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.

‘Tiger Mom’ Study Says Both Amy Chua And Her Critics Have A Point

Tiger Mom

By: Stephanie Pappas, LiveScience Senior Writer
Published: 01/22/2013 10:09 AM EST on LiveScience

NEW ORLEANS — In 2011, Yale Law professor Amy Chua caused a stir with a Wall Street Journal article titled “Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior,” describing her strict methods of parenting. In the backlash to the article, critics accused Chua of hurting her daughters in her quest to make them succeed. For her part, Chua criticized the less strict, Western methods of parenting as being too lenient and setting kids up for failure.

Now, a new study suggests both Chua and her critics have a point. It’s not that Western parents or Eastern parents have all the answers, this research suggests, but that the culture of families matters a great deal in how kids will perceive their parents’ motivational style.

Parents in both cultures “want their children to succeed,” Alyssa Fu, a doctoral student in psychology at Stanford University, said here Friday (Jan. 18) at the annual meeting of the Society for Personality and Social Psychology.

What’s more, Fu told LiveScience, children from both cultures generally have good relationships with their parents.

“The nature of the relationship is what, I think, is different,” she said.

Tiger vs. Western parenting

Chua’s take-no-prisoners approach to parenting involved long hours of supervised practice at the piano for her daughter and compliments not for effort, but for mastery. She described her style as “tiger parenting,” a method common in East Asian cultures.

Western-style parenting, on the other hand, focuses more on self-esteem and independence for the child. These disparate approaches reflect differences in the two cultures, Fu said. [10 Scientific Tips for Raising Happy Kids]

Asian-Americans come from cultures that emphasize closeness to others, she said, while European-Americans see the ideal person as someone who stands on their own without assistance. She and her colleagues wanted to know if these two different outlooks would change how kids reacted to tiger-style mothering.

“We wanted to see, okay, how are people even thinking about their mothers to begin with?” she said.

The researchers asked 83 high-school students to describe their mothers in a couple of sentences. They found that Asian-American high schoolers were more likely to talk about their mothers’ relationships to themselves than were European-Americans. Asian- Americans tended to mention things such as how their moms helped them with homework or pushed them to succeed, for example.

The European-Americans, on the other hand, were more likely to talk about their mothers as individuals — describing mom’s looks or hobbies, for example. The schism suggests that Asian-Americans and European-Americans really do see moms differently, Fu said.

“For Asian-Americans, they are seeing themselves as connected in some way to their mothers,” she said. “Not even just connected, but their mother is part of who they are.”

Pressure and support

Next, the researchers asked 61 high-school students to rate how much pressure and support they felt from their moms. They also queried the students about their interdependence with their mothers, or how closely they felt they and their mothers depended on one another.

For European-Americans, such pressure was seen as negative. Kids who felt pressured by mom said she was less supportive and they felt less interdependent with her. But the same was not true for Asian-Americans. For these kids, pressure and support weren’t related; mom could be high-pressure and still be seen as supportive as a low-key mother. The same was true of interdependence and pressure for Asian-American teens. [10 Surprising Facts About the Teen Brain]

“Asian-Americans feel supported by their mothers just as much as the European-Americans do, even though they are experiencing more pressure from their mothers,” Fu said. Both groups of teens also rated their relationships with their mothers as good, a heartening finding given concerns that “tiger moms” might be harming their relationships with their kids, Fu said.

Other research, though, has found higher rates of depression and anxiety in high-achieving Asian-American kids in competitive high schools compared with European-American ones, linking those mental health problems to family conflict.

Finally, the researchers took a look at the link betweens moms and motivations. They gave 117 high-school students a difficult set of word puzzles and then asked the students to write a short essay either about their mothers or about themselves. Next, they had the students tackle yet more difficult word puzzles and counted how many they attempted before giving up.

The two groups were equally motivated after thinking about themselves, but Asian-American students completed more word puzzles than European-American students after thinking about their mothers. In other words, for Asian-Americans, mom seems to be an extra resource for motivation. For independence-focused European-Americans, feeling like mom is too involved may impair motivation, Fu said.

Both high-intensity tiger moms and low-key Western moms may have the right idea, depending on what their cultures expect from parenting.

“The European parents, they provide their children wings so their child can fly away and be free on their own,” Fu said. “The Asian-American parents are more like the wind that is beneath the wings of their child, because they’re always there, supporting the child, letting the child fly and reach success.”

“Raising Successful Children”

An interesting opinion article from the New York Times on August 4, 2012
 
By MADELINE LEVINE

PHRASES like “tiger mom” and “helicopter parent” have made their way into everyday language. But does overparenting hurt, or help?

While parents who are clearly and embarrassingly inappropriate come in for ridicule, many of us find ourselves drawn to the idea that with just a bit more parental elbow grease, we might turn out children with great talents and assured futures. Is there really anything wrong with a kind of “overparenting lite”?

Parental involvement has a long and rich history of being studied. Decades of studies, many of them by Diana Baumrind, a clinical and developmental psychologist at the University of California, Berkeley, have found that the optimal parent is one who is involved and responsive, who sets high expectations but respects her child’s autonomy. These “authoritative parents” appear to hit the sweet spot of parental involvement and generally raise children who do better academically, psychologically and socially than children whose parents are either permissive and less involved, or controlling and more involved. Why is this particular parenting style so successful, and what does it tell us about overparenting?

For one thing, authoritative parents actually help cultivate motivation in their children. Carol Dweck, a social and developmental psychologist at Stanford University, has done research that indicates why authoritative parents raise more motivated, and thus more successful, children.

In a typical experiment, Dr. Dweck takes young children into a room and asks them to solve a simple puzzle. Most do so with little difficulty. But then Dr. Dweck tells some, but not all, of the kids how very bright and capable they are. As it turns out, the children who are not told they’re smart are more motivated to tackle increasingly difficult puzzles. They also exhibit higher levels of confidence and show greater overall progress in puzzle-solving.

This may seem counterintuitive, but praising children’s talents and abilities seems to rattle their confidence. Tackling more difficult puzzles carries the risk of losing one’s status as “smart” and deprives kids of the thrill of choosing to work simply for its own sake, regardless of outcomes. Dr. Dweck’s work aligns nicely with that of Dr. Baumrind, who also found that reasonably supporting a child’s autonomy and limiting interference results in better academic and emotional outcomes.

Their research confirms what I’ve seen in more than 25 years of clinical work, treating children in Marin County, an affluent suburb of San Francisco. The happiest, most successful children have parents who do not do for them what they are capable of doing, or almost capable of doing; and their parents do not do things for them that satisfy their own needs rather than the needs of the child.

The central task of growing up is to develop a sense of self that is autonomous, confident and generally in accord with reality. If you treat your walking toddler as if she can’t walk, you diminish her confidence and distort reality. Ditto nightly “reviews” of homework, repetitive phone calls to “just check if you’re O.K.” and “editing” (read: writing) your child’s college application essay.

Once your child is capable of doing something, congratulate yourself on a job well done and move on. Continued, unnecessary intervention makes your child feel bad about himself (if he’s young) or angry at you (if he’s a teenager).

But isn’t it a parent’s job to help with those things that are just beyond your child’s reach? Why is it overparenting to do for your child what he or she is almost capable of?

Think back to when your toddler learned to walk. She would take a weaving step or two, collapse and immediately look to you for your reaction. You were in thrall to those early attempts and would do everything possible to encourage her to get up again. You certainly didn’t chastise her for failing or utter dire predictions about flipping burgers for the rest of her life if she fell again. You were present, alert and available to guide if necessary. But you didn’t pick her up every time.

You knew she had to get it wrong many times before she could get it right.

HANGING back and allowing children to make mistakes is one of the greatest challenges of parenting. It’s easier when they’re young — tolerating a stumbling toddler is far different from allowing a preteenager to meet her friends at the mall. The potential mistakes carry greater risks, and part of being a parent is minimizing risk for our children.

What kinds of risks should we tolerate? If there’s a predator loose in the neighborhood, your daughter doesn’t get to go to the mall. But under normal circumstances an 11-year-old girl is quite capable of taking care of herself for a few hours in the company of her friends. She may forget a package, overpay for an item or forget that she was supposed to call home at noon. Mastery of the world is an expanding geography for our kids, for toddlers, it’s the backyard; for preteens, the neighborhood, for teens the wider world. But it is in the small daily risks — the taller slide, the bike ride around the block, the invitation extended to a new classmate — that growth takes place. In this gray area of just beyond the comfortable is where resilience is born.

So if children are able to live with mistakes and even failing, why does it drive us crazy? So many parents have said to me, “I can’t stand to see my child unhappy.” If you can’t stand to see your child unhappy, you are in the wrong business. The small challenges that start in infancy (the first whimper that doesn’t bring you running) present the opportunity for “successful failures,” that is, failures your child can live with and grow from. To rush in too quickly, to shield them, to deprive them of those challenges is to deprive them of the tools they will need to handle the inevitable, difficult, challenging and sometimes devastating demands of life.

While doing things for your child unnecessarily or prematurely can reduce motivation and increase dependency, it is the inability to maintain parental boundaries that most damages child development. When we do things for our children out of our own needs rather than theirs, it forces them to circumvent the most critical task of childhood: to develop a robust sense of self.

There is an important distinction between good and bad parental involvement. For example, a young child doesn’t want to sit and do his math homework. Good parents insist on compliance, not because they need their child to be a perfect student but because the child needs to learn the fundamentals of math and develop a good work ethic. Compare this with the parent who spends weeks “helping” his or her child fill out college applications with the clear expectation that if they both work hard enough, a “gotta get into” school is a certainty. (While most of my parent patients have graduated from college, it is always a telltale sign of overparenting when they talk about how “we’re applying to Columbia.”)

In both situations parents are using control, in the first case behavioral (sit down, do your math) and in the second psychological (“we’re applying.”) It is psychological control that carries with it a textbook’s worth of damage to a child’s developing identity. If pushing, direction, motivation and reward always come from the outside, the child never has the opportunity to craft an inside. Having tutors prep your anxious 3-year-old for a preschool interview because all your friends’ children are going to this particular school or pushing your exhausted child to take one more advanced-placement course because it will ensure her spot as class valedictorian is not involved parenting but toxic overparenting aimed at meeting the parents’ need for status or affirmation and not the child’s needs.

So how do parents find the courage to discard the malpractice of overparenting? It’s hard to swim upstream, to resist peer pressure. But we must remember that children thrive best in an environment that is reliable, available, consistent and noninterfering.

A loving parent is warm, willing to set limits and unwilling to breach a child’s psychological boundaries by invoking shame or guilt. Parents must acknowledge their own anxiety. Your job is to know your child well enough to make a good call about whether he can manage a particular situation. Will you stay up worrying? Probably, but the child’s job is to grow, yours is to control your anxiety so it doesn’t get in the way of his reasonable moves toward autonomy.

Parents also have to be clear about their own values. Children watch us closely. If you want your children to be able to stand up for their values, you have to do the same. If you believe that a summer spent reading, taking creek walks and playing is better than a specialized camp, then stick to your guns. Parents also have to make sure their own lives are fulfilling. There is no parent more vulnerable to the excesses of overparenting than an unhappy parent. One of the most important things we do for our children is to present them with a version of adult life that is appealing and worth striving for.

Madeline Levine is a clinician, consultant and the author, most recently, of “Teach Your Children Well: Parenting for Authentic Success.”