Raising Smart Kids in Two Easy Steps

Slashdot links to a Scientific American article titled “The Secret to Raising Smart Kids: Hint: Don’t tell your kids that they are. More than three decades of research shows that a focus on effort—not on intelligence or ability—is key to success in school and in life.” (Apparently, SciAm likes long titles.) There’s a lot of work done in the margins on positive psychology, but two of the biggest factors are pretty simple:

  1. Make sure your mate is smarter than you
  2. Make sure your kid’s friends are harder working than him

Of course, the main purpsoe of parenting isn’t the creation of a high-achieving next generation. It’s love. But high achievement doesn’t necessarily hurt.

8 thoughts on “Raising Smart Kids in Two Easy Steps”

  1. Haven't read through all the links yet, but the first one does put my focus on one question I didn't really ask in my first comment for lack of time.

    The International Baccalaureate system– what is the intrinsic cognitive load needed to succeed in it? What about some of the other alternate curriculums I've heard bandied about- Montessori, Waldorf, Sudbury Valley, Catholic psycho nun teachers (jk!)- what are the intrinsic cognitive loads needed by their students? I'd ask about my local charter schools, but I don't recall the names of their curricula at the moment.

    Do these work only with students with high cognitive loads? Or do they just need parents who are willing and able to give their kids' educations their attention? In the latter case, have they ever tried mixing kids who don't have that attention into the student body?

    To sum up some of my concerns: How many of these schools are really hot stuff and how many are just coasting on a selective entry policy?

  2. Michael,

    I'm not familair with the IB system.

    Cognitive load is generally measured on a per-task, and just in the past few years have entire programs of trainign been subjected to CL

    Googling for both terms genreates some links [1] — I never contacted him, but Matt Wallaert (a CL reasearcher who had an IB education) may have some tips. [2]

    In general, the less “guided” instruction, the higher the cognitive load.

    “To sum up some of my concerns: How many of these schools are really hot stuff and how many are just coasting on a selective entry policy?”

    I don't know — but if they are really selective on intelligence/work and not just on parental income, it might not make much difference.

    [1] http://www.google.com/search?q=%22cognitive+load%22+of+%22international+baccalaureate%22
    [2] http://www.linkedin.com/in/mattwallaert

  3. It sounds a bit like cognitive load issues aren't about curriculum so much as the tools used within the curriculum (mind, I'm so far out of my depth here, I feel like Wile E Coyote:P). If so, I wonder if helping students with different capacities might not be so hard after all?

    One of my favorite math courses in high school was 'taught' in an unusual manner. Our teacher handed out text books and syllabi on the first day and told us to get to work. If we acted up, she dealt with it. If we needed help, we could ask for it (presumably where other tools for lower cognitive loads could be introduced). If we were doing well, we could go as far ahead of the rest of the class as we pleased. Class size was high, class diversity was high (this was summer school)– and my final grade was one of the best in all of my high school years.

    I can also imagine rearranging classes to reflect known talents as well as the material difficulty or stopping normal classes to hold tutoring sessions where the best kids help the teacher get the rest of the class caught up. *shrug*

  4. Regarding peers, methods include moving to a better school system (which typically involves swapping out one peer group for another), encouraging and/or discouraging specific relationships, etc.

  5. My local school district is looking at turning some of the low-performing schools into charter schools (magnet schools with International Baccalaureat curriculums, to be precise).

    I've no problem with this idea as far as their choice of curriculum goes– IB is supposed to be pretty good. What bothers me is the magnet part. Did it ever occur to try leaving them as regular neighborhood schools, but with IB? Or, more realistically, to keep Kindergarten as general enrollment and switch the rest of the grades back to general enrollment as those first Kindergarteners grow up? What about the two successful charter schools in the county? Why haven't the school boards tried applying their curriculums to general enrollment schools?

    How are troubled kids, who have trouble getting into magnet or charter schools supposed to HAVE smarter or harder working students to be around if the latter group's parents transfer them to other schools? How are we supposed to know the best way schools can help troubled kids- to the extent schools CAN help troubled kids- if they only try these curriculums on the smarter and better-parented students?

    Here's your soapbox back.

  6. Michael,

    There is probably a socially optimal range of hard work…. below it you are under-performing, and above it you begin to lose the ability to function in normal society. I am not sure what these limits are, but I will guess we have far more students below the minimum than above the maximum.

    Therefore, we have a limited resource — hard-working peers.

    How do we allocate this resource?

    One method would be to try to equalize outcomes, so put hard-working peers among low-performing peers, and get something mediocre as a result.

    Another method would be to try to maximize the best outcomes, put the hard-working students with other hard working students, somewhat hard working students with other somewhat hard-working students, etc. This is a variation of the “talented tenth” of W.E.B. DeBois, so of course it's applicable to all students regadless of race.

    Our current system is in between these.

    However, this leaves us with the students below the minimum threshold. One approach would be to attempt to remove peer interaction from the equation, by introducing a more regimented educational regime for these pupils. Reward and punishment actually do work, especially if you can medicate at the same time.

    Broader solutions require a cultural shift, and thus are beyond the limits of political imagination.

  7. Question is, is society even trying to help those kids? Mind you, I'm not blaming people who want to help bright kids succeed– in my more egotistical moments, I even fancy myself to be one of those bright kids:P But it's those kids at the bottom who need help the most, and who's lack of help costs the most (crime, welfare, etc).

    Has anyone tested curriculums to see which ones work best for kids in the un-talented tenth? Or to see which ones work best for classes with a mixture of all talent levels?

  8. We're doomed, I tell you. Doomed! Haha. All of this doesn't bode terribly well given my previous comments regarding the “you can do anything” culture. Link to the generations? (NeXters?) Well, it certainly happened during the prosperity of the 90's. For those who thank Clinton for that period, perhaps we should thank him for this too.

  9. “Question is, is society even trying to help those kids?”

    Politically, not really. Our traditional approach to the emergence of an underclass is to import equally unskilled but more ambitious workers through immigration. This stresses the older underclass, either encouraging it to rise up through increased competition (Afro-Carribeans, Chinese, Irish, Italians, Japanese, Koreans, Latinos, etc. etc.) or else fall further behind (African-Americans, American Indians).

    “Has anyone tested curriculums to see which ones work best for kids in the un-talented tenth? “

    (Keeping my answer to otherwise normal students who vary in general intelligence, and thus excluding trauma victims, etc, with more profound deficits…)

    Academically, the “cognitie load” [1] research program addresses this best. Cognitive load emphasizes the very limited working memory of all learners (recall that working memory correlates almost perfectly with general intelligence [2]). Therefore, it emphasizes forms of instruction that do not exceed the cognitive limits of learners. Thus they emphasize things like worked examples, clear presentation, etc.

    “Or to see which ones work best for classes with a mixture of all talent levels?”

    Cognitive load, however, is not trendy. It's not peer-based, not collaboration-based, not team-work-based, not discovery-based, not inquiry-based [3] It's based on adding knowledge upong knowledge, until an acceptable degree of expertise is reached.

    Cognitive underload is just as bad as cognitive overload. Thus, I am skeptical that instructionally sound classrooms can include learners who differ too much in g, in their working memory capacity. (Similar criticisms can be made of classrooms where learners vary too much in their experience of the course material.)

    [1] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cognitive_load
    [2] http://www.tdaxp.com/archive/2007/11/27/general-intelligence-working-memory-and-how-american-public.html
    [3] http://www.cogtech.usc.edu%2Fpublications%2Fkirschner_Sweller_Clark.pdf

  10. 1. check

    a. you can't totally determine kids' friends
    b. i haven't met any kids who are made to work harder by their mother (ie, to actually do what they should in school) than mine

  11. Sitting in an airport so I only have a few minutes, but weighing in: I would emphasize the structure of teaching over the individual curriculum in most cases. What made my education unique was not just the IB curriculum, but the fact that I was studying with others from 72 different countries, with a faculty just as diverse. Diversity of pedagogy is key.

    As an example, Kohlberg posited multiple intelligences, and many educators took that to mean that they should teach to the specific learning patterns of the child. The trouble is that the modern world requires us to be able to learn, work, and interact in modes beyond the ones that come naturally and are comfortable to us. Instead, the lesson of Kohlberg should be that we should try to teach in as many modes as possible at different points in our teaching, so that throughout the educational process, children alternately are relatively more or less challenged.

    Taking that example forward, I’m for diverse classrooms, in which the average student interacts with peers both more and less intelligent/hard working on a daily basis. Equally important is other forms of diversity, including socioeconomic, family/ethnic background, etc. Does that mean the most intelligent students should spend all their time with the least intelligent in order to try to find a happy medium? No. For me, it means that the most and least intelligent kids should still have some classes together and some classes where they can receive the education that caters to their individual needs.

    In sum, some things are good for everyone, and some things need to be customized. There is no easy rule for which is which, and I think that is an area where we need significant work to be done.

    As for cognitive load, it is a little problematic because cognitive load does different things for different people at different times. For example, it tends to enhance your performance for well-practiced tasks at which you are skilled, but inhibit performance for unfamiliar tasks. Since individual skill levels vary for different students, it is hard to consistently apply. At a macro level, however, I like the idea as it relates to teaching in the ways that I noted above: taking into account differing levels at some points, ignoring them at others. It is a difficult balance, and not one I have figured out, to both acknowledge differences and to occasionally use an “operational truth” of pretending that they don’t exist.

  12. Michael,

    Self-instruction works when the product of motivation and intelligence are high. This means that it would work well in schools that already produce high achievers, and probably work terribly in schools where students are already struggling.


    Thanks for the comment!

    “Kohlberg posited multiple intelligences,”

    Are you thinking of Howard Gardner?

  13. Matt,

    Gotcha. I wrote about Gardner's MI theory recently [1], so was wondering if I was seriously missing some source material!

    Good points on MI and cognitive load.

    My personal take is that the university system is so much better at sorting and educating than the secondary system in this country, we should scrap the adolescent grades and do over.

    (Of course, our system was designed for assimilation, not education, [2] so perhaps its unfair to grade it on a mission it wasn't designed for…)

    [1] http://www.tdaxp.com/archive/2007/12/29/howard-gardner-and-the-theory-of-multiple-intelligences.html
    [2] http://www.tdaxp.com/archive/2007/12/29/howard-gardner-and-the-theory-of-multiple-intelligences.html

  14. Remember, though, the math class I described was in summer school. That means you had kids striving to get ahead mixed with kids who flunked their previous try. As for motivation– ever watch the BritComs WAITING FOR GOD or CHEF? Imagine having Diana Trent or Gareth Blackstock for a teacher.

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