Smart Kids

“’Best and Brightest:  Only a Few Countries are Teaching Children to Think’ in The Economist, August 17, 2013, is a review of the book The Smartest Kids in theWorld: And How They Got That Way by Amanda Ripley, published by Simon and Schuster. “  Arthur B. Robinson


Arthur B. Robinson, Access to Energy, September 2013, p. 2, 3

“Best and Brightest: Only a Few Countries are Teaching Chil­dren to Think” in The Economist, August 17th, 2013, is a review of the book The Smartest HiQ_KidsKids in the World: And How They Got That Way by Amanda Ripjey, published by Simon and Schuster.

U.S. schools and students, as usual, score very poorly in the edu­cational assessments upon which this work is based. One of the best is Poland. Outstanding performance was found not to be linked to economic or political power. It was linked to unusual people who gained control of the schools and ran them with common sense – a methodology entirely impossible in the U.S. with its young people entirely under the control of the public employee unions.

Characteristics that were good for students? Here are a few quotes from the article:

“Students forgo calculators, having learned how to manipulate numbers in their heads. Classrooms tend to be understated, free of the high-tech gadgetry of their schools back home [in the U.S.]. And teachers in every subject exhibit the authority of professionals held in high regard.”        

“Schools work besi when they operate with a clarity of mission: as places to help stud&its master complex academic material (not as sites dedicated to excellence in sports, she [Ripley] hastens to add.) When teachers demand rigorous work, students often rise to the oc­casion, whereas tracking students at different cognitive levels tends to ‘diminish learning and boost inequality.'”

“She [Ripley] marvels at how refreshing this view is when com­pared with that of teachers in America, where academic medioc­rity is often blamed on backgrounds and neighborhoods. And she laments the ‘perverse sort of compassion’ that prevents American teachers from failing bad students, not least because this sets these youths up to fail in a worse way later on.”

Most importantly, in the “smart-kid countries” the students excel not becausethey are “smarter.” They excel because they work hard and learn by example from adults who expect this of mem. And “ex­cel” means that they learn to think, rather than to “trust and parrot,” which was Petr Beckmann’s way of describing this difference.

We read this article because an Access to Energy reader sent it to us with a note remarking that the “smart kids” seemed to be fol­lowing an educational methodology very similar to that in our home schooling curriculum, which has been described in previous AtEs. This is true, even in the relatively minor matter of calculators.

When my daughter Aynne arrived at college, one of her teach­ers dise&vered that she did not use a hand calculator. The teacher explained that a calculator would be a great help to her in science. She could just store all of the equations in it and have it solve the problems for her. So, she was instructed to visit the office of a fac­ulty member who would help her to learn to use a calculator.

Her physics instructor, however, advised the class that the best thing the .students could do with their hand calculators was to de­stroy them. He demonstrated by dropping an eraser on the floor and crushing it underfoot.

Physics (just like math, chemistry, and other solid sciences) is about learning to think. Problem solving (a large part of these dis­ciplines) is about learning to discover the solution to problems by tliinking. Regardless of the path one follows in life, this mental train­ing is greatly useful.

In earlier centuries, for example in England, students read the ancient literature in the ancient languages and studied the writings of great theologians and philosophers. Even in the 18th century, this was largely the academic training of the American Founding Fa­thers, along with extensive grounding in history and economics (the latter including experience and custom and culture).

Shop keepers, soldiers, and ship’s officers in England did not need to read ancient languages to do their work. They were taught these subjects because they were the highest and most rigorous bod­ies of knowledge available. In this way, their minds were’trained to think. This is an advantage in any occupation. ‘”‘ Today, we are blessed with far greater and more rigorous bodies of knowledge. We have mathematics,, physics, chemistry, and other related subjects. These are ideal systems (far better than ancient lan­guages) with which to train a mind to think. This is true regardless of what that mind will be tMnking about later on in life.

Those who are unable to understandjhis (or who prefer not to “understand” for various reasons)-have injected into our educational system (now totally controlled by the public employees unions) in­stead a non-thinking paradigm.

Physics is a natural science. The first year is ordinarily devoted to Isaac Newton’s mechanics and the three laws he discovered that govern it. The student learns the laws. (One is F=d(mv)/d(t), force equals the change in momentum with time.)

Problems are posed, such as: How long will it take an apple to hit the ground if it is hurled off the Eiffel tower? (I had an instructor once who posed this as “can an ordinary man who is jumping off the top of the Eiffel tower jump outward vigorously enough that he will not hit the tower on the way down?)

As the course progresses, problems are presented with multiple _ pulleys, sliding planes, bouncing balls, and all sorts of complica­tions. For each problem, the student must, using Newton’s laws, derive the equation for the answer. Plugging numbers into this equa­tion to obtain a numerical answer comes at the end of the exercise and is of secondary importance. The thinking is the part that matters.

Before calculators, there was a custom among the better science professors of showing off at the lecture’s end. With the chalk board covered with derivations and the final equation derived, the lecturer would plug in the numbers mentally arjd give the answer.

Speed at mental arithmetic was a game that scientists often played with each other. So, plugging in the numbers provided amusement at the end of the exercise.

The point here is that the education is in learning how to find an equation that solves the physics problem. It is not in plugging num­bers into that solution. Plugging in numbers is not thinking.

Yet, the paradigm taught in American schools is to memorize (or just pre-store in a hand calculator) the equation and use the calcula­tor to plug in the numbers. This is not thinking. It is not even useful.

There are vast numbers of equations that can be derived for dif­ferent physics problems. Not only can they not all be memorized, even by your hand calculator, but the student will not even know how to choose the needed one – without understanding the problem well enough to solve it. And, for most of the students, deprived of the benefits of learning to think which would have benefited them greatly, the course has almost no value at all.


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