How To Raise a Smart Kid – Part 1

How to Raise a Smart Kid

Since 2004, I have taught hundreds of children, teenagers, adults, and seniors from 3 to 80+ years old. One of the most fascinating aspects of my job is meeting different kinds of students, all with unique personalities and backgrounds. I am especially interested in the range of ability in young students. Some are slow learners, while others have a special gift for grasping musical skills and knowledge quickly, but the majority possess an “average” ability.  Other than an innate (genetic predisposition or “talent”) that we all have for various inclinations, I have wondered if there could be any external factors that could help these students learn faster and become “smarter” and more successful. Learning to play a musical instrument starts with a basic knowledge of information (how to sit at the piano, how to form an optimal hand shape, the layout of the keyboard, the mechanics of playing using the body, etc.) as well as developing correct technique to play. As the students face increased challenges, they must learn how to persist and solve problems. These qualities of persistence, grit, adapting to challenges and problem-solving are essential to be successful in life. Recently, Canada was lauded for landing in the top 10 countries around the world for math, reading and science in the PISA (Program for International Student Assessment) run by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), ahead of countries such as the USA, UK and France. Canada ranks 3rd in reading, 10th in maths, and 7th in science. Singapore is ranked as the highest overall achiever with 1st ranking in all three subjects.

Since 2000, millions of 15 year olds at the end of their compulsory education around the world have taken the PISA. This test is offered every three years, and differs from other international tests in that it strives to not measure a student’s ability to memorize facts; in short, their preparedness for an exam. Instead, it measures a student’s ability to think critically and solve problems they have not encountered before in math, reading and science. Successful students must be able to adapt their academic knowledge creatively to solve problems.

Surprisingly, Finland emerged at the top of the world in education in in the first round of tests in 2000, and Korea was second. Researches tried to interpret the factors behind their high scores. Possible explanations could be:

  • Low poverty rate
  • Children from a privileged background
  • Homogenous population (not many immigrants)
  • Education in private vs public schools
  • High parental involvement
  • Higher government spending on education
  • Stereotypical history of academic achievement

However, even within countries, there were variations in academic performance. One would assume that privileged children in developed and wealthy countries (such as USA, Canada, Australia, Western Europe) would naturally receive the best education and rise to the top of the world in academic achievement. However, in the latest PISA test in 2015, USA’s math score ranked 41 (below the average score) and only slightly above average in reading and science. What kind of education system encouraged high academic performance?

Let’s take a closer look at some of the possible explanations:


  • Poverty Rate and Privileged Background


The typical teenager in Beverly Hills, CA, (privileged, highly educated parents) performed below average compared to all kids in Canada. In 2000, Finland ranked at the top of the world in education. Their poverty rate was lower than the USA; however, their neighbour, Norway also shared a similar poverty rate, but Norway ranked similarly to the USA on the PISA. The variation in scores in different countries caused by “advantaged” and “disadvantaged” students is not a reliable way to predict outcome. For example, in Canada, the socio-economic differences make up for a 9% variation in outcome, compared with 20% in France and 17% in Singapore. Rich parents and poor parents do not predict high or low scores.


  • Immigrant Population


Social background had little impact on the scores. Canada has a high migrant population compared to other countries around the world, with first generation (people born outside Canada) at 22.0% of the total population, second-generation at 17.4%, and 60.7% of third-generation or more. Even with a high rate of migrant children, they seem to integrate quickly into the school education system. 55% of Canada’s working-age adults have higher education (university, college, or technical school) compared to an average of 35% in other countries. However, a caveat is that the children of new migrants are often a few years ahead in math and science, and come from countries where educated is highly respected and encouraged. Their ability to problem-solve and adapt help them to quickly integrate into the new environment. Within three years of arriving, the PISA tests show the children of new migrants to Canada have scores as high as the rest of the class..


  • Private vs Public Schools


Education in private or public schools did not predict high or low scores. American children attend the richest schools in the world, yet the USA has mediocre academic outcomes.


  • Parental Involvement


More parental involvement such as volunteering in PTA’s, field trips, sports, attending parent-teacher conferences, etc. does not necessarily lead to higher scores.


  • Government Spending on Education


According to 2013 statistics, US spent 26K per student (behind Luxembourg with 32.7K) while Canada spent 12K. Singapore, the top ranking country across all three subjects, spends 74% less on education compared to the USA. Taxpayer spending does not lead to more learning and smarter kids.


  • A history of academic achievement


About 60 years ago, only about 10% of children in Finland finished high school. After the Korean War (1953), the South Korea began to rebuild. Many of their citizens were poor and illiterate, and the Korean language did not even have the words for modern math and science terms. Korea began investing in educating its people, guaranteeing acceptance into top schools and universities, which would lead to permanently higher-paying jobs. This created a national culture of obsession with education, fixating on rankings and test scores in order to get into top universities. The students did well on the PISA because of how much time and energy students were used to using. Poland began a series of education reforms in 1999. Students scored below average in 2000, but by 2003 caught up to the USA in reading and math, and outscored the USA in math and science in 2009.

If poverty rate, amount of money poured into education, parental involvement and a stereotypical view of cultures do not predict academic achievement, what factors DO lead to higher achievement? Next week, I’ll post part 2, and look at 5 factors that lead to smarter kids.

Published by hannahannika

Piano Teacher

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