Book Club: The Smartest Kids in the World (And How They Got That Way)

I am not an insatiable reader, and never have been to be honest. I like intellectually stimulating art, but reading always held such a slow pace that it never seemed to stick for me. Insightful movies were always great, but I just don’t read books all that often. When I do read, they tend to be *gasp* works of nonfiction and journalism. These tend to be unbiased and informative, and I’m only interested in reading about stories that are truly fascinating, like the lives of inspiring people (Steve Jobs and Nelson Mandela are my latest two reads). 

So when I stumbled across this gem, it was an easy pickup. It was essentially a long magazine article about something that hits home for me as a teacher: why are our kids so far behind the rest of the world? It followed three exchange students from the United States into some of the top ranking countries on the PISA test: South Korea, Finland, and Poland. It highlighted the differences between the key countries as described by the students, as well as some observations the author made during interviews she conducted with academic support staff, parents, and government officials.     

The result should be eye opening for anyone who reads it, including someone like me who is entrenched in the scene every day. Students, parents and teachers in Korea, Finland, and Poland are really not that much different than they are here. Students slack off, play video games, are distracted by social media, and sleep in class. Parents are sometimes too overbearing for their kids, complain about grades, and are sometimes not involved at all with their kids’ education. Teachers can underperform, they complain about governmental reforms, and they have uniquely strong unions.  

In fact, the book distilled the differences down to only two items. In the top scoring countries, students have a culminating exam that has an enormous impact on the rest of their lives, and serious consequences for those who don’t score well on it. In Korea, results on this exam literally determines one’s career, salary, and in some cases, happiness. In Finland, the stakes are a little lower, but certain professional training paths in college require a high score in the test. The most picky? The teacher preparation colleges. Only the top 2% of scores on the exam are accepted into the teacher preparation programs. In Poland, a culminating exam only 8 years old has boosted them from the bottom to the top of the PISA rankings. The SAT doesn’t even compare in consequence or in administration to these exams. Nothing sends the “school doesn’t matter” message more than a culminating exam that actually doesn’t matter.    

One of my favorite segments of the book talked about sports in the other countries. One of the exchange students wanted to join the soccer team at his new high school, only to learn there wasn’t one. The students looked at him like he had three heads when he asked. These countries don’t have school sports because their schools revolve around one thing: student learning. I wholeheartedly disagree with the fact that these two things can’t happen simultaneously, but as I held this very thought, the author pulled out her secret weapon: the NCAA requries a minimum GPA of 2.3 for eligibility, while the national average for teacher preparation programs is 2.5. If our teachers need to be as academically affluent is a collegiate athlete which, on the average, is pretty poor, then how can we expect our students to be much better?

The other difference is that these countries have all experienced this change through the actions of a strong (and sometimes oblivious) political leader. It took a widespread and sweeping reform from the government to enact these types of changes. These reforms were all  met with widespread criticism, praise, and controversy. Yet they all stuck around, and they weren’t changed every 8 years by new administration. The reforms enacted in these three countries (Poland especially) happened extremely quickly too, despite the controversy. Imagine if we tried that here? There would be chaos, lawsuits, and practically a million marches and demonstrations.

There is hope though. In my opinion, the Common Core standards are the first good steps towards teaching students to think that we’ve really made. All of our exams are mostly fact recall and memorization but these standards really are excellent and enforce thinking. Still, the exam that assesses student progress on the CCS doesn’t have any real consequences, which has been shown to be an important piece of the PISA puzzle.  

If nothing else, this book is a fascinating look at, well, the “smartest kids in the world and how they got that way”. I highly recommend it for anyone who cares about the field of education. It’s short, informative, and fairly unbiased, which contributes to the enlightening experience it provides. It doesn’t actually say anything we don’t know, but it does invoke the question, “is America willing to do what it takes to give our kids the best education in the world?”    


Imgur’s Selfie Albums the Key to Fighting Bullying?

Imgur is that other image sharing website. It’s not Instagram, it’s not Tumblr, and it’s not Facebook. It’s most similar to Reddit, in that people post items in a public forum and then comment on them. Users then “upvote” or “downvote” the pictures, and then the comments on the pictures. Making the front page, or earning top comment are prestigious achievements. A simple private messaging interface is included to allow users to contact each other, and a user’s profile includes their latest uploads. Simple, straightforward, and viral. 

Imgur has done something that is unique though. The product is great but it has started a new internet phenomenon that I dearly hope is not going away. It has birthed, for once in the history of web 2.0, a public community of people who are kind hearted, giving, positive, and fair to its members. Countless posts make the front page of “Imgurians” doing good deeds for others halfway across the globe, of support for people battling mental illness, and of congratulations for people who reach important milestones in their own lives. Several popular memes and internet trends also start here, and a new trend is perhaps one of the most exciting, because I believe it holds the key to fighting bullying. That trend is the Selfie Album. See an example here.

Vocabulary aside, the Selfie Album is simple; people send their photos to an anonymous curator whose job is to bring life to the pictures by saying something about the photos that is either humorous, positive, or tells a story. On the internet, this project serves to provide faces to the anonymous usernames that people see, as well as provide a few laughs and introductions to new people. The reason this translates so well to fighting bullying is because the psychological effect bullying has on a child is so similar to the anonymity of the internet. 

You might say that most victims of bullying become infamous among their peers, and this is true, but the result of becoming infamous is that one loses their own identity and becomes the person the bullies have created. These selfie albums take an enormous anonymity and transforms it into an identity for participating users, something that bullying victims would do well to have back. On top of this, these albums are an artifact of support and caring for the victims that is sometimes all a bullying victim needs to bounce back.       

To weaponize this project, it’s fairly simple on a school by school basis to identify students who are willing to help. Most schools have victim recognition programs now, and having students creat a similar photo album for victims of bullying could give these kids a chance to make new, supportive friends, reclaim some of their lost identity, and help grow their confidence. It also teaches the victims coping skills, which involve surrounding themselves with people who support them, instead of people who beat them down.  

Does your school do something unique to fight bullying? Share it in the comments! 

Student Tips For Teachers: Twitter and Instagram

I’m starting a new series on the S&T Blog called Student Tips For Teachers. This series will allow students to share their thoughts on teaching to a wider audience, and hopefully give us some insight on how better to connect and educate.  Do you have a student who is interesting in writing an article for us?  Send us an email:  

This first post is from a former student of mine, Leticia R.  She is a sophomore at Greenwich High School and loves anything she can do on her phone. She showed extreme creativity and propensity for using social media during her Integrated Science projects and I asked her to write the first post on how teachers could use these tools better.  Here are her thoughts.    

Social media is a great way to communicate with people. Millions of people use apps like Instagram and Twitter everyday, so why not use it as a learning tool? The amount of possibility these apps can bring to our classrooms are unimaginable.

Twitter is quick and easy, a place where precise writing is welcomed. For school, twitter can be used in a variety of different ways. Teachers have the ability to quickly help and interact with students outside of the class. Posting things like homework tips, links, and reminders makes the course that much more accessible, and including things like cool videos and articles make looking at these things a lot more exciting for students. Polls and class discussions could be very easy to do using twitter. Simply by having people retweet or favorite answer choices, votes could be counted very quickly. All that’s necessary for discussion is clicking the “reply” button and voila! Student responses could even be shown as a live feed on the projector, if your school allows Twitter access. Ours doesn’t, but we find ways around that. :)

Instagram is one of the biggest and most popular social networking apps in the world.  With over 100 million users, the value of learning to use it is undeniable. This app is used for spreading the word with pictures. It could be used in a variety of different ways for school, such as lab setups, previews to class work, and final experiment results. For example, when working on an experiment, the teacher could post pictures of what equipment the class is expected to set up when they walk into the classroom. It could also be used as a viewing area for digital student work. 

Both apps have this tool called hashtags. A hashtag is a word or a phrase prefixed with the symbol #. This common sign is seen on both websites very often, and is used to identify messages on a specific topic.  By creating their own hashtags teachers would be able to create different conversations and have another way of communicating things. 


Making Science Cool Again

I Fucking Love Science (IFLS from now on, so I don’t continue to say the F-word) started as a joke. Ask Elise Andrew, the page’s founder. She just wanted to post some pictures of cool science going on to her friends and make it fun. What she’s done instead is attract over 7 million likes to her page, convince the Discovery Channel to make a TV series around her concept, and make science cool for lots of people who either already think so or couldn’t have cared less before.  

What Is IFLS? 

IFLS is an educational Facebook page. As Andrew described it in a Mashable Interview, it’s the inside of her brain and what she thinks is cool. The things she thinks are cool are scientific, oftentimes dense and informative, studies about everything from giant centipedes to giant tumors. She creates memes of these and shares them with the internet, like this:


Why is this cool, all of a sudden? It can’t be as simple as being as bold to have a “bad word” in the title of the website. Or can it? The French Connection clothing line is hinged almost entirely on an anagram of the word in question (FCUK) and people wear it for the statement. The truth is, youth likes making statements and nothing makes a statement more than liking a page like IFLS and then talking about it with people older than you as not only bold, but also informative.

Not Alone 

IFLS is not alone in making science as cool as dry ice: a TV show built entirely around the seemingly pathetic lives of science mega nerds wins Emmy awards and critical praise for its wit, slapstick, and social commentary. The Big Bang Theory is funny and cool enough to merit multiple hours of prime time on many networks, and anyone with a science background who watches it could affirm that their science jokes are often grounded in reality. Knowing the science all of a sudden makes you cool, since you are in on the joke and everyone else isn’t. See Sheldon’s demonstration of his Doppler Effect halloween costume. It’s funnier when you know what it is. Surely it can’t be that simple, us educators with our critical thinking skills ponder, but it is. 


Adapt It To Your Room 

These are not the only examples but they are good ones and we can use insights from IFLS and BBT to increase engagement in our classrooms. “Coolness” is not complicated. It comes when people see what you do and find it interesting, genuine, and worth their attention. Take IFLS: it’s genuine because it’s not the face of a major corporation looking to make money, but one person sharing their brain. It’s interesting because, as Samuel Khan would put it, “The content really is fascinating and just needs to be delivered as such.” It’s worth our attention because it uses internet memes to creatively, humorously, and informatively convey science information.  I wrote about using Over in June, and this is another fantastic way to incorporate memes in your class. Allow your students to make a meme of a science concept in question and share it with their friends and family members. Not only do they have to understand the content to make a meme about it, but they also get to explain in more detail what they learned when they are inevitably asked what they just posted.    


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