In her new, provocatively titled book, The Smartest Kids in the World, journalist Amanda Ripley tells the story of Kim, a 15-year-old Oklahoma girl who has the good fortune to spend a year going to school in Pietarsaari, on Finland's west coast. Kim is fortunate because she has landed quite by chance in a public school system that Ripley identifies as one of the world's best, a model of international academic performance year in and year out.
Ripley reports on Kim's experience, and on the lives of her Finnish classmates, as she tries to identify the reasons for Finnish kids' superior academic performance. (She reports on exchange students in Poland and South Korea as well.) Not surprisingly, these influences are varied and complex, but they basically come down to a "culture of rigor" that is notably lacking in poorer performing schools, including many in the U.S. Teachers make up an elite profession in Finland, where they are trained at the finest universities, and these teachers somehow convey to their students that learning is a serious and worthwhile business.
Ripley makes a convincing case for institutional change, especially for revamping teacher training in a way that validates the hard work of teaching kids. But how do such institutional differences actually play out in the Finnish classrooms? Kim's classroom was very Spartan, with basically no fancy technology to speak of. What are these high-quality teachers actually doing to motivate Finnish teenagers, and perhaps more important, what are the elementary schools doing long before the kids reach adolescence?
A team of Finnish psychological scientists decided a few years back to drill down and explore these important questions. Noona Kiuru and several colleagues at the University of Jyvaskyla suspected that the crucial student trait might be classroom "focus" -- staying on task and savoring challenge. They suspected further that supportive teachers -- as well as parents and classmates -- contributed to such focus. So they decided to follow Finnish kids as they progressed from first to fourth grade, to see if various forms of personal support led to classroom focus and determination, and in turn to excellence.
They started by evaluating the interpersonal lives of more than 2,000 Finnish-speaking first-graders. They wanted to know if the kids' mothers and fathers were at once authoritative and affectionate. They also measured and noted the classroom teachers' feelings toward their students, and finally, the quality of the kids' interactions with their classmates. Then, in grades two and three, the scientists asked the kids their thoughts and feelings about schoolwork: Do you enjoy challenging tasks? Do you actually like difficult assignments, or not? Does challenge make you try harder, or do you delay work? Do you prefer to do something else? And so forth. Their answers were used to rate their overall classroom focus. Finally, the scientists measured academic performance, in both language and math, in the fourth grade.
When they crunched all the data together, the results were clear and strong. As reported in an article to appear in the journal Psychological Science, each kind of personal support -- from parents, teachers and peers -- uniquely affected task focus later on. The more authoritative a child's parents were, the more positive the teacher's feeling were, and the more accepted a child was by friends -- all three of these relationships produced kids who were motivated and focused and persistent in their classroom work. And this attitude led in turn to higher academic performance in fourth grade.
There is an unhappier way to report these results, of course: The less support that kids got from parents, teachers and friends, the more avoidant they became -- and the poorer their academic performance later. This is consistent with earlier findings that kids who feel unimportant or rejected are more likely to feel frustrated, bored and alienated in the world of learning. They are not likely to be counted among the smartest kids in the world, nor are they the happiest.
Follow Wray Herbert's reporting on psychological science on Twitter at @wrayherbert .