The secret to success at school

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

Content image
Logan Mock-Bunting / Getty Images

Updated March 9, 2018

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 2013 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.