Amanda Ripley’s book, The Smartest Kids in the World, and how they got that way, shook the American educational academy to its core because, as it turned out, she wasn’t talking about our kids. As Daniel Willingham explains in his review of the book:
Ripley sets out to tell the education success stories of three countries: Finland and South Korea (whose 15 year olds score very high on the PISA test) and Poland (offered as an example of a country in transition, and making significant progress).
What’s Ripley’s answer to the subtitle? They got that way by engaging, from an early age, in rigorous work that poses significant cognitive challenge. In other words, the open secret is the curriculum.
Along the way to this conclusion, she dispenses with various explanations for US kids mediocre performance on the science and math portions of PISA.
The TL;dr version is that it’s got nothing to do with any of the excuses the American education establishment relies on to excuse its mediocre performance, from money to a TV show about Honey Boo Boo. (Note the irony that I anticipate you won’t read all, if any, of Willingham’s excellent review, so you need a TL;dr version spoon fed to you). It’s the curriculum, stupid.
But we don’t care about the takeaway for Finland, South Korea or Poland, but only about us, because, hell, we’re Americans, the center of the universe, exceptional and the only group of people who matter. After all, isn’t that why everyone wants to be us?
While Ripley provides no direct takeaway for Americans, Willingham brings the message home:
Many Americans seem to think that it’s not normal for schoolwork to be challenging enough that it takes persistence. In fact, if you have to try much harder than other kids, in our system you’re a good candidate for a diagnosis and an IEP.
This expectation that things should be easy may explain our credulity for educational gimmicks, for that’s what gimmicks do: they promise to make learning easy for everyone. Can’t learn math? It’s because your learning style hasn’t been identified. Trouble with Spanish? This new app will make it fun and effortless.
This isn’t to say that there aren’t people with learning disabilities, but that they aren’t defined merely by the fact that learning is hard. It should be hard. It’s supposed to be hard. If it’s not hard, you aren’t being pushed sufficiently to learn.
Moreover, our embrace of knee-jerk egalitarianism compels us to believe, as a political credo, that all students are entitled to either get an “A” or get a magic bullet to enable them to get an “A.” No student gets an “A” because they are smarter or work harder. That’s an elitist notion, and such elitist ideas are unfashionable and unacceptable. No matter how true it may be in fact, Americans societally reject it and our pedagogy is premised on our embrace of this fiction.
The second assumption I often see is that “rigor” and “misery” are synonyms. Rigor means that you will be challenged. It means you may not succeed quickly. It means your cognitive resources will be stretched. It doesn’t mean you are being punished, nor that you will be unhappy.
While Willingham strikes a chord with the connection between “rigor,” or “hard work” as most of us would call it, and “misery,” he appears to sugar coat it a bit by adding at the end that a rigorous curriculum doesn’t mean that students will be unhappy. So what if they are? When were we promised that everything we do was going to be fun, or at least not unpleasant?
Sometimes work is hard, and, Willingham’s view notwithstanding, won’t be a particularly enjoyable experience. That we connect hard work with misery is our own bias, a bias grown of a generation of being indoctrinated into the belief that everything in our lives ought to be fun.
There will be “fun,” assuming you define it loosely, in what we gain from a rigorous and challenging education that pushes us beyond our happy place. It comes afterward, with what can be accomplished as a result of what we learn, and what we do with what we’ve learned. How cool is it to be able to create something that never before existed, like an internet for example? But all the Ritalin and tummy rubs in the world won’t make us capable of doing so.
Willingham asks whether Americans will be able to put away their expectations of easy education and magic bullet futures, and suggests that while this is essential to our future, chances are remote. There doesn’t seem to be much question, at least for now, that the spirit of hard work and accomplishment has been lost, and our societal demand that no one ever break a sweat or it proves our system dysfunctional will cause the educational machinery to continue to rationalize mediocrity and pat itself on the back for how well we’ve protected every child’s self-esteem.
Failure is a part of life, and overcoming failure is necessary to achieve. Instead, we see failure as an unacceptable outcome, never to be allowed and, should it happen, a compelling justification for reducing expectations until no child ever fails. When we demand that no child be left behind, the easiest way to accomplish that is to not push any child to get ahead.
So even if the American educational establishment refuses to embrace rigor, that doesn’t mean any individual student is constrained to limit his efforts to only those things that come easy. As many students begin their first year of law school, they will complain that it’s hard, it’s boring, it’s miserable. Get over it. Law is hard, at least to do it right. If you’re not straining yourself to do better, then you aren’t getting the educational benefit out of it that you need to succeed as a lawyer.
And if you don’t like being miserable, then you’ve come to the wrong place. But as you suffer the hard work and misery of law school, remember that the point is to come out the other side with the tools that will allow you to someday be a lawyer. If that’s not why you’re there, get out now. And if that is why you’re there, then embrace the rigor as it will make you a lawyer someday.