Adventure in Normal Life / book reviews / intellectual

insights about MOTIVATION – sisu and pearls:: the smartest kids in the world:: Part 5

Today is National Teacher Day, a part of National Teacher Appreciation Week, so I thought it would be the perfect time to share the FINAL post about education in this series! Thanks so much for reading along.


Countries that are education superpowers have one thing in common: they believe in rigor. They agree on the purpose of school, to help students master complex academic material. To help students. Not to let them fend for themselves.

B recounted to me the woes of a young mother he knows whose son is in 1st grade in Mattapan, MA. She is a single mother who works full time. After one parent teacher conference, she was handed a pile of papers – worksheets her son hadn’t completed. The teacher voiced concern: something along the lines of, we’re worried he doesn’t know how to write sentences. When was he supposed to have completed the worksheets, and learn how to write sentences, she worried and wondered? The teacher replied, “at home.” At home?? Why not in the classroom?? The mom was discouraged – she keeps her son up late already wakes her son up early in the morning to do his homework that he brings home. She reads to him at night, she takes care of all the needs – when is there MORE time to do a pile of worksheets, for her to teach her son at home after a full day of work and in between school days? The teacher explained that there wasn’t time to cover all the material in class, so the kids were sent home to learn on their own. In 1st grade – can you believe it?

By contrast, schools in cities like Brookline, MA have been moving away from sending kids home with homework, with the philosophy that what kids need to learn should be done in the classroom.

Readers who have younger kids, or are young parents – what do you think- homework or no homework? How much? What kinds? I’d love to hear!

Schools in Finland are taking a really active and thoughtful approach to reform in the classrooms. See this news article on a really thought provoking and fundamental change to the way lessons are taught, coming by 2020. Subjects will be scrapped and replaced with topics – geography, history, and economics, for example won’t be separate subjects, but an integrated and more practical “European Studies” course, for example, would ideally teach space and time (geography), place and time (history), and world transactions (economics) in a woven way.


So schools exist to help children master material, and nothing else matters as much – and this means sports. Sports can teacher leadership and rigor, discipline, and contribute to physical activity – but so can academic pursuits. In fact, most American students don’t actually play sports. By and large, Ripley reports that in many US schools, “priorities were muddled beyond recognition” (118) such that rigor at schools was not so important.

Ripley describes an interesting perspective on the US in comparison to other countries where educational rigor is a major priority:

Wealth had made rigor unnecessary in the United States, historically speaking. Kids didn’t need to master complex material to succeed in life – not until recently, anyway. Other things crowded in, including sports, which embedded themselves in education systems, requiring principals to hire teachers who could also coach (or vice versa). The unholy alliance between school and sports pushed student athletes to spend extreme amounts of energy and time in training before and after school.

…Combined with less rigorous material, higher rates of child poverty and lower levels of teacher selectivity and training, the glorification of sports chipped away at the academic drive among U.S. kids. The primacy of sports sent a message that what mattered – what really led to greatness – had little to do with what happened in the classroom. That lack of drive made teachers’ jobs harder, undercutting the entire equation. (119).

Ripley comments on apparent parent values, and where they spend their time, related to school vs. sports:

We had the schools we wanted, in a way. Parents did not tend to show up at schools demanding that their kids be assigned more challenging reading, or that their kindgerarteners learn math while they still loved numbers. They did show up to complain about bad grades, however. And they came in droves, with video cameras and lawn chairs and full hearts, to watch their children play sports (191).

Sure, parents come to watch intellectual sporting events: science olympiads, or chess competitions, or drama, or debates as well. But from an academic standpoint, it does seem to be more about the grades than the learning.

This goes back to the age-old question of what do you value? 

One of the case-studies in this book refers to a Finnish study abroad. Interestingly, there is a Finnish word, sisu which conveys something like rigor, but from the standpoint of motivation and drive – it is an inner strength in the face of great odds, or a great fire. Words used to describe Finns in Time magazine in fact use words like “bravado”, “bravery”, “ferocity”, and “tenacity.”   

Sisu was what it took to coax potatoes out of the soil of the Arctic circle; Sisu had helped Finland pull itself back from the brink of irrelevance to become an education superpower. Sisu helped explain how a country smaller than Montana had invented Nokia, Marimekko, and the Linux operating system, not to mention the video game Angry Birds. Sisu was Finland’s version of drive, a quiet force that never quits. English has no word for sisu though the closest synonym might be grit. (154)

Impressive, yes, this sisu?

Aspirations, motivation, and drive – all these things can help kids who face environmental and social adversity to achieve. This makes sense.

What about disparities in education? We know they exist, for different socioeconomic statuses, for different races, even. Opportunities aren’t universal. But the effects on motivation would be striking, and correlations to markers of success- more so.

Each school day, African-American kids got the message in many schools around the country. It was subtle, but it was consistent: Your time is not precious, and your odds are not good. those kinds of signals took up residence in kids’ brains, echoing in the background whenever they contemplated what was possible. (159)

I truly hope that this isn’t the case – because it is very sad!

Kids who had high expectations for themselves, who planned to finish high school and go to college, were significantly more likely to graduate high school. In fact, their parents’ socioeconomic status didn’t seem to affect their graduation odds, statistically speaking, as long as they held these aspirations. (159).

What causes differences in motivation?

Racial disparities, however, aren’t the cause of the overall education gap in the US – 5/6 American kids are not African American.  Diversity can raise or lower test scores. Some of this depends on the education and income of parents, but also the history and immigration policies of the country.

The rest depended on what countries did with the children they had. In the United States, the practice of funding schools based on local property taxes motivated families to move into the most affluent neighborhoods they could afford, in effect buying their way into good schools. The system encouraged segregation. (160).

Yes, disparities exist – too much poverty, minorities not learning enough; parents, health care and nutrition all playing a role.  But the disparities narrative minimizes low aspirations. How would you make kids be motivated to study, when kids might be stuck with what they have? What if mostly low-income kids are together in schools which lack rigor?

Finland had figured out a way to motivate kids and teachers toward a clear, common goal with a rigorous matriculation test. Korea reroutes air traffic to make the sites for national exams quiet zones. Polish kids study on nights and weekends and arrive to exams not in the most comfortable clothes – no sweats in sight – but come in suits, ties, and dresses. They dress for success, and these students in other countries surveyed come from countries that all agreed to take school seriously, and that became the main motivation needed because “everyone agreed it should be”(191). Learning became a currency that bought freedom in these countries, whereas wealth in economic superpowers such as the US can get you places, or just buy it for you.

The consequences of the freedom wealth can buy versus learning are great and they WILL be noticed, one way or the other. Some examples of how this may be:

If not as freshmen in college, when they are placed in remedial math or struggle to follow a basic physics lecture, then in the workforce, when they misinterpret a graph at the bank where they work or miscalculate a drug dosage at a hospital nursing station. This revelation – that they lack tools that have become essential in the modern economy – will in all likelihood arrive privately, a kind of sinking shame that they cannot entirely explain.” (198)

Eye-opening, yes? It is a serious matter. And this can well serve as OUR motivation to make things better, here, in the US, at home. By exposing these matters, Ripley doesn’t want students or parents to take it as a personal failing. No one person can make it right, but many are responsible together.

Parents are teachers too and believe in rigor. They know that lessons learned “about hard work, persistence, integrity, and consequences – will serve a child for decades to come. (213). Failures – earlier rather than later – may breed resilience, and through them, success.

Having been involved in a Teaching as Research Fellowship, for graduate students, recently, the motivation to study education is so that teachers can continuously and iteratively change their teaching and make learning a dynamic and successful process for their students. This inspiration of what an educator should be is excellent.

World class educators have a vision for where they are going, tools to determine if they have lost their way, and a culture of perpetual change in order to do better. (217).

But let’s not forget who we are talking about here. Students.

Finnish schools aren’t diverse racially, and racial disparities aren’t the issue there so much as wealth. Regardless of the source of external difficulty, one teacher who was interviewed has a beautiful view of his students, a small portion of which are not Finnish and many of different social standings.

“I don’t want to think about their backgrounds too much. There are twenty-three pearls in my classroom. I don’t want to scratch them.” 

Students are pearls.

And with that final word, I conclude this series. Thanks so much for reading, and commenting along the way. If you missed any of the previous insights, you can find them at your fingertips below!

Enjoy, and Happy Teacher Appreciation Week!

insights about::–>

insights about:: the smartest kids in the world:: Part 1

insights about MATH:: the smartest kids in the world:: Part 2

insights about the EDUCATION OF TEACHERS:: the smartest kids in the world:: Part 3

insights about PARENTAL INVOLVEMENT:: the smartest kids in the world:: Part 4

4 thoughts on “insights about MOTIVATION – sisu and pearls:: the smartest kids in the world:: Part 5

  1. Wonderful insight into this book. I hope Amanda Ripley can see how you’ve digested it and provide some thoughts. Overall very motivational to press for better education.

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