YARMOUTH – With the new school year comes the rush to Staples for supplies and the push for earlier bedtimes, all of which brings us to the jolting reality that summer’s finally over.
Another sort of wake-up call comes in the form of a new book with the striking title, “The Smartest Kids In the World: And How They Got That Way.”
Writer Amanda Ripley follows the experience of several American high school students who, not challenged at home, travel to attend school in countries that routinely outperform the United States in almost every educational measure.
The students she tracks go to Finland, South Korea and Poland and report findings that should make all of us working in schools sit up and pay attention.
In Finland, teacher-training programs are highly competitive. Teachers are compensated well for their work and enjoy relatively high status in Finnish society.
As Annie Murphy Paul noted in a review, “A virtuous cycle is thus initiated: better-prepared, better-trained teachers can be given more autonomy, leading to more satisfied teachers who are also more likely to stay on.”
Tony Wagner, a leading educational figure, has also studied Finnish education, and his documentary “The Finland Phenomenon” describes the success of separate academic and vocational tracks as well as the country’s low homework load.
The South Koreans take a different tack: Children there not only go to school all day, but most also are enrolled in evening cram schools, where they relentlessly prepare for exams for admission to top colleges. Ripley calls the brutal pace of this educational model, which emphasizes rote learning, the “hamster wheel.”
Ripley writes, “It was relentless and excessive, yes, but it also felt more honest. Kids in hamster-wheel countries knew what it felt like to grapple with complex ideas and think outside their comfort zone; they understood the value of persistence. They knew what it felt like to fail, work harder and do better. They were prepared for the modern world.”
Poland was the last place that Ripley and her “field-agent” students visited, a place remarkable for an absence of an intense focus on sports. Children spent the bulk of their time at school in academic endeavors. Sports were important, but they happened in pickup games after school to release energy and get exercise.
Our own country’s academic culture has recently come under heightened scrutiny as teachers and parents realize, to use New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman’s phrase, that the world’s flatness includes a leveling of competition: Anyone around the world able to work hard and think creatively can become successful locally, nationally and internationally.
“Everything,” Ripley writes, “had changed. In an automated, global economy, kids needed to be driven; they need to know how to adapt, since they would be doing it all their lives. They needed a culture of rigor.”
Rigor. It’s a word with a charge to it in our culture. We’ve seen the film “Race to Nowhere,” and we don’t want our children becoming homework drones. We want them to play sports and experience teamwork and physical exertion. We want them motivated and goal-oriented, but not just toward getting into the college with bumper sticker recognition.
At the start of this school year, we would all do well to think concretely about what rigor means to us and how to define it in a way that is most helpful for students in our own American context.
We need a Rigor 2.0 — one that makes the most sense in our country today.
What if we developed a school culture that emphasizes the highest order of creative and analytical thinking? What if we applied the concept of rigor to cultivate integrity and character? What if we applied rigor to the development of social and emotional skills for students to thrive in the highly collaborative, multidisciplinary careers that will dominate the labor market in future years?
What if our rigor stressed innovation and entrepreneurial thinking that promoted perseverance? What would our schools look like then? What would our culture become?
This is not to say that we can’t adopt some of the best strategies from countries like Finland, South Korea and Poland. For one, teachers deserve the highest-quality training and all of the respect due their vital profession.
Teachers and administrators need to create schools that encourage the best kinds of learning for students to live engaged, meaningful lives and stay globally competitive. And to achieve that goal here and now, we need to create a fresher, healthier definition of rigor that reflects our values and addresses today’s complex and interwoven needs.
Brad Choyt is head of school at North Yarmouth Academy in Yarmouth.