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Parent's Book: Smartest Kids in the World

I read a lot. Some of my friends have asked me how I manage to read so much with two littles and a pregnant belly. Here's my secret - severe insomnia. I have struggled with sleep all my life and when I am pregnant, nursing, and/or just being a mommy, it's extreme at times. With every pregnancy I've thought, "maybe this will be one where I sleep like all those normal pregnant women out there!" 

What's that saying about doing the same thing over and over while expecting a different result? Yep, that's me. 

Sometimes it's really just the book that keeps me up though. And the smartest kids in the world by Amanda Ripley was definitely one of those. I was having an unfortunate mommy moment. I started to think I wasn't doing anything right and I should be providing my 3- and 1-year olds with more. Of what, I don't know, but it always ends up being "more" in my mind. Do more, be more, love more, more, more, more. (The mommy mind can be so mean). 

Anyway, I went on an amazon binge and bought a stack of books about childhood education and what I can do as a parent to help my child succeed. This title (it's a good one) caught my eye and I dove right in. 

The book compares countries with the top rated education systems based on PISA test scores (a critical thinking test meant to determine what a student has been learning and what school is like for them). Part of the comparison is done through the eyes of real American students who travel to these countries and live as foreign exchange students. I love how the author uses these students as a way to make the topic more personal. She really gets into their back story so you feel connected to each one. 

I don't want to get too detailed about the book as a whole. But I thought I'd share some interesting (and shocking!) takeaways that have really stuck with me (even though it's been about two months since I read this). I swear I've brought this book up in conversation so many times, which to me is a good sign. Here's what stuck in my mind:

  • The top ranking countries don't label kids as either "Math and Science" or "English and Reading" types. They communicate that learning anything, especially math, is hard and they train the students to work hard at it. So kids don't end up thinking they can't do math because they didn't get it right away. 
  • Finland has the top ranked education system in the world and it is one of the only countries to be super selective about who can become a teacher (on the same order as MIT). 
  • At some U.S. colleges, students have to meet higher academic standards to play football than to become teachers. 
  • South Korea always lands on top in education BUT the kids literally study ALL DAY AND NIGHT LONG. Their entire self-worth is placed on the grades they make so they go to public school in the daytime, then attend tutoring centers late into the night. There are many stories of suicide and even murder driven by this culture of perfection. 
  • The top ranked countries do not allow calculators in the classroom during math lessons. They teach students tricks to multiply, divide, add and subtract in their heads. 
  • America is overly worried about hurting kids and teachers' feelings if they "don't test well." Many teachers base a large percentage of grades on effort instead of actual performance. Once these students and teachers are thrown into the real world and forced to take the SAT or teach hard material, they don't perform well. In real life, performance matters. 
  • MY MOST IMPORTANT TAKE-AWAY: The very best thing a parent can do for their children in the early years of life is to read to them. If you have the choice, put down the flashcards, and forget about the phonics videos. Pick up a book instead. This creates a curiosity in children that will serve them throughout life. 

That last bullet point was huge for me. All I needed to do more of was read. (NOT sign them up for classical music lessons, force flashcards on my one-year-old, or purchase piles of mathematically mature toys). Whew. 

Beyond that personal take away, more than anything this book shows how the U.S. has developed low expectations for students, teachers, and the education system as a whole. In many cases, students in other countries are doing work that is one or two grade levels above our classrooms. The American students that went to Finland, Poland and South Korea were amazed at the advanced material they were presented in the foreign classrooms. If we keep these low expectations and allow students to pass through school without truly learning the material, how will that transfer into our adult society? 

I know my job as a parent is to support our teachers and not fight for a better grade for my child if they didn't earn it. 

The book also made me think of the kind of value and respect I give teachers in our culture. It is truly the most important job on the market, especially the early year teachers who inspire a child's desire to learn. If we placed more value on what these people do, maybe more of our best and brightest would go into the field.

The teachers in my life are some of the hardest working people I know, and they receive the least amount of gratitude for their jobs. Hopefully we can work together to change this.

Here are some pictures of my attempt at reading time with Levi. We read to him everyday but this little guy is constantly moving...

This is what he'd prefer to do all the time. "SHOOT IT!"

Durham Farmer's Market

Block Party