Saturday, July 19, 2014

the smartest kids in the world and how they got that way

ALERT! The following post is NOT about flipping my primary classroom. 

It IS about some of the highest PISA test scoring students on the planet, and arguably, how they got that way. 

If you are only interested in flipping (or blending) the classroom, perhaps you should skip this post?

But...if you are interested in what makes kids 'smart' (define smart please) perhaps you would like to read on...

The Smartest Kids In the World
and how they got that way

Dear colleagues,

I enjoyed reading the text ‘The Smartest Kids in the World’ over the holiday break.

It primarily deals with the sudden jump in academic results for three international locations – Finland, South Korea and Poland.

Students in these locations have been sitting the PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) tests from when they were first established as members of OECD (Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development) - since the year 2000. They have scored consistently in the high range. Meanwhile, the US and Australia have gone backwards.

The author (Amanda Ripley) simply asks the question – How did these high-performing students get 'that way'?

The answer, as far as the author is concerned, is broken down into one simple word:


The authors’ thesis runs as follows - US (and Australian) testing just isn’t hard enough (in mainstream schools). The students are simply not pushed and nor are teachers rising to the challenge. In the three high performing countries listed above, the testing is extremely rigorous - and the students and teachers consistently rise to the challenge, but not always in healthy ways.

One US state (Maine) decided to implement a more rigorous testing programme for its students. However, on the eve of the assessments, it appeared as if more than half the senior year cohort would fail. So they deferred the tests, afraid of looking bad. Then they deferred them again. Then they just shelved them. Now, nobody talks about them anymore. Until, of course, this book was published!

In the US, students are denied the chance to fail at school. They simply fail in the real world instead.

    A powerful story was related by the author about a high performing maths teacher who was moved into a low performing school. He awarded an ‘F’ to a student who had previously consistently achieved ‘C’s or ‘B’s. Her parents were outraged, and she was very upset and confused as she was a lovely quiet girl who had always tried hard.
“Why did you give me an ‘F’?’ she asked the teacher.
‘I didn't give you an ‘F’. You earned it’’ was his reply.

This young lady ended up creating a study group, doubling her study efforts, and at the end of the year she achieved a ‘C’ grade – a genuine ‘C’ grade. In tears she thanked her teacher for awarding her the grade. He simply replied… ‘I didn’t give you a ‘C’. ’You earned it’.

This story gave me pause for thought. How honest are we with our students? Do we sugar coat the truth (or outright withhold it) because we think that they can't handle it? And if we do this… are we really helping them? Perhaps it would be better for them to fail now, instead of later.

It seems that improved student results are largely up to teachers, and the system the teachers come from and work under. No real surprises there. In Australia we have known for some time that the biggest factor impacting on student results in a classroom (apart from the sizeable demographic factor) is teacher quality (Teachers Make a Difference – John Hattie 2003).

The message from Amanda Ripley’s book is that it is the rigour with which teachers teach (and the high expectations they have of their students) that is the key factor.

Finland was a key high-performing country included in the author’s study. Some educationalists have criticised the Finnish results, feeling that because of the largely mono-cultural and mono-racial nature of Finland, teaching and testing must be much simpler - and this would likely translate into better scores.

In order to investigate this theory, the author travelled to small outlying schools on the very edge of Finland dedicated to educating the children of the very small amount of refugees that do enter this country. These students were taught under the same educational model as the rest of the population, and the improvement rate of these students was identical.

Refugees from worn-torn countries living in Finland are achieving at higher rates than the standard US student.

Here’s a key comment from the text, from a passionate teacher who works directly with these refugee students: ‘I can’t know their backstory. If I do I will feel sorry for them and I won’t be hard enough on them.’

Let’s just reflect on that for a moment.

The message here: rigour - and high expectations.

The author also takes a good crack at the American (Australian?) cult of self-esteem…by which she means the very popular idea that the most important thing in school is that students feel good about themselves. She notes that in all the high achieving countries there is no such emphasis on students feeling good about themselves. The emphasis, in these schools, is on achievement; whether you are correct, or incorrect, and why. Students fail, and fail regularly. Mostly, after a while, they stop failing.

In none of the high achieving countries are students awarded marks for effort. They are awarded marks for results. The author contrasts this with the practice of some US high schools in which up to 60 percent of the grade is derived from an ‘effort’ score!

Again (and this is worth repeating) - students in higher performing countries tend to fail more often in school – so as not to fail later on in life.

The author took some time to note the total lack of effect on a student’s results made by ‘bake-sale mums’. Helping out around the school, running programs, or painting murals was shown to have no positive affect whatsoever on a student’s results, and in some cases, led to a negative effect. The US is full of parents just like this. It would seem that Mums and Dads who help out around the school are not necessarily helping their child to achieve.

Rather (and unsurprisingly) it was the parents who read with and discussed texts critically with students in the family home who generated higher-achieving students. It was the family  that read together, or modelled reading to their children, that consistently scored more highly on standardised tests.

Though this is not the author’s main point - it is worth raising. In most of these high performing countries teachers are of a high status; that is, it is not easy to be a teacher and the profession is honoured. A number of rigorous assessments take place before a candidate is even considered for teacher’s college, and whilst teachers are by no means considered wealthy citizens, they are very well-paid. South Korea is the exception, in which the bulk of the teaching is done at night by highly-paid tutors. In this case it is the tutors that are revered.

Of the countries studied, the author does not offer South Korea as an aspirational model. In fact she refers to it as ‘the pressure cooker’. The amount of pressure placed on students to perform in this country has led to some fairly grim events. Poland and Finland are suggested as much superior alternatives.

That said, one of my favourite chapters in the book was titled the ‘Four-Million Dollar Teacher’. The author asks...where would you go in a tutor-driven educational free market economy like South Korea to find the ‘best’ teacher? She concludes that it would be the most popular tutor in Korea - the tutor that as many parents as possible try to access because he delivers real results.

That’s this guy - Kim Ki-Hoon, the world’s most highly paid after-school tutor. The chapter made me think more carefully about performance-based pay for teachers - the risks and rewards. In this sort of system, teachers who do a better job might get paid more, but of course you run the very real risk of creating a test-driven educational economy.

The book relies heavily on the results of the PISA tests. These tests were designed by Dr. Andreas Schleicher, a German statistician and researcher in the field of education. In 1994 he became project manager at the Centre for Educational Research and Innovation (CERI) of the OECD in Paris. He began to develop the PISA study there in 1995 and with the help of fellow researchers globally, the PISA tests are what they are today. Though the PISA tests are subject to some criticism, as all tests are, I can only agree with the author when she says,’ The PISA tests aren’t perfect. But they are the best we’ve got’.

The tests themselves are very concerned with critical thinking in the areas of Maths, English (or your first language equivalent) and Science. The questions mostly require long written answers, and there are numerous correct answers. The tests are difficult to mark, and take many hours of arduous human assessment.

There are no robots marking these exams.

As yet the PISA tests do not measure collaborative skills, but at the time of writing, Dr. Andreas Schleicher was working on ways to amend and improve the tests to incorporate this component.

I feel I must mention this final point, because it struck me so soundly. Amanda Ripley quotes a study on effective praise (praise which leads to actual growth and development) which identifies 3 key factors that are essential to praise that works:

a) it is genuine
b) it is specific
c) it is rare

In fact, praise that is none of the above has the opposite effect. Students, it seems, are not easily fooled. They can recognise our false praise.

Is this what you learnt at university? Because I sure didn’t. Should we really be making ourselves give out 6 merit awards a week? Or perhaps the Principal's awards should really mean something.

So what does this mean for my classroom?

This year I intend to teach a little harder, and a little meaner. It doesn’t mean I won’t smile at the students. It just means that the bar for success has gone up. We have already gone some way down this path at Inaburra, in making the ‘C’ a standard pass grade, and an ‘A’ and ‘B’ increasingly rare.

As mentioned, I am now thinking much harder about who gets merit certificates, and why.

I am promoting reading and viewing texts (print and visual) at home more vigorously than ever with the parent body. It seems clear that it is those students whose families dissect texts, as opposed to offering simple praise for a book read, who consistently score more highly. Let’s also try to catch Dad reading a book.

Thanks for taking the time to share my thoughts. I hope that you have had a few new ones of your own along the way.


image taken from:

I have also started to consult in NSW primary and high schools with regards to flipping (or blending) the classroom. If you are interested in having me come along to speak to your staff, details can be found here: