The smartest kids in the world

My youngest daughter was doing fine in first grade. She was fluent in two languages, played piano, and seemed to enjoy school. The teachers and staff we met at our public school were dedicated and kind. Then, last summer, I got an education about what goes into making a great school and smart kids.

3 signs that something was missing

It was towards the end of the school year when we heard the second-grade student-teacher ratio would be 33:1. That seemed high, and my wife and I wondered how any adult could maintain order in such a class, never mind teach all those children.

Some friends were looking at private schools, and my wife suggested we find out more. But I resisted. I loved the sense of community at our local school. Besides, I said, “It’s only second grade.” When our daughter  seemed to struggle with math, we figured “maybe she’s just not good at math” and took solace in knowing she was good at languages and music.

We talked about this over dinner with my cousin, who founded the Milestone School in Mt. Vernon, NY. Her young students put on Shakespeare plays, learn a foreign language, and play chess. Her curriculum seemed fundamentally more rigorous. She taught me that, although our daughter was only in second grade, the skills and learning habits she acquired now were crucial for when things get more difficult in later grades.

Then in July we went to Japan and stayed with my sister-in-law’s family. Their kids attended public school but they also went to after-school sessions and did extra homework. We saw how even the younger child was doing math far beyond what our daughter was doing. She was embarrassed. So she took some of their worksheets and practiced. With a little help, she caught up in a few weeks.

If the US is 36th in math, who’s better?

The Smartest Kids in the WorldI saw that I had, in effect, completely outsourced my children’s education to a school and that was irresponsible. My wife and I started doing more research, which included reading an excellent book, The Smartest Kids in the World. It’s a book I strongly encourage every parent to read.

It’s from that book I learned about PISA, the Program for International Student Assessment. It’s a test aimed at gauging critical thinking in a standardized way around the world. The results for many countries are shocking. The US ranks 36th in math, on par with Lithuania and the Slovak Republic. Countries that spend far less per student than the US, including Finland and Poland, ranked much higher. Why?

Common suggestions are that the US has more diversity, more immigrants, or more poverty. But none of these are the cause of our educational issues. What the PISA data show and The Smartest Kids in the World brings to life is that three factors make the biggest difference:

Great teachers. In the education superpowers, teaching is a respected, competitive, well-paid profession. “Getting into a teacher-training program [in Finland] is as prestigious as getting into medical school in the United States.”

Higher expectations and more effort. The school days are longer and the curriculum is more rigorous.

A culture of learning. Students, teachers, and families all take school seriously because it is serious. Your performance in school often dictates your access to a better career and a better quality of life.

In some countries, access to such an education wasn’t a privilege but a right. “In the twenty-first century, it was easier for a poor person to get a great education in Finland than in almost any country in the world including the United States.” As one UK politician put it, “If you want the American dream, go to Finland.”

The best school

After reading The Smartest Kids, my wife and I were determined to be more engaged  in our children’s education. She spent weeks investigating the complex web of public, charter, and private schools. We watched chilling documentaries like The Lottery. We attended information sessions and spoke with other parents. BASIS Independent Brooklyn

We finally decided on Basis Independent, which was mentioned in the book. “At BASIS public charter schools in Arizona and Washington, D.C., teachers train students for academic conquests the way most American high schools train fort players for Friday night games.”

They were opening up a a new school in Brooklyn, kindergarten through 12th grade. We were awed by their curriculum: Mandarin and Engineering from the beginning, Latin in 4th grade, Logic in middle school.

I was lucky to attend a high school that changed my life. It was led by smart, accomplished professionals who had high expectations for us and pushed us to meet those expectations. I loved that school. At BASIS, it seemed like my children could have that experience starting at a much younger age.

So far, after more than half a year, the academics have surpassed our expectations. We’re also seeing two things we didn’t expect. The first is that the teachers and administration are providing a caring, nurturing environment. There’s rigor, for sure, but it’s backed up by a support system that helps each child through their individual challenges.

The biggest surprise has been my daughter’s reaction. It used to be a struggle to get her out of bed at 8am to walk the 2 blocks to school. Now, she’s up and eager at 6:30am to catch the bus. She loves her teachers and they’ve instilled in her a love of learning.

The smartest kids in the world don’t get that way because they’re rich or gifted. They’re smart because they have great teachers and high expectations, because they put in more effort, and because they’re surrounded by people focused on learning.

Every kid deserves a chance to be a smart kid.

I wish someone had told me this secret to being smart 

A smart kidIn my elementary school, each grade was split into three groups based on ability - essentially smart, medium, and dumb. I was happy when my teachers and parents labeled me smart. Looking back, I wish they hadn’t.

How did they know?

Certainly, hearing someone tell me I was smart was better than hearing I was stupid. But one problem with this system is that those labels become self-fulfilling prophecies. The kids in the stupid class think they're stupid and tend not to try hard. Their teachers also tend not to try as hard.

Salman Khan, who’s on a mission to change education which Khan Academy, described how these labels for kids are only relevant when applied to certain subjects at certain times.

There’s a group of kids who’ve raced ahead and there’s a group of kids who are a little bit slower. And in a traditional model, if you did a snapshot assessment, you said “these are the gifted kids,” “these are the slow kids” … But when you let every student work at their own pace - and we see it over and over and over again - you see students who took a little bit extra time on one concept or the other, but once they get through that concept, they race ahead. And so the same kids you thought were slow, you now would think they’re gifted. 

So the labels are often wrong, but they can lead to a mindset that shapes your life.

Fixed and growth mindsets

In the 1990s, researchers Carol Dweck and Claudia Mueller from Columbia University worked with fifth-graders to understand the effects of different kinds of praise on motivation. After an easy set of problems, some students were praised for their ability (”You must be really smart!”) and some were praised for their effort (“You must have worked really hard!”). After a second set of problems, though, all the students were told they hadn’t scored  well.

The researchers aimed to measure whether the different kinds of praise would affect how the children dealt with challenges. Would their performance vary on the third set? Given a choice, would they choose easier problems? Would they view themselves differently?

The results showed a dramatic difference in performance. After receiving a poor score, children praised for being smart did 25% worse on the next set of problems. Children praised for working hard performed 25% better. Even more fascinating were the other differences they found. The children praised for intelligence equated their performance with their ability. So they did all they could to maximize their performance relative to other children. They chose easier problems, asked about the performance of others, and even “misrepresented” their scores more than the other children. They described intelligence as a fixed trait.

Children praised for their effort, however, equated their performance with how hard they worked. So they did all they could to maximize their learning. They chose problems that were harder. They were more interested in strategies for solving the problems than in the scores of others. They believed intelligence was something they could improve.

The secret

For me, the advantages of being labelled smart faded as soon as I got my big break and entered a high school where everyone was labeled as smart. Though I worked harder than ever, I optimized on the grades, not on the learning. I’d cram for the test and would even write the occasional formula on the palm of my hand. In college, I dropped courses that were too difficult. Like the fifth-graders in Carol Dweck’s research, I was desperately trying to validate my label and the story I’d been telling myself. And I limited my possibilities as a result.

It was only decades later that I realized the secret to being smart - and to accomplishment in almost any field - is having a growth mindset. It’s more effective and fulfilling to focus on getting better over being good. Instead of relying on some inborn gift, you rely on effort and feedback. You view setbacks as learning opportunities. You persist.

Next week, I’ll write about a school that creates a growth mindset in children, and produces the smartest kids in the world as a result. We’ve known for a long time there’s a better way to identify and develop talented people. And organizations of all kinds have a lot to learn from such a school.