Wednesday, September 25, 2013

"The primary postulate of American education"

Daniel Willingham's review of Amanda Ripley's book The Smartest Kids in the World is so laudatory that it makes it sound like a must read for any American educator. Ripley compares U.S. education to three nations whose educational systems are widely recognized for their quality: South Korea, Finland, and Poland. The success of these three nations makes the usual explanations for the U.S.' struggles look weak: poverty is high in Poland, we spend more money on K-12 education than they do, etc. This is not to say it's all peaches and cream in these three societies. The South Korean system is widely derided for producing stressed out, miserable, uncreative kids.

But what unites these systems is a cultural expectation: "an expectation that the work will be hard. Everything else is secondary." In contrast, Willingham proposes that among the "primary postulates" of American K-12 education is

a propensity to learn is innate, instinctive and therefore inevitable. That, in turn, means that it should be easy. This assumption is pretty much the opposite of the one Ripley assigns to South Korea, Finland, and Poland. ...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. 
I start teaching again for the fall term tomorrow. No doubt many of the students I teach this term will exhibit just the sort of attitudes we'd expect them to exhibit given that they've been shaped by an educational culture ruled by this postulate: fear of failure, the tendency to blanch in the face of even modest academic adversity, little attention to the time management needed to make persistent effort possible, the belief that a "full-time student" can put in half-time effort, a disinclination to seek help.

In short: Ripley's onto something.

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