The secret to success at school

Why kids need academic rigour the way they need play and water and food


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The prominent American science journalist Amanda Ripley, author of The Unthinkable: Who Survives When Disaster Strikes—and Why, always shied away from education stories. Until, that is, she encountered a graph that “blew my mind,” as she writes in her latest book, The Smartest Kids in the World and How They Got That Way. The graph illustrated the results of annual international testing for students. Ripley’s own country had remained stagnant for a decade, while most other developed world nations, including Canada, passed it by and two—South Korea and Finland—were in the stratosphere.

Q: You follow this along twin tracks: Why is the U.S. doing so poorly and what are the secrets of success abroad? And a lot of the story revolves around math.

A: It does. I don’t know about Canada, but here you never hear anyone say, “I’m just not good at reading.” And being left alone about it—no parent or school decides that’s just the way you are. You do hear all the time, “I’m terrible at math; I hate math,” and there is definitely a kind of belief, sometimes subconscious, that math is something you either are good at innately or not—that it’s a function of talent, not teaching. That is a toxic mentality that pervades our schools and homes. And we ease up from the beginning: There was a study that compared American third-graders to children the same age in Hong Kong and the Americans were already being asked easier math questions that required simpler responses.

Q: On top of that, U.S. children encounter teachers who are bad at math, including math teachers who were not required to major in the subject, and everything snowballs from there.

A: The older the children get, the worse the situation gets, because math is built on rungs. A study of new teachers—people who were about to enter the classroom—that looked at their actual math ability showed their performance was right in line with their students’ performance—solidly mediocre. We shouldn’t be surprised that when we test aspiring teachers around the globe, future middle-school math teachers in the U.S. know about as much math as future teachers in Thailand, far below future teachers in Singapore or Poland. Inevitably there’s a relationship: when teachers are themselves scared of math, that’s going to affect their students.

Q: You look at the educational superpowers through the eyes of three American high-school exchange students, and use aspects of their experiences to illustrate particular points. In Finland, it was the quality of the teaching.

A: Only top-tier students are allowed into Finnish teachers’ colleges, and they spend six years in training. A Finnish teacher needs a M.A. in math to teach, so there is a kind of subject-matter expertise that you wouldn’t see in most countries, not only in the U.S. Now, that alone is not enough—we all know math geniuses would be terrible teachers, right? But having that foundation is powerful, particularly now when we are trying to not only teach kids basic math but teach them fluency in math, which is a different thing. I mean, teaching them how to think critically in math requires a comfort level, a fluency, a numeracy from the teacher that you wouldn’t need if you’re just having kids memorize their multiplication tables. Math is a very strong predictor of future earnings, and whether you use it or not, it does require disciplined thinking, applying rules and solving problems you haven’t seen before. Those are the kinds of skills that have become wildly more valuable in the global economy. And when the teachers are so educated, they are held in esteem—and when they are esteemed, the whole business seems more important, more worthy of respect: a virtuous circle.

Q: Ontario and, I imagine, the other provinces and American states have school systems obsessed with media literacy, where they decode a lot of popular imagery. You argue, though, that a key part of real media literacy is decoding the sort of numbers the media present.

A: Statistics and probability are so important. I was in Santa Monica, Calif., last week and I had a 15 per cent-off coupon for a restaurant on the beach, but no one in the restaurant—they were all probably college students—could actually figure out what 15 per cent of the bill was. I finally said, “You know what? I’ll just come back another day.” But it was, you know, depressing. I was on a parent-led tour of a $30,000-a-year private school in D.C., led by a mother with three kids there—meaning she writes yearly cheques for $90,000—who admitted the school’s math teaching was “weak.” I couldn’t believe it. It was one of those moments where you’re not sure you’ve left your body because you can’t believe no one else is reacting.

Q: The Korean experience was about rigour in expectations. Perhaps too much rigour?

A: Korea is about a lot of things but one is certainly drive, about what happens when students and families are very aware of the importance of what they’re doing when the purpose is very clear and it’s taken very seriously. It’s almost the way athletics are taken in the U.S.—it’s the same exact mentality in Korea concerning academics. But Korean parents see themselves and act as coaches; American parents are cheerleaders. Obviously the Korean drive can become excessive, just the way it does in many American high-school sporting teams. You can take it too far, or you can become obsessive about it, like many Korean parents are. But that drive, that kind of student-led, parent-led fixation on getting smarter through hard work? It’s like gold—something we can all learn from, even if we don’t aspire to achieve the same levels of dysfunction, the same 13-hour days, the same level of competition.

Q: It’s interesting the way you compare Korean academics to American athletics, because both countries have an undercurrent of anxiety about their obsessions. Football scandals in the U.S. provoke very similar debates about the sport’s centrality as did the case of the Korean teen who killed his mother for pushing him too hard in school.

A: No one I met in Korea was happy with their system, despite the fact they’re number one in the world in reading. Everybody complained about it. There was a sense that it was not the right way to educate children to put this much pressure on them, and yet they couldn’t seem to unwind it. It was very hard to disrupt this cycle of anxiety and pressure. Or to unwind sports in American schools, even though they are this lurking, unnoticed drain on people’s attention and on school budgets. Sport is so embedded in the American school experience that no one ever stops to question it. There’s a belief that sports teach very valuable non-cognitive skills—to the people who play them, anyway—yet we know that most kids in U.S. high schools are not playing them, and that per student, participating sports are far more costly, on average, than reading or math classes. For every parent who tells me, “I want my kid to learn about failure and hard work and persistence through soccer,” I want to say to them, “Wouldn’t it be great if they also learned that in math class?” That is going to be much more transferable to their lives, unless they’re going to be a professional soccer player. It’s definitely been a distraction, which is what it was designed to do for over 100 years, to control students and to keep them out of trouble. It’s still doing that, but we need to evolve for the modern age, and do a little cost-benefit analysis, particularly of very expensive sports like tackle football.

Q: Perhaps the single most fascinating finding from the international tests was something negligible in itself, but which correlated almost perfectly with high scores: simply filling out all the questions on the survey that accompanies the tests.

A: I was amazed to see what that survey meant. It simply seeks basic information—there are no right or wrong answers—but the kids who were most diligent about answering all the questions also happened to be the kids who do the best on the actual complicated test questions in math, reading and science. On the one hand this sounds bizarre, but on the other it makes perfect sense because persistence and grit and conscientiousness—the things Paul Tough wrote about in How Children Succeed—are things that we know pay off for kids as adults. Finishing what you start, even if it’s tedious, is incredibly important, particularly in an economy where you’re going to have to keep learning new skills and adapting in order to survive, so you’re going to have to have that kind of self-control in order to survive. It’s not as though American kids, who filled out 96 per cent of the questions, were slackers. But at 96 per cent, they were 33rd in conscientiousness. Small differences in average response rates acccurately predicted large differences in academic performance.

Q: What do you think the American school system is most in need of?

A: In the countries that have achieved the highest levels, a consensus has developed—not just among teachers or politicians but among parents and kids as well: kids need academic rigour the way they need play and water and food. And those countries came to that consensus under duress—it’s not like they’re just inherently more noble places, but they were on the precipice of economic irrelevance with nothing else to offer but their human capital. That’s unfortunately a feeling that more countries are experiencing now, so we too have an opportunity to build that consensus. Expecting more of children is a big, big part of this, and it involves parents as much as teachers.

Q: You have a list of five rules on what to look for in a good school. Do these run from most important on down, which would mean that “Watch the students” is the prime directive?

A: Yes, they’re roughly in order. If you’re going to do nothing else, make sure you visit a classroom and watch the students. Take your eyes away from the bulletin board, away from the teacher, and see how the kids are reacting to the teacher and how many of them have checked out of the situation. And not only are they engaged, but are they grappling? Are they working hard at something, or is everything just effortless and fun?

Q: Next up, talk to the students.

A: As a reporter, I’m always amazed at how much kids can tell me. I’ll spend hours and hours reading research, talking to teachers and politicians and principals, and then I go talk to the kids and I get the real story in 10 minutes, right? It’s astounding to me how rarely we actually trust kids to tell us basic information. We forget what it was like to be in a classroom for five or six hours a day—though too much of that time is downtime. Students have strong opinions on education—which isn’t to say they always have all the answers—but they certainly have information that no one else can give you. So quietly, in the back of a classroom, ask a student simply, “What are you doing right now?” or something else very straightforward, and most kids can answer that. But the second question is more important: “Why? Why are you doing this?” and you’d be amazed at how few kids can answer that question. And it’s not like they haven’t wondered—they really would like to know why, but in most schools the purpose is not clear to them, which is a problem.

Q: In your third rule you make an interesting distinction. After talk to the students, it’s listen to the parents. Why the difference?

A: I’m a little nervous about parents. I’m more nervous about parents than kids, and so you want to let them talk and hear what they focus on, while taking it with a grain of salt, because parents have imperfect information. They are not in a classroom all day, unlike their kids, and they are often motivated by non-educational ends, like wanting their kids to be with the right kind of other children—those who are ambitious and look like they do and are going to college.

I think there’s a kind of mission confusion about what schools are for—something I suspect happens in Canada a lot, too. I don’t mean to be anti-sport or anti-fun, but there is sometimes a fog about what the purpose is here, and that definitely sends a message to kids as well. If school is about the yearbook club and lacrosse and the drama club, not to mention self-esteem, you’re not ever going to achieve excellence in academics. And there’s also, among parents, often fear and uncertainty. We all want our kids to be in the best school, and we are prone to believing rumour and stereotype more than we should, because we don’t have much else to go on. So I guess that’s why I say listen instead of talk.

Q: Number four: Ignore the shiny objects. That’s always hard for a journalist.

A: Yeah! But it can be hard for anyone checking out a school. Some of the most expensive private schools around where I live in D.C. look like spas, beautiful places that grown-ups would like to work in. That is why they’re designed that way, for the adults. The best schools I’ve been in do not have a huge amount of natural light and blond wood. They are about learning, not spending a huge amount of money on facilities. And that’s true around the world. It’s actually remarkable how much the kids I talk to notice this. When I surveyed exchange students, seven out of 10 said that U.S. schools had more technology in the classroom, and you can notice that travelling to their countries. And it’s not that these aren’t high-tech places—Korea and Finland are arguably more high-tech nations than the U.S.—but when you go in their classrooms they’re pretty austere, because the focus is on learning, not about bragging that every classroom has an iPad for every student.

Q: Last is: Ask the right questions, particularly of principals.

A: School leaders, just like bosses of companies, are very powerful in influencing the hiring and the culture of the place. More than anyone else, you have to trust them because you can’t pick your child’s teacher, right? So you want to ask the same kind of things that you would want to ask before you bought a company, or before you took a job—very direct questions that most parents are too intimidated to ask. For that reason, parents ask about class size or field trips or lunch, which are all valid questions but not basic ones. The fundamentals are: How do you choose your teachers? How do you make your teachers better at their jobs? How do you know if you’re succeeding and if your students are learning? How do you make sure that the work is rigorous and keeps raising the bar to make sure you’re not underestimating our kids? Those are the real questions. After that, if you have time, it makes sense to ask about what kind of cleaning products the school uses. I was actually in a school where a parent asked if the cleaning products were organic. This was a real question. Again, fine, whatever, if that’s your issue—but that should be, oh, question 27, not question one.


The secret to success at school

  1. This is a terrific interview….all the right questions and good answers.

    Thank you very much!

  2. Interesting insights. But I’d like to know what “annual international testing” they are based on.

    • This is most likely a reference to the PISA (the Program for International Student Assessment). It is a standardized test given to students across the OECD, with a math, science and writing component. It isn’t perfect, obviously, but it is the only metric that gives us measurable cross-national and cross-temporal assessments of student performance.

      I suspect that this metric tends to inflate the advantage of education systems where rote is important, where testing is common, and where students are deferential enough to work hard on a test that will have limited implications for their grades. That Finland is at the top despite meeting few of those criteria is impressive.

      Incidentally, Canadian students also perform quite well (particularly Albertans). We don’t celebrate that success nearly enough.

  3. Korea and Finland are arguably more high-tech nations than the U.S.—but when you go in their classrooms they’re pretty austere, because the focus is on learning, not about bragging that every classroom has an iPad for every student.
    That’s the statement that really grabbed me. Please, let’s get back to the basics of teaching, never mind making expensive iToys part of the classroom experience. If you want to teach kids to code (and we should) you can do that on a cheap-a$$ Linux system with nothing but open source software. In fact, that’s a better platform on which to learn coding than Windows or Apple OS. There is absolutely no need to have laptops, iMacs & other gadgets in classrooms. They spend enough time with tech toys as it is.

    • ‘Tech toys’ are how they’ll spend their future.

      What we need is a computer for every student….and all the learning should be done on them.

      The Khan academy writ large is what’s coming…for everyone

      • Since you seem to have missed it the first time:

        Korea and Finland are arguably more high-tech nations than the U.S.—but when you go in their classrooms they’re pretty austere, because the focus is on learning, not about bragging that every classroom has an iPad for every student.

        I did try your link. When I click on About Us – a TED talk pops up. I’m afraid I don’t have much interest in cults.

        • Yes, and the parents are complaining about it….pay attention

          Every back-to-basics movement is the same….trying to drag us into ancient Babylon again….where the classrooms were the same as they are today. Nowhere near good enough anymore.

          Yes, there’s a TED talk to explain what the Khan academy is….and Bill Gates at the end saying it’s the future of education.

          Too bad you missed it….you might have learned something.

          • 1 + 1 = 2 in ancient Babylon as much as it does today. You don’t need an iToy to deliver that concept. As for learning computers, absolutely. I said kids should learn on computers – on cheap linux boxes with free software. (I suspect Bill Gates would NOT like this idea.) Nearly every server out there is running on Unix right now, yet we graduate students who know nothing about it. They sure know how to program their iPhones though. Put kids on Linux boxes and teach them to code, and you could realize some interesting results in 15 years time. Imagine an entire generation that understands intuitively how the Internet – and every other network out there – works from the back end.

            As for TED talks, I’m afraid there’s not much to be learned from them. They’ve adopted that creepy Scientology approach to everything. They don’t like questions or challenges – not even in their comments sections – they’re all about “inspiring” and proselytizing. Branch Davidians minus the firearms (thankfully).

            Nassim Taleb’s definition of a TED talks:

            Monstrosity that turns scientists and thinkers into low-level entertainers, like circus performers.

            A more detailed critique of the cult of TED is here:


          • LOL oh DOOOO be serious.

            You are so far behind it’s hilarious. Kids are coding with Raspberry Pi already. And I have a 4 year old gkid who’s hacking iPads and cell phones for fun.

            In 15 years [srsly?] none of these computers…or their coding….will be around.

            We’re light years from Babylon I’m afraid. Time to upgrade.

            I see you’re part of that crowd that insists everything they don’t like is a religion. Climate change/Denial of climate change. Atheism. GMOs. Liberals. Wikileaks….etc

            TED certainly inspires, teaches and connects people….something the world needs, and something teachers don’t do.

          • “……..1 + 1 = 2 in ancient Babylon as much as it does today……..”

            There are 10 types of people in the world. Those who understand binary, and EmilyOne.

          • Cute…but the world isn’t binary, it’s quantum.

          • As in the quantum leap of logic one must take to accept most of your arguments.

            Just how flawed are some of your arguments? Here’s an example:

            If your grandkid is hacking Androids, he’s manipulating…. you guessed it – Unix code. (Well, actually you didn’t guess it, now did you?) Android is basically a miniaturized Linux.

            Yet you pose that as an example of how kids are just “so beyond” Linux. For future reference, you may wish to refrain from forcefully arguing subject matter well beyond your range of knowledge. I enjoy the sport of fishing. Shooting them in a barrel is just not sporting.

          • LOL You’re the one reading that daft rag New Statesman, not me

            I said he was hacking iPads and cellphones….I said nothing about Android….that’s cheap shoddy stuff for the teen market.

            You couldn’t make it on either knowledge or creds, so you’re trying for the snotty left-wing ‘tude personal attack….sorry kid, blow it out yer….ear.

          • Android is “cheap shoddy stuff for the kid market”.

            It’s 80% of the phone market. And it runs on everything from the cheap stuff to some pretty impressive hardware. That’s the beauty of Android. You’re confusing OS with hardware. Your lack of knowledge is showing again.

            Curiously, you’ve told me many times I’m a “CON”. Now suddenly I’m spouting “lefty ‘tude”??? Perhaps I should grow a beard and get some sleeve ink – Em thinks I’ve become a hipster. Can’t wear the frame glasses though – vision is still 20-20. And no way am I lowering myself to drinking Pabst Blue Ribbon. Gross. Plaid shirts are OK with me though.

          • I was using computers probably before you were born…cell phones too likely.

            If you want to be impressed with cheap junk….feel free

            I regard the ‘left’ and the ‘right’ as equally crazy…our political specturm is circular….and both of them meet at the point of insanity. Right wingers deny climate change, lefties deny GMO….both are anti-science positions. Lefties would have us live in a cave, righties would have us live in a church. I’m not interested in either.

            Hipster? Frame glasses? Yer in a past age fer shure. LOL

            Wear yer plaid nightshirt to bed….nite

          • Samsung Galaxy5 and all other Android phones are cheap junk. Emily has decided.

            I just noticed your comment way at the top. You were enthusiastically endorsing the interview and its conclusions… until I pointed out her admiration for basic, gadget-free classrooms, and how, paradoxically, they seem to be the norm in at least some technologically advanced countries. Then you quickly did an about face and disagreed with a major point in the interview. And got yourself all tangled in knots in the process. Could it be that you just never read it?

          • It was a good interview, and well done. He got great responses out of her.

            What she wants is better education and better teaching. So do I… I see that as being via computer. She is more establishment. May not have heard of Khan or online education.

            But whether a teacher or a computer delivers the lesson….the point is to educate well.

            Could it be that you just never understood anything that’s been said?

  4. Are either of you teachers? I am. The khan academy was started by an unqualified math tutor, not a teacher. He didn’t invent online teaching! I’ve been teaching online courses for ten years. The problem with khan and the overuse of tech in academic subjects, is the broad application to all courses. What works well drilling math — and yes! Encouraging students to rewind and replay is like repetitive drilling– does not work in all subjects. In language and art for example, learning needs live interaction for critical thinking to develop along with skill and knowledge. Generally it takes 5 minutes to operate a machine but 5 years to understand the concepts being manipulated by the machine. Our focus on teaching tech is just wrong, and study after study is confirming that the children are losing out during critical brain development years. Look at the problems of plagiarism. Look at 20somethings who cannot apply their degrees in workplaces. Be brave and make n actual list of the types of skills kids need to develop that are NOT related to tech and then know that they are being denied the time to develop them. How can we carp on about obesity and screen time, and then put kindergarten kids in front of screens for hours each day? IPads are in in JK and Apple is happily supplying equipment in school to get everyone started. The invoice will come later and it will be big.

    • Nope, I’m not a teacher. But it’s a given that teachers aren’t going to like new methods like Khan because they lose jobs. So I’m sure we’ll see no end of studies ‘proving’ it’s a terrible thing.

      However online education has been around for some years now….even places like MIT and Stanford use it….it works.

      Live interaction is also possible.

      You don’t need to ‘teach tech’……you are simply teaching ON tech. The child interacts with the program….and they can go at their own speed.

      • By the time they hit University/College, the students (esp. smarts ones in such prestigious schools) should have already developed their critical thinking skills. Trekkie is talking about kids & teens – a crucial time for learning.
        It’s sad that you have no experience teaching yet are adamant in your opinion that tech is indeed helpful. How would you know? What have you learned through tech? Can you program in Java? Are you a dentist, architect, etc from your tech? No? Didn’t think so. Trekkie’s stance is at least supported by the article (Finland and S. Korea have little tech in classes, still beat us in school).
        It has been proven that there is something about learning on paper/from a book that simply allows one to learn better. Google it.

        • Most people don’t develop critical thinking skills in high school….teenagers aren’t noted for thinking at all.

          You are using tech right now.

          You are the sort that pines for hard cover books, quill pens and typewriters….in other words….unable to keep up with the times.

    • Be brave and make n actual list of the types of skills kids need to develop that are NOT related to tech and then know that they are being denied the time to develop them.

      According to Emily, there are no non-tech related skills. Anything non-tech related is “outdated”. She does make one notable exception. She is convinced that good old fashioned humanities – learned in a good old fashioned bricks-and-mortar university – is suitable for almost everyone, regardless of how ill-prepared it leaves one for today’s job market. How she squares that with her tech obsession is anyone’s guess. She’s never much worried about contradicting herself with every other post.

      • I can definitely see we are in debate with a closed mind. The pride in a 4 yr old hacker is also misplaced. To master the tool is such a small skill. Emily needs to wait to see what that compwonder gkid does with such skills. In school we deal with such personal attacking between students on tech, and right from the classroom, that might change opinions a little… To at least develop some tech control over what kids can do BEFORE we let them loose with such power. The media reports some of the suicides and other extreme cases but there are other types of damage. Just remember that person in school who just had to comment in your outfit, hair, or voice, or the way you walked. It was a cutting remark said quietly or for the ears of a few nearby listeners. It was awful. You didn’t want to go to class. It was a small minute in your teen life…and yet, you can vividly remember it 40 years later! Nowadays the remark isn’t said for a few… Its tweeted to the out far and wide, and beyond the school walls. Now make that remark something racial or something about a parent situation. Its really quite unbelievable when emotional teens can broadcast freely.
        Again, mastering the tool is not a pride skill. Kids need time and training to be masters if themselves first.

        • Khan works because he talks to the learner like he cares about them and their learning deeply. He started his video tutor phenomenon by tutoring his relations. The key is to use the tools the students will need to be successful in life and teach them with your heart. Unfortunately too many North American teachers are teaching the curriculum to the students rather than teaching the students using the curriculum.

  5. I was never taught the right way in school and to this day I’m still upset about it. I love to learn i had a passion for it, but unfortunately school was nothing but effortless / fun for me, I was the popular kid in school and was always caring for others. No one took me and my education serious, not my teacher, not my parents, not my doctors, I had no one to look up to, no one to trust, no role models. My parents were even worse than my teachers. My parents were incapable of love, they didn’t know how to love me and just treated me as if I was nothing but a pet to them as a child and nothing but a stranger as a young man. They would laugh at me when I don’t know something ( such as not knowing how to tie my shoes ) and walk away telling me how dumb I am, instead of teaching me and giving me the confidence I need to keep moving forward. If it wasn’t for my strive to learn I would have gone to become a killer, a drug dealer, a drug user, a con artist, or a gang member, those were the only doors I was seeing open to my future and to be frank I would’ve chosen to become a killer just so I can get rid of my parents who brought me in this world, because I don’t want to be born If I have to be forced to become any one of what I just listed, I don’t want to be a bad guy and end up spending the rest of my life in jail, my parents have no right to bring me in this world if that is my future and so that is why I would have murdered them, but that never happened, only because I kept telling myself to just keep learning everyday, every minute to every second and never ever stop learning, that’s what I did and that is what I’m still doing, but unfortunately for me I ended up in a car accident that took away a large portion of my memories and damaged parts of my left brain before graduating secondary school, so now I have little education plus i have to relearn almost everything I learned from my past schooling. I tried to get back on my feet, but then I ended getting a bunch of diseases that pretty much put me in a state of dementia, so up to now I kind of but not completely given up with my life, because no matter how much I try, no matter how much I dream of going to University, there is always a brick wall standing in my way forcing me to stay out and because of this I’m spending everyday just laying on my bed depressed and unhappy, watching my life waste away and hope that death comes early for me. Even though I’m middle class and have everything, I have nothing, no purpose in life, little education, no loving family, no future, no girlfriend, no desire, no hope, no chance of becoming a man, no chance of ever being independent, shattered dreams and the list goes on. All I want is opportunity, i don’t care about money, I don’t care if I was making $1000/hour or $1.00/hour, i don’t care about having a girlfriend getting married and having kids and I don’t care about having friends. As long as I have a career job that is fulling to my dreams, I’ll be happy, everything else is just a bonus, but i guess I’ll never have anything, so the only thing I’m going to do is lie on my bed and up to my last breath all I’m going to say is…..whatever.

  6. it is good to be an effective teacher