Where schoolwork is hard, kids get ‘smart’

For all those who loathed psychologist Peter Gray’s argument for self-directed learning in School is bad for kids, here’s cognitive scientist Dan Willingham’s paean to rigorous curriculum and hard work.

In The Smartest Kids in the World: And How They Got That Way, Amanda Ripley tells the the education success stories of Finland, South Korea and Poland, Willingham writes. In all three countries, students engage ” from an early age, in rigorous work that poses significant cognitive challenge.”
When schoolwork is challenging, students fail frequently, “so failure necessarily is seen as a normal part of the learning process, and as an opportunity for learning, not a cause of shame.”

South Koreans, Finns and Poles expect schoolwork to be hard, Ripley writes.

By contrast, Americans believe “learning is natural” and “should be easy,” Willingham writes. If a student has to try much harder than classmates, he’s a candidate for a disability diagnosis.

Our expectation that learning should be easy makes us fall for educational gimmicks, Willingham writes. “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.”

Ripley discounts explanations for U.S. students’ mediocre performance on the science and math portions of PISA. Willingham agrees:

Poverty is higher in the U.S. Not compared to Poland. And other countries with low poverty (e.g. Norway) don’t end up with well educated kids. The relevant statistic is how much worse poor kids do relative to rich kids within a country. The U.S fares poorly on this statistic.

The U.S. doesn’t spend enough money on education. Actually we outspend nearly everyone. . .

The US has lots of immigrants and they score low. Other countries do a better job of educating kids who do not speak the native language.

The kids in other countries who take PISA are the elite. Arguably true in Shanghai, but not Korea or Finland, both of which boast higher graduation rates than the US.

Why should we compare our kids to those of foreign countries? Willingham answers: “Because those other kids are showing what we could offer our own children, and are not.”

By the way, Gray panned Willingham’s book, Why Don’t Students Like School?

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  1. Does Ripley mention cheating?


    I, for one, find the Korean model dysfunctional.

    • She says Korean kids hate school.

      • Thousands of Korean students choose to leave the country in pursuit of education.

        If we wanted to improve our system’s rigor, we would limit access to college through the use of a gatekeeping exam. I believe South Korea, Finland and Poland do this. Overnight, students, parents and teachers would seek a more rigorous curriculum.

        • This gatekeeping exam, who would design it?

          The reason I ask is that this sort of high stakes exam exerts an influence not only on the behavior of the kids but on the behavior of the entire education universe.

          Higher ed’s involved as are ed schools, book publishers, labor unions and elected officials from the school board up to Congress.

          It seems to me that with such a broad array of stakeholders, many of which exercise quite a bit of political power, the danger is that the exam will be a political football to serve whatever group has the greatest clout and perhaps worse, a political compromise between the most powerful opposing groups.

        • Couldn’t we use the ACT and SAT as a surrogate gate-keeper? Have sliding scale limits on federal financial aid based on ACT or SAT scores for example.

          You get an 11 on the ACT – you foot the entire bill without taxpayer help. If the colleges want to take a chance on you, they can pony up their dime.

          You’d should get some rigor and less federal bucks flooding into the system which leads to excess inflation. Should be low cost to implement too.

          • American families are very willing to take on debt to finance higher education; restricting financial aid wouldn’t be a gatekeeper.

            In South Korea and European countries, there’s a firm limit on the number of open spots available. Tuition costs are very low, but it’s very hard to get in.

            Our schools and students are behaving rationally in a system built to encourage access to higher education to as many as possible, even late bloomers. We won’t have the same devotion to rigor, because supply of spots at university exceeds local demand ( taking into consideration the immense numbers of foreigners who come to the US to study. )

  2. Of course, self-direction (Gray) AND rigor (Ripley) aren’t mutually exclusive. In fact it’d be GREAT to have both. I tell my own the same thing I tell my class – struggle is good; you will learn far more from your mistakes (OK – if you consciously think about WHY it’s a mistake) than your failures.

    Or – as my freshman physics teacher said – the amount of blood on the wall from banging your forehead into it is directly proportional to the amount of learning.

    Why should we compare our kids to those of foreign countries?

    I’d also add because capital is a commodity and jobs will go to where they can best be done. I mean except for things that are really non-portable like plumbing and electrical wiring.

  3. Mike in Texas says:

    Children in Finland don’t begin formal instruction till they are 7, and there are no high stakes test. In addition, the teachers are 100% unionized.

    • There is high stakes testing in Finland and, unlike the U.S., there’s competition to get into the teaching profession. There’s a 93.3% rejection rate among applicants. To teach in high school you need a masters *in*the*subject*area you’re going to teach.

      Yeah, that’s right, Mike. A teaching certificate doesn’t qualify you to teach physics in Finland. You’ve got to get a masters in physics. From the physics, not the education, department of the university.

      Think you’d make the cut, Mike?

      In the U.S. a teaching certificate and a body temperature above ambient is about the extent of barriers to entry to the profession.

      Except for special ed teachers of course but that distinction required enacting law limiting hires to graduates of specialized education programs. Otherwise the past practice of throwing any warm body into the special ed classroom would have continued to this day and is indicative of the importance placed on teaching skill in the public education system.

  4. The South Korean population has an average IQ of 108. It is absurd to compare education in that country with US education. US whites do about as well as Finns and Poles. The US black and Hispanic populations have average IQ’s two-thirds to one standard deviation below the populations of Finland and Poland. That explains the difference.