Where The Smart Kids Are

The Brilliant Blog, by Annie Murphy Paul

Friday, August 23, 2013

Note to Brilliant readers: What follows is my review of a new book by journalist Amanda Ripley, “The Smartest Kids In The World: And How They Got That Way.” The review will appear on the cover of this Sunday’s New York Times Book Review. I found Ripley’s book to be powerful and persuasive reading, and thought I’d share my take on it with you.—Annie

“If you want the American dream, go to Finland.” These blunt words from a British politician, quoted by Amanda Ripley in “The Smartest Kids in the World,” may lead readers to imagine that her book belongs to a very particular and popular genre. We love to read about how other cultures do it better (stay slim, have sex, raise children). In this case, Ripley is offering to show how other nations educate students so much more effectively than we do, and her opening pages hold out a promising suggestion of masochistic satisfaction. “American educators described Finland as a silky paradise,” she writes, “a place where all the teachers were admired and all the children beloved.”

The appeal of these books, which include “French Women Don’t Get Fat,” “Bringing Up Bébé” and “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother” (excerpted in The Wall Street Journal under the headline “Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior”), comes from the opportunity to wallow enjoyably in envy and self-loathing — and then to close the cover, having changed nothing. We’re Americans, after all. We’re not really going to do it the Chinese way or the French way, superior as they may be.

But Ripley, a contributor to Time magazine and The Atlantic and an Emerson fellow at the New America Foundation (where I am also a fellow), has a more challenging, and more interesting, project in mind. Yes, she travels to Finland to observe the “Nordic robots” who achieve such remarkably high scores on international tests — and to South Korea and Poland, two other nations where students handily surpass Americans’ mediocre performance. In the best tradition of travel writing, however, she gets well beneath the glossy surfaces of these foreign cultures, and manages to make our own culture look newly strange.

In reporting her book, Ripley made the canny choice to enlist “field agents” who could penetrate other countries’ schools far more fully than she: three American students, each studying abroad for a year. Kim, a restless 15-year-old from rural Oklahoma, heads off to Finland, a place she had only read about, “a snow-castle country with white nights and strong coffee.” Instead, what she finds is a trudge through the cold dark, to a dingy school with desks in rows and an old-fashioned chalkboard — not an iPad or interactive whiteboard in sight. What Kim’s school in the small town of Pietarsaari does have is bright, talented teachers who are well trained and love their jobs.

This is the first hint of how Finland does it: rather than “trying to reverse engineer a high-performance teaching culture through dazzlingly complex performance evaluations and value-added data analysis,” as we do, they ensure high-quality teaching from the beginning, allowing only top students to enroll in teacher-training programs, which are themselves far more demanding than such programs in America. A virtuous cycle is thus initiated: better-prepared, better-trained teachers can be given more autonomy, leading to more satisfied teachers who are also more likely to stay on.

Kim soon notices something else that’s different about her school in Pietarsaari, and one day she works up the courage to ask her classmates about it. “Why do you guys care so much?” Kim inquires of two Finnish girls. “I mean, what makes you work hard in school?” The students look baffled by her question. “It’s school,” one of them says. “How else will I graduate and go to university and get a good job?” It’s the only sensible answer, of course, but its irrefutable logic still eludes many American students, a quarter of whom fail to graduate from high school. Ripley explains why: Historically, Americans “hadn’t needed a very rigorous education, and they hadn’t gotten it. Wealth had made rigor optional.” But now, she points out, “everything had changed. In an automated, global economy, kids needed to be driven; they need to know how to adapt, since they would be doing it all their lives. They needed a culture of rigor.”

Rigor on steroids is what Ripley finds in South Korea, the destination of another of her field agents. Eric, who attended an excellent public school back home in Minnesota, is shocked at first to see his classmates in the South Korean city of Busan dozing through class. Some wear small pillows that slip over their wrists, the better to sleep with their heads on their desks. Only later does he realize why they are so tired — they spend all night studying at hagwons, the cram schools where Korean kids get their real education.

Ripley introduces us to Andrew Kim, “the $4 million teacher,” who makes a fortune as one of South Korea’s most in-demand hagwon instructors, and takes us on a ride-along with Korean authorities as they raid hagwons in Seoul, attempting to enforce a 10 p.m. study curfew. Academic pressure there is out of control, and government officials and school administrators know it — but they are no match for ambitious students and their parents, who understand that passing the country’s stringent graduation exam is the key to a successful, prosperous life.

Ripley is cleareyed about the serious drawbacks of this system: “In Korea, the hamster wheel created as many problems as it solved.” Still, if she had to choose between “the hamster wheel and the moon bounce that characterized many schools in the United States,” she would reluctantly pick the hamster wheel: “It was relentless and excessive, yes, but it also felt more honest. Kids in hamster-wheel countries knew what it felt like to grapple with complex ideas and think outside their comfort zone; they understood the value of persistence. They knew what it felt like to fail, work harder and do better. They were prepared for the modern world.” Not so American students, who are eased through high school only to discover, too late, that they lack the knowledge and skill to compete in the global economy.

The author’s third stop is Poland, a country that has scaled the heights of international test-score rankings in record time by following the formula common to Finland and South Korea: well-trained teachers, a rigorous curriculum and a challenging exam required of all graduating seniors. In the city of Wroclaw, Ripley meets up with Tom, a bookish teenager from Pennsylvania, and discovers yet another difference between the schools in top-performing countries and those in the United States. In Tom’s hometown high school, Ripley observes, sports were “the core culture.” Four local reporters show up to each football game. In Wroclaw, “sports simply did not figure into the school day; why would they? Plenty of kids played pickup soccer or basketball games on their own after school, but there was no confusion about what school was for — or what mattered to kids’ life chances.”

It’s in moments like these that Ripley succeeds in making our own culture and our own choices seem alien — quite a feat for an institution as familiar and fiercely defended as high school. The question is whether the startling perspective provided by this masterly book can also generate the will to make changes. For all our griping about American education, Ripley notes, we’ve got the schools we want.

“Where’s the Joy in Learning?”

April 19, 2012 | 10:47 AM | By

Where’s the Joy in Learning?

Flickr:WoodleyWonderworks

A school is not a desert of emotions,” begins an article by Finnish educators Taina Rantala and Kaarina Määttä, published last month in the journal Early Child Development and Care. But you’d never know that by looking at the scientific literature.

“In the field of educational psychology, research on feelings is lacking,” the authors note, “and the little that does exist has focused more on negative rather than positive feelings.” Rantala, the principal of an elementary school in the city of Rovaniemi, and Määttä, a professor of psychology at the University of Lapland, set out to remedy this oversight by studying one emotion in particular: joy.

The researchers followed a single class through first and second grade, documenting the students’ emotions with photographs and videos. Through what they call “ethnographic observation,” Rantala and Määttä identified the circumstances that were most likely to produce joy in the classroom. No doubt many pupils would agree with this example of their findings: “The joy of learning does not include listening to prolonged speeches.”

Such teacher-centric lessons are much less likely to generate joy than are lessons focused on the student, the authors report. The latter kind of learning involves active, engaged effort on the part of the child; joy arrives when the child surmounts a series of difficulties to achieve a goal. One of the authors’ videos shows seven-year-old Esko, tapping himself proudly on the chest and announcing, “Hey, I figured out how to do math!” A desire to master the material leads to more joy than a desire to simply perform well, Rantala and Määttä add: joy often accompanies “the feeling of shining as an expert.”

Joy often accompanies “the feeling of shining as an expert.”

Likewise, the joy of learning is more likely to make an appearance when teachers permit students to work at their own level and their own pace, avoiding making comparisons among students. The authors recommend that children be taught to evaluate and monitor their own learning so they can tell when they’re making progress. Some pupils will take longer than others—as Rantala and Määttä write, “The joy of learning does not like to hurry.” Because joy is so often connected to finishing a task or solving a problem, they point out, allowing time for an activity to come to its natural conclusion is important. Granting students a measure of freedom in how they learn also engenders joy. Such freedom doesn’t mean allowing children to do whatever they want, but giving them choices within limits set by a teacher. These choices need not be major ones, the authors note: “For us adults, it makes no difference whether we write on blue or red paper, but when a student can choose between these options, there will be a lot of joy in the air.”

Not surprisingly, play was a major source of joy in the classroom Rantala and Määttä observed (even when that play was not exactly what a teacher would wish: the researchers’ video camera caught one student fashioning a gun out of an environmental-studies handout). “Play is the child’s way of seeking pleasure,” the authors write, and it is a learning activity in itself; it shouldn’t be viewed as “a Trojan horse” in which to smuggle in academic lessons. Lastly, sharing and collaborating with other students is a great source of joy. One of the authors’ videotapes shows a student reacting with pleasure when a classmate, Paavo, says, “You are so good at making those dolls!” The researchers conclude: “Joy experienced together, and shared, adds up to even more joy.”

Finland leads the world in its scores on international tests, and the country has become an educational model for many in the U.S. Rantala and Määttä’s paper is a welcome reminder that academic excellence can coexist with delight.

Link to the original article