How To Raise a Smart Kid – Part 2

I first started this series several weeks ago, trying to understand the variation in PISA test scores of kids in different countries around the world. I started with Part 1, looking at possible explanations behind why some countries, such as Singapore, ranked the highest in the world, and why the USA, a wealthy first-world country, lagged behind in Math, Science, and Reading.

In Part 2, we examine the 5 factors that DO lead to more successful academic achievement in kids:


  • Attitude toward education


In the latest PISA, South Korea’s rank dropped slightly but still ranked in the top 8 in the world.

The attitude of many students and teachers and parents is that they understand it is important to master difficult concepts, and that this mastery is the result of hard work, not innate talent. As a result, they continue to work hard instead of believing they are “no good at science”. They have high expectations of themselves.  Attitude, rather than ability, was a high predictor of success.

Business Insider notes that Chinese kids tend to do better than American kids due to a “growth mindset“. This is the attitude that with hard work, anything is possible. Libby Kane writes American kids tend to have a growth mindset toward sports, not academics.

Researchers in Pennsylvania in 2002 also looked at persistence and motivation: students who completed more of an optional survey after the PISA tended to predict that they did better on the PISA. This showed that conscientiousness mattered. These students tended to have a sense of responsibility, organization, and getting the job done. A high regard toward education leads us to the second factor that leads to higher achievement:


  • Drive


South Korea is an extreme example of this, to the point where their children’s work-life balance is heavily skewed and cause unnecessary stress in children. Because of the fierce competition to get into the country’s top universities (and thereby nearly guaranteeing a higher salary compared to other people doing the same job!), the students and parents are highly motivated to try to achieve top marks. In South Korea, the majority of children attend for-profit, private tutoring academies after school. These “hagwon” are so popular that the government in each city and province enforce curfews (to ensure the children receive adequate sleep!) and even offer financial rewards for tips leading to hagwon that ignore the curfew. Singapore parents also often bring their kids for extra tuition outside of school.

An attitude that education matters, that getting a good education will lead to higher education, then a good job, is important.


  • Highly educated and competent teachers


Teachers in Finland are highly educated. All general education teachers have a minimum of a Master’s degree (even pre-school teachers!) and daycare centres generally employ those with a Bachelor’s degree. All teachers continue yearly training. It is highly competitive to get into Finland’s rigorous teacher-training colleges. As a result, Finland’s teachers are highly equipped to handle the challenges of teaching and to help students learn. Since teachers are highly competent, they receive more autonomy in their teaching, and require less supervision.


  • Parental Involvement


Researchers found that simply volunteering for school events such as field trips and fundraisers and attending parent-teacher meetings had little effect on student’s academic score. It was the type of parental involvement that was important.

Korean and Finnish parents tended to see themselves as coaches, training and pushing their kids to succeed, not to protect them from hard work and strain. They saw education as one of their jobs.

Meanwhile, American parents tended to be more like cheerleaders, praising their children regardless of achievement. Typically, American parents place more importance on free play, and protecting their child’s self-esteem through insulating their children from competition and failure. They encourage sports as a way of boosting their child’s self-esteem, rather than pushing them in their academic schoolwork.

However, there needs to be  a balance between pushing children academically to the extreme, and coddling the child. Through failure, children develop resiliency and endurance.

Parents should sincerely and rarely praise their children for specific achievements. “Authoritative parents” tend to be strict, yet warm and responsive. They give their children limits, yet the freedom to explore and fail.

Another way for parents to raise smarter kids is to simply to read to their young children. Reading to them facilitates the importance of learning new things. Frey (2015) has shown in a recent study that reading to children was more effective in building literacy than simply talking to them. As the kids get older, parents should continue to discuss movies, books, and current affairs, which engages their thinking. This way, they are more likely to become thinking adults. Furthermore, parents who themselves read regularly had children who were also more likely to read and enjoy reading.

Engaging in their children by asking them about their day at school, and what they were learning, and showing genuine interest in their academic learning has the same effect as hours of private tutoring.  


  • Decrease or Delay Tracking


“Tracking” or “streaming” is separating students into groups based on their perceived academic ability within a school. For example, in Ontario, students in grade 9 can choose to focus more on academic courses, which prepare them for university, or on applied courses.  In the USA, students may enter different tracks depending on how they test.  Some schools have three streams: gifted/talented, normal, and applied.

The downside of tracking is that this tends to boost inequality, and kids labeled in the lower track tend to slow down. In Ontario, black children are twice as likely to be placed in the applied stream, and also twice as likely to be suspended from high school at least once.

Instead, treating all students with equity was shown to be more important. Instead of focusing on poverty, or socioeconomic or racial background, all students should be treated equally. Fortunately, this is a mindset, and minds can be changed. For example, consider a student who is struggling in math to have a temporary learning difficulty, rather than a permanent disability. In Finland, tracking is delayed until they are 16 years old. This way, if someone fell behind, they received extra help to keep up with the rest of the class. Also, government spending is linked with need: worse students received more money in their schools.


Success stories

A country that has recently taken many of the steps outlined above is Poland. Starting in September 1999, Poland implemented four major reforms:

  1. Creating a more rigorous curriculum for students (which required a quarter of the teachers to go back to school to improve their own education)
  2. Giving the increasingly qualified teachers more autonomy (teachers could choose their own curriculum and textbooks but were held accountable for their results).
  3. Implementing standardized tests at the end of elementary, junior, and high school (to monitor the student’s progress, and to help those who needed it)
  4. Delaying tracking a year (so that all kids could spend one more year together in an effort to change their attitudes toward education and raise expectations of what they could accomplish)

Clearly, these reforms worked: in 2000 (students were educated under the old system), Poland ranked below average of a developed country (students educated under the old system) but in 2003 (educated in the new system), students in Poland caught up to the USA in reading and math. By 2009, they outscored the USA in math and science; even the poorest kids in Poland outscored the poorest kids in USA. In 2015, Poland ranked 5th in Europe and 11th in the world! This shows that improvement can be dramatic, and quick.

Another country that has made a dramatic change is Singapore. How did Singapore, only independent since 1965, with a mostly poor, unskilled and illiterate population, overhaul their education system to achieve top scores in only 50 years?  Students from both wealthy and disadvantaged families were able to achieve high academic success.

Clues point toward their high standard of teaching: Professor Sing Kong Lee, vice-president of Nanyang Technological University states that “All teachers are trained at the National Institute of Education, and the country recruits from the top 5% of graduates” and continues to do so in a “consistent, long-term approach.” The competitiveness to get into the institute ensures the cream of the crop are selected. Since all teachers are trained in one institute, an overarching national strategy is incorporated across the country.

Summary: all children must learn rigourous higher order thinking to thrive in the modern world. The only way to do that is by creating a serious intellectual culture in schools and families, one that kids can sense is real and true.


How do these findings relate to learning music, and becoming a smart musician? Check in with Part 3 coming up soon!

Published by hannahannika

Piano Teacher

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