The Smartest Kids in the World

The Smartest Kids in the World: And How They Got That Way is the title of a new book by Amanda Ripley. Ripley has traveled around the world, to the countries where students consistently get the highest scores on international student assessments (like the PISA test of the OECD). In Finland, South Korea, Singapore, and more recently Poland, students far outscore American kids. Her key strategy is to follow “field agents,” U.S. students who are each studying abroad for one year–one in Finland, one in South Korea, and one in Poland. The take-home message is consistent with all of the previous research on schools in these countries: It will be very hard to replicate and adapt these models to U.S. schools.

Take Finland, for example. In Finland, only top students are admitted into teacher training programs. And the curriculum in these programs is rigorous and demanding. The teachers that graduate from these programs are trusted professionals, who are granted a high degree of autonomy to manage their own classrooms and make their own instructional decisions. In the United States, policy makers seem to be moving in the opposite direction–increasingly constraining teachers in a belief that they can’t be trusted with autonomy, and lowering the salaries and benefits so that the profession becomes less desirable to the top students. Top students will not choose a career that pays starvation wages. (Ripley’s book doesn’t visit Singapore, but Singapore is another country where teaching is one of the highest paid professions, and where the top students apply to teacher education programs.) If U.S. politicians truly want to follow the models of Finland and Singapore, they would be paying teachers a lot more, investing in schools of education, and granting teachers the freedom and autonomy to follow their training and instincts in the classroom. Anyone who has been following the U.S. news knows that our politicians are moving in exactly the opposite direction–cutting school budgets, removing benefits like tenure that help to attract talented people to the profession, and imposing top-down bureaucratic rules and guidelines that restrict teacher autonomy.

Ripley’s second country is South Korea. Like many Asian countries (including China), in South Korea all that matters is the high-stakes graduation exam. Ripley describes a situation that I have already learned about from Asian students in my university classes: After the school day is finished, students go immediately to an after-school “cram school” where they study for another 6 to 8 hours. Students were staying up so late at these cram schools that the government passed a law imposing a curfew of 10pm. The curfew is widely ignored, both by cram schools and by parents. I personally am a critic of this high-stakes exam model. I think it is blocking curricular innovation and change in many Asian countries. In particular, it makes impossible any attempt to introduce creativity to the curriculum. Ripley is a bit more positive; even though she calls it a “hamster wheel” she concludes that it prepares students for the modern world. I am not so sure.

The third country is Poland, which has emulated Finland in hiring only the best and brightest to be teachers, and by using a rigorous graduation exam. One thing that stands out in Poland is that schools only do academics. There are no sports teams, no marching bands, no big school musicals. And by the way, this is also the case in every other top-scoring country–schools focus on academics and nothing else. I remember years ago, an colleague told me about a conversation he had with a German professor. He was trying to describe what a cheerleader was, and for the German professor it just didn’t compute. When he finally understand what a cheerleader was, he broke out laughing. My colleague said “It’s hard to get a German to laugh, but hearing about a cheerleader made him laugh like crazy.” What does the football team and the cheerleading squad have to do with learning and education? My stepdaughter was on the cheerleading squad at her high school, and I have a sense that something valuable is being learned–about teamwork, about social skills, about community and leadership. But whatever is being learned, it’s definitely not going to show up on the international PISA assessment.

In the New York Times book review, Annie Murphy Paul (8/25/2013) calls this a “masterly book” with a “startling perspective.” I agree that any politician and policy maker who is serious about school reform needs to learn the real story about what’s going on in these other countries. I’m pretty sure that the U.S. doesn’t want to emulate any one of these other countries. I doubt anyone will advocate getting rid of high school sports, for example. Or will advocate that our children spend 8 hours every night, after school, cramming for the graduation exam. But the core take-home message of this book is that school reform will not be easy. It won’t be a matter of tweaking around the edges. It will involve dramatic change and radical innovation.

Re-imagining the College Degree

What is the definition of a bachelor’s degree? At least in the United States, you receive a bachelor’s degree by completing 120 credit units with a passing grade point average.

So what is the definition of a credit unit? One credit unit equals one hour each week in a room with an instructor, for a total of 15 weeks (corresponding to one semester). Most university classes are three credits, which means you spend three hours each week–“contact hours”–in a room with the instructor. The usual expectation is that for each contact hour, a student will also spend two hours of work outside of class time–reading and studying or working on a project or assignment.

To get 120 units in four years–eight semesters–you need 15 credits each semester. (Or ten credits a quarter, if your school year has three quarters, like the University of Chicago.) With two hours of out-of-class time for each of those contact hours, a full-time student should be spending 45 hours each week, which roughly corresponds to a full-time job, so that seems about right.

But why should this be the definition of a college degree? The 120 credit unit rule is an “input based” definition, meaning it’s a measure of how much input (instructor contact hours) students are getting. Contrast this with an “outcome based” definition, which would define a college degree in terms of what the student had learned and achieved. Let’s say we had a college exit exam–something like the high-school exit exams that some states administer, like the New York State Regents Exam. If you pass the exam, you get a college degree–regardless of where and how you acquired the skill and information necessary to pass the exam.

This alternative is being seriously proposed by some influential people and organizations, according to a story in the Wall Street Journal.* A new SAT-like assessment, called the Collegiate Learning Assessment or the CLA + for short, is “the latest threat to the fraying monopoly that traditional four-year colleges have enjoyed in defining what it means to be well educated” (according to the WSJ). The group behind the test is the Council for Aid to Education, a New-York based nonprofit that was once part of Rand Corporation. Anyone can take the test for $35 whether or not you have ever set foot in a classroom. However, unlike most college degrees–where your major is evidence of content-area mastery–the CLA + assesses general abilities like critical thinking, analytical reasoning, document literacy, writing, and communication.

Outcome based measures like the CLA + are, in part, a response to concerns about grade inflation and about the perception by some employers that colleges aren’t doing a good job preparing graduates for the 21st century workplace. ACT, the nonprofit that administers the college-admission exam, has its own National Career Readiness Certificate, which also measures general abilities like synthesizing and applying graphical information. A recent study found that over 25% of businesses are using the GRE–designed as a graduate school admission test–to evaluate job applicants with bachelors degrees. The MacArthur Foundation has provided funding for a series of “badges” (think of scouting’s merit badges) that each affirm mastery of a specific skill set. Last Thursday, President Obama said he wants the federal government to develop a rating system based on student outcomes.

If this ever comes to pass, it will open up opportunities for all sorts of higher education innovation. MOOCs are in the news today, but it could be another technology or learning design tomorrow. Do you think this will really threaten the traditional campus-based university?

*Douglas Belkin, “Colleges Set To Offer Exit Tests.” WSJ, Monday, August 26, 2013, pp. A1, A2.

Trade Shows Make You More Creative (If They’re Not Your Own Trade)

I’m in Chicago to deliver a keynote tomorrow morning at McCormick Place, the huge convention center on the South Side of Chicago. My event is called “The Collaborative” and is organized by Maritz Travel. I arrived early today, and I discovered that there were several other conferences taking place at this cavernous facility, completely unrelated to my own business and research. But I like to practice what I preach, so I took this as an opportunity: In my new book Zig Zag: The Surprising Path to Greater Creativity, one of the creativity techniques that I recommend is to attend trade shows that are totally different from your own daily business. So I walked around and asked questions, and I learned all sorts of things that have no obvious benefit to me whatsoever…but paradoxically, these strange bits of information are the secret to creativity.

One show was already open today: It is the American Public Works Association (APWA) annual meeting. The attendees are cities and municipalities, and people that sell products to them. I walked through the vendor exhibition booth, and I saw huge snow removal vehicles, augurs for digging sewer lines, temporary construction barriers, and solid waste disposal technologies. This was very big equipment, and it was fascinating!

Another conference starting in a few days is Print Expo 2013. At the bar, I chatted with a guy who works for one of the largest “finishing” companies in the U.S., Standard of Andover Mass. I learned that “finishing” is anything that happens to paper after it’s already printed–cutting, folding, stamping. I learned so much about how the business has changed in the last ten years. The guys sitting on my other side at the bar were from the APWA conference; they were with a vendor from Minneapolis that sells treated lumber for bridge construction and salt storage. (Salt that’s used to melt icy roads in the winter.)

So what does this have to do with creativity? The research shows that great ideas always come from combining very different areas, professions, and disciplines. And in many cases, new insights come by analogy–when you adapt a solution from one field to a totally different field. Most likely, the things I learned today will never translate directly into a clear creative outcome. But the thing about creativity is, you never know…any one of these conversations, or the ones I might have next month, could spark a new insight that might not happen any other way. Never miss an opportunity to learn something new.

Building a Better School Day

Parade Magazine is a U.S. weekly magazine that’s inserted into hundreds of local newspapers each Sunday. On August 11, their cover story was “7 inspiring ideas for a new and improved 21st-century classroom.” Because I do research as a learning scientist, and I’ve written articles with titles like “The Future of Schooling,” I read this story right away. Parade Magazine got it exactly right with these seven ideas:

  1. Begin the day with breakfast. Only 50 percent of middle schoolers and 36 percent of high schoolers get a regular morning meal, even though nutrition researchers say that breakfast improves cognitive function (Gail C. Rampersand).
  2. Emphasize learning, not testing. Too much of the school day is devoted to test prep, and subjects that don’t appear on state-mandated tests are being dropped from the curriculum (art, foreign language, science, history). (Diane Ravitch, Paul Tough)
  3. Teach 21st century skills. Emphasize long-term projects; use technology to solve problems; make classes multidisciplinary (Will Richardson).
  4. “Flip” the class. Students watch short videos of lectures at home, and then spend class time engaged in interactive labs and discussions.
  5. Say “Yes!” to recess. Taking breaks enhances the effectiveness of learning during the rest of the day.
  6. Get Creative! Creative pursuits engage different parts of learners’ brains, and contributes to problem solving and critical thinking skills.
  7. Go longer-and better. The school day should be expanded to match the long work days of two-career couples–up to ten hours a day (as at Hilton Elementary in Baltimore) but you can’t do the same old-style instruction all that time. The day should include eating, exercising, creative work, as well as core subjects. And one additional benefit: This can close the achievement gap, because affluent students are already getting a broad variety of after-school classes.

Kudos to reporter Michael Brick! I hope this article is widely read.

*Michael Brick, “Building a better school day.” Parade Magazine, August 11, 2013, pages 8-13.

How Songs Get Written

I just published my new book Zig Zag: The Surprising Path to Greater Creativity a few months ago. And when you’re writing a book, whenever you see a story that aligns with your message, that story jumps out at you. I’ve seen lots of zig-zag examples of the creative process throughout my career, and that’s why I chose this name for the book–to emphasize that the creative process is never linear, but always follows unpredictable twists and turns. But until Friday’s Wall Street Journal, I didn’t know the story of the song “Midnight Train to Georgia” that was a big hit for Gladys Knight and the Pips in 1973. The lyrics would make anyone tear up, as the singer decides to leave her life in Los Angeles to join her boyfriend, an aspiring singer who has failed and given up and is moving back to his small home town:

“And I’ll be with him

On that midnight train to Georgia

I’d rather live in his world

Than live without him in mine.”

A lot of us think of songwriting as a solo, solitary pursuit–some tortured soul, poring out their inner spirit. Or, perhaps writing something autobiographical about an event they experienced. The story of this song’s creation couldn’t be more different. Jim Weatherly, the song’s composer, was friends with Lee Majors, an actor who was dating the model Farrah Fawcett. One night in 1970, he called Lee; Farrah answered the phone. She said she was packing to take a midnight plane to Houston. Weatherly liked the sound of the line; after hanging up, he grabbed his guitar and wrote “Midnight Plane to Houston” in about 45 minutes.

Weatherly shopped the song around to various singers and producers, and singer Cissy Houston wanted to record it, but wanted to make the title sound more R&B–she and her producer suggested “Midnight Train to Georgia.” As she put it, “my people are originally from Georgia and they didn’t take planes to Houston or anywhere else. They took trains.” Weatherly was fine with that.

Gladys Knight also liked the song, and asked producer Tony Camillo to produce it for them. Gladys Knight liked Cissy Houston’s version, but wanted more of an Al Green type of feel–moody with lots of horns. She also wanted to change the lyrics. She checked in with Jim about each change; “Jim was cool with everything. He allowed us that freedom.”

All together now: Zig Zag, Zig Zag…the creative process is never linear, never a straightforward and obvious path to the final work.

*Marc Myers, “How the midnight train got to Georgia,” Wall Street Journal, Friday August 9, 2013, page D5.

Adhocism: The Case for Improvisation

I’ve just returned from Philadelphia, where I gave a half-day workshop on collaboration and innovation–to a very impressive group of mid-level executives working in the education sector. They were students in a part-time doctoral degree program called the “Chief Learning Officer” program–a business education for folks who work on education, training, and learning.

We have been having unusually pleasant weather in most of the United States in recent days. Normally this time of year is extremely hot–35 degrees Celsius is a very typical day (95 F)–but lately the daily high temperatures have been around 27 (80 F). So I was taking a stroll around the Penn campus, and to my surprise I passed an actual independent bookstore, the Penn Book Center. Most stores like this were put out of business years ago by the big box chains and now, by Amazon.com. Just a few minutes in the Penn Book Center reminded me how much we lose when independent booksellers disappear: On the front table, I saw for sale the 1972 book Adhocism: The Case for Improvisation, by Charles Jencks and Nathan Silver. For me, this was like the heavens opening up and angels singing.

Most people probably have never heard of this book, but in graduate school in the early 1990s, when I first decided to do my research on improvisational creativity, Adhocism was one of only about two or three books that I could find on improvisation–and I looked all over the University of Chicago’s very extensive research libraries. Adhocism is very much of its time (i.e. the late 1960s) and for the authors, street protests and “happenings” were examples of adhocism. (There is actually a photo of Woodstock, on page 100, with this quotation repeated from Time magazine: “Youth community is an ad hoc thing: it is suspicious of institutions and wary of organization, prizing freedom above the system”.) There are many photos of folk art, or structures that “the people” make when they don’t have the wealth, power, or resources to do it the standard, appropriate way. For the authors, improvisation is about pluralism in a fragmented modern world. (Of course, they cite Claude Levi-Strauss and his concept of bricolage.)

The Penn Book Center had a new (2013) expanded and updated edition just published by the MIT Press. If not for this wonderful weather, and this great bookstore, I would probably never even know the book had been republished. And it stands the test of time, because this 1960s stuff is a veneer that is easy to look past. What makes the book genius is that Jencks and Silver truly understand what’s at the core of improvisation and emergent, group creativity. The two authors work as architects–and many of their photos are indeed of buildings–but reading the book again, it really is a book about design, design processes, and design languages. (The first edition was sold as an architecture book, but for this second edition MIT press wisely and correctly released it with their “design” list.) Another reason the book stands the test of time is that Jencks and Silver are architectural theorists, and their work is solidly grounded in a broad range of sociological theory. For example, in a section starting on page 97 titled “Self-directing groups,” we read about the anarchist Bakunin’s critique of Marxism, followed by a quotation from Noam Chomsky, and then Rosa Luxembourg’s critique of the Bolsheviks–all of them aligning with self-directed, emergent improvisation, and unified against centralized, state power. And, in some ways the concept is even more relevant today than it was in 1972, with mashups and remixing deeply ingrained in contemporary artistic culture.

I suspect this is one of those books that is more talked about than actually read. But it deserves a wider audience, and I hope this second edition spreads the word. Adhocism rules!

Adhocism (1972) was criticized by some for pointing out the obvious, which is indeed what we set out to do. Our excuse is that the obvious, like the new clothes absent on the emperor, was by no means acknowledged, and there was a conspiracy of silence or even widespread collusion against the naked truth….A denied obviousness once revealed can only seem obvious.”

–Afterword by the authors, page 212

How to Educate Yourself for Creativity

At Hamilton College, first-year student Bret Turner asked a music professor, “Why is music important?” He got such a passionate response, he developed a long-term plan: He would talk to EVERY teacher on the campus, and ask them that same question. He just graduated May 2013, and he’d had the “why is your field important” conversation with 200 of the 223 professors at the college.

Why did he do it? He says “I have shallow interests”–he wanted to know a little about a lot. And after all, isn’t that the goal of a liberal arts education?

The reason why this is so great for creativity is that research shows that the most creative people are the ones that know a little bit about a lot of things. Sometimes I think of them as “professional dilettantes”. The trendy term for such people is “T-shaped thinkers”–the vertical bar of the “T” shape symbolizes that you need depth and expertise in one narrow thing, and the horizontal top bar indicates that you need shallow knowledge of lots of different things. If you have only specialized expertise, but you can’t talk to anyone outside of your area, you won’t realize your full creative potential.

So with Bret Turner, what about the vertical bar, the deep expertise? He ended up majoring in chemistry—but only after having his conversation with a really energetic chemistry professor. The most creative people do develop a strong expertise in a chosen field.

(Come to think of it, this creativity research provides a rationale for the course requirements of most U.S. universities–where you have to specialize in something by declaring a major and taking lots of courses and developing expertise; but you also have to take “general education” or “distribution” requirements, that provide the horizontal bar of the T.)

*I read Bret Turner’s story in the New York Times Education Life of Sunday, August 4, 2013.