The “Welcome To School” Lesson

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.

H/T Stephanie West Allen

13 comments on “The “Welcome To School” Lesson

  1. Jim Majkowski

    As Peaches’ manager Jimmy Dugan said, “if it wasn’t hard, everyone would do it. It’s the hard that makes it great. ” BTW, just posting a comment requires more significant math skills than some people would prefer.

  2. Henry Bowman

    “There doesn’t seem to be much question, at least for now, that the spirit of hard work and accomplishment has been lost…”

    These days, it takes twice the hard work to keep the government from sucking up and wasting all your financial rewards for the hard work that it took to accomplish whatever breakthrough you were trying to accomplish in the first place. When our entire political structure is a world-class disincentive to attain success, how can we be amazed that American youth has lost that incentive?

  3. John Jenkins

    I disagree with the whole premise that difficult intellectual work is not fun. Granted, lots of people have been taught that hard is incompatible with fun, but in my experience solving a difficult intellectual puzzle or coming up with a particularly insightful analysis is a lot of fun in itself. I know we are too late to talk about the value of learning for it’s own sake, but we should at least teach people to reach for the pleasure of intellectual accomplishment.

    1. SHG Post author

      It’s not that it isn’t, can’t be or shouldn’t be fun, but if that we can’t keep telling kids that if it’s not fun, they don’t have to do it. Sometimes it’s not fun, and they still have to work hard. To say anything else is a lie. It’s not about fun. It if turns out to be fun, that’s a bonus.

    2. Ron Coleman

      You can’t get close to “solving a difficult intellectual puzzle or coming up with a particularly insightful analysis,” much less being able to communicate it to others, until you do the hard, un-fun work of learning arithmetic, multiplication tables, grammar, spelling, vocabulary, history — the basic building blocks of analysis, i.e., information and tools. The more difficult the puzzles you want to solve, the more dues of this nature have to be paid. Doctors have to learn what everything is called, where you find it, how it works, and how it doesn’t work. Lawyers have to learn the names of all the torts, all the crimes, what makes a contract, what prevents one from being made. Same with engineers, bankers, astronauts, opera singers, rock stars and baseball players.

      The pleasure of achievement, i.e., excellence, is directly related to the denial of pleasure at some point which allows the development of skills and knowledge that makes performance at a high level possible.

      Then you can have fun, as people who are the best at what they do have when they’re doing it.

  4. G Thompson

    This study doesn’t surprise me (and Finland/S.Korea have always been up the top – thankfully Australia isn’t far below them nowadays) and it makes me look at a quote I used for a short paper I wrote way back in 2003 called “Advanced Learning Technologies in Higher Education” that I have actually framed on the wall here.

    “Try this sometime.

    Put a group of students in a room with a light bulb hanging just out of their reach.

    Then watch what happens: after a while one will jump to touch it, and before you know it, everyone in the room will be leaping like Michael Jordan. They are testing their skill, stimulated by the challenge of reaching something beyond their normal grasp.

    Put the same students in a room where everything is easily in reach, and there will be no jumping, no competition, no challenges.
    – Carroll Campbell”

    As I stated in the paper , “The problem with modern Higher Education is a low ceiling of expectations. We have built huge online web learning environments that show too much, need too much time to implement, require too much re-training and re-thinking for teachers, allowing no or little feedback, and in so doing teach too little. Sadly the students have stopped jumping.” And in conclusion “the ultimate goal of all Educational Institutions should not be just online but rather a medley of face-to-face and online learning experiences that suit student’s needs and aspirations. Allowing them to challenge and reach for the light bulb forever”

    This goes doubly so for Tertiary and below schools.. If they aren’t taught the basics (and this includes even basic rote learning of vowel sounds and times-tables) and not allowed to challenge themselves, and coddled into believing “there is no such thing as a fail” *eyeroll* then your higher level curriculum are all basically moot before they are even implemented

  5. Max Kennerly

    My twins started Kindergarten yesterday. A flyer handed out to parents said that the greatest determinate of future success was “grit,” and that we should focus our efforts not on any particular subject or goal, but on helping our children see tasks through even they are difficult.

    This school district has among the highest scores and most kids going to college in our state. Go figure.

      1. Max Kennerly

        Indeed. Here in PA, blame the charter school movement. The Pennsylvania Republicans, in their wisdom, have set up a formula that penalizes public schools more than 2-to-1 in funding when a student leaves and goes to a charter school.

        There are two effects of this policy: (1) it makes a bunch of money for private companies that happily pass everyone so they can attract more students with their “success” and (2) it sends public schools into a downward spiral so that, once more than a quarter or so of the students have gone to a charter school, the district has less than half the funding it needs to teach the kids still there, prompting a total collapse. That’s what happened in Philadelphia, the school district the Garcias were avoiding.

        The PA Republicans consider both of these effects to be features, not bugs. It’s the Republicans’ favorite kind of free market: the one where the profits come in by way of government fiat. They’re thrilled to bits that Philadelphia now has a glorified day care for teenagers, rather than a functioning school district, and they applauded Corbett’s refusal to provide emergency funding.

        As for me, I’m happy to pay the highest wage taxes in the country to a City I don’t live in or send my children to school in. The City needs the money.

  6. C. N. Nevets

    Anytime I give one of my American college students a grade lower than an A, the student asks, “What did I do wrong?” When I explain that they just didn’t do enough for an A, they are baffled. I remember when I was in college, not exactly forever ago, my own assumption was that any grade above a C was a mark of doing above average work. I worked incredibly hard for my A’s. The students I have in class seem, instead, to assume that everyone starts at an A and then works downward by losing points.

    Not to play into stereotypes, but my South Korean students tend to have no such assumption and work far harder for their A’s than they even need to. Their expectations seem much more in line with my own. They do not assume that everyone gets an A; they assume that A’s are for above average work, and they want to be above average.

    I cannot honestly say I’m certain that one attitude is inherently better than the other, but they are strikingly different.

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