Finland standards are extremely high. It takes 6 years to become a teacher in Finland, all of whom are trained to MA level. Colleges take in only 20% of the very best students who apply. In America unlike Finland you have a centralised curriculum – because teachers weren’t really trusted.
In Finland teachers are trusted to decide their own curriculum and books! Their are no school inspections, teachers were trusted to run their own classrooms.
Finland’s story of success began with recession in the 90s. Spending was slashed, budgets were 15-20% less which led to more autonomy but succeeded only because of previous changes – less centralization and little testing.
In the States, higher standards were seen as a threat to teachers.
In Finland kids are given stretches of unscheduled free time, they are trusted to find their own way, even free to leave the school for a coffee. Even parents trusted their kids more, the expectations were higher. there was no after school tutoring and less sports.
In Finland the parental involvement in school was less than in other countries but the big contribution of parental involvement was reading to children.
Reading to kids is a huge plus – learning of new things was important. Kids were better where parents discussed things, especially bigger social issues, it helped them think.
A big problem in the U.S. (and in western Europe I’d say) is that parents focused on self-esteem and non-directed learning. Hence, no academics and no competing.
In contrast, South Korean parents were coach parents. They had less school input – to the unhelpful things like making cupcakes. These kids engaged with learning more.
Seeing parents read for pleasure was good as it showed what parents valued and this was better than what they said.
Too much coaching and too little wasn’t good – being coddled could lead to adults who never experienced failure or learnt self-control or endurance, experiences that mattered in life.
Praise is a problem. Praise which was seen as insincere tended to discourage kids from working hard and trying new things.
Parenting styles matter just like teaching styles do – being warm and strict was best. Research by Jelani Mandara of Northwestern University found kids from authoritative (as opposed to authoritarian) parents did better academically and suffered less depression or aggression. For example Asian and European parents he found were less hands on in the teen years but crucially more likely to coach when young. (This is an important clarification to the point above about Finnish and south Korean parents not being over-involved.)
Further Reading and Resources
Andreas Schleicher Division Head of PISA is interviewed here (5 mins on RTE Radio 1) about why our kids perform so poorly and answers criticisms about PISA. Click here
See also Teach Like a Champion, by Doug Lemov