What can schools learn from successful communities?

Amy Chua (of ‘Tiger Mother’ fame) and Jed Rubenfeld have analysed outlier communities in the USA and distilled what they have learned into a readable tome called ‘Triple Package: what really determines success.’ The book provides a fascinating insight into what makes particular communities successful, but I think it can also lend its insights to schools. After all, every school is a community: how can we create the conditions within our schools to leverage the success in our community felt by those outlier groups in society?

The three conditions found across a variety of outlier groups are:

  1. A superiority complex (‘a deeply internalised belief in your group’s specialness, exceptionality, or superiority’)
  2. Insecurity (‘The paradoxical premise of this book is that successful people tend to feel simultaneously inadequate and superior.’)
  3. Impulse control (or ‘the ability to resist temptation’)

One example group given are the Mormons: this group represent 1.7% of the US population, but are dominate in politics and business, with a few representatives breaking through in the creative arts (such as Stephanie Meyer of ‘Twilight’ fame). The roll call of successful Mormons is quite extraordinary, and Chua and Rubenfeld explain it in their possession of the ‘Triple Package’: while Mormons consider themselves a ‘chosen people’, they are also broadly rejected, ridiculed and side-lined by society (see: ‘The Book of Mormon’). Their church also inculcates a deeply ingrained work ethic, among other ways, by a two-year ‘mission’: ‘While other American eighteen-year-olds are enjoying the binge-drinking culture widespread on college campuses, Mormons are working six days a week, ten to fourteen hours a day, dressed in white shirt and tie or neat skirt, knocking on doors, repeatedly being rejected and often ridiculed.’ Other successful groups explored in depth in the text include Indian, Iranian, Nigerian, Cuban and Lebanese immigrant groups.

Here are some ways schools could harness each ‘Triple Package’ element for the benefit of their pupils:

Superiority

Like Mormons, ‘Jewish children were raised hearing… that they were God’s chosen people’. Their ‘outsider’ status (of which more below) instils a ‘chip on the shoulder;’ an ‘I’ll show them’ mentality. Although ‘superiority complexes are hard to maintain… All the forces of assimilation work against it,’ nonetheless it is worth cultivating a superiority complex in our schools. How do we do this?

We could repeatedly tell our kids they are special; different. In every school I’ve worked at teachers give pupils this message in a variety of ways – the most successful schools get their pupils to feel a sense of huge pride that they wear their school’s uniform, and not, for example, the school across the road. In my first school there was always a sense that you were different to others in the community because you went to our school. It helped that the school was massively oversubscribed, Ofsted Outstanding, with amazing results at GCSE and A-level. Other schools may have to try different methods to achieve similar results. At Michaela, we overtly tell our pupils: ‘you are not normal. You are Michaela.’ We want them to feel like the chosen people: by virtue of the school they attend, they are different, and destined for greatness.

 

Insecurity

The tension of the ‘Triple Package’ comes in ensuring superiority and insecurity are present; for the Jews, the obvious motivator of centuries-old anti-Semitism comes into play massively, as Chua and Rubenfeld refer to the ‘fear for their survival’ playing into a drive to do well. Another wildly successful group of over-achievers are Asian Americans, who ‘regularly report low self-esteem despite their academic achievements. Indeed, across America, they report the lowest self-esteem of any racial group even as they rack up the highest grades’ (the authors share one anecdote that: ‘Conversations at the dinner table read like status updates of outstanding Asian kids our family know. So-and-so’s son just got into Stanford…’).

Conversely, ‘Children brought up in self-esteem centred schools and families are not taught to endure hardship or to persevere in the face of failure. They’re sheltered from disappointment and rejection by devoted, exhausted parents who monitor their every move, desperate to make their kids feel “special”.’

What, as a school community, can we do to mimic this insecurity? In some ways, this is an easier feat for schools who are not Ofsted Outstanding, or who do not have the results to back up their superiority message. Such schools are the ultimate underdogs, seeking entry to the mainstream with the proof of their results.

At Michaela, we remind pupils that they have a long way to go. We are honest with them: pupils at private schools have parents who are paying up to £30,000 a year for their education: you can bet they will come out with some terrific results, and statistically they do. If our pupils slack or misbehave, we remind them of the consequences; when they don’t do their homework we tell them about their boarding school peers who simply do not have an opportunity to not do homework. Even within class, we can drive pupil insecurity by pointing out the gap between their effort and their more successful peers. Pupils need to be afraid: someone, somewhere else, is doing better than them. They need to raise their game.

 

Impulse Control

Most educators are familiar with the ‘Marshmallow Experiment’: children are told they can eat the marshmallow now, or wait and be rewarded with two. The children who are patient, who have ‘impulse control’, ‘go on to get better grades; spend less time in prison; have fewer teenage pregnancies; get better jobs; and have higher incomes.’ Interestingly, this test was re-run in 2012, with an addition: some pupils experienced an unreliable interaction with an adult prior to the test; so an adult told them they would bring them crayons to play with but didn’t follow through. Those children were then much more likely to eat the marshmallow straight away, not trusting that the adult would follow through on their ‘two marshmallows’ promise.

This is of interest because our pupils from poorer backgrounds have come to distrust the system, and ‘if people don’t trust the system, if they think society is lying when it tells them that discipline and hard work will be rewarded – if they don’t think that people like them can really make it – they have no incentive to engage in impulse control, sacrificing present satisfaction in hopes of future gain.’ In many schools, we are battling with an ingrained distrust of the values and possibilities we present to parents.

Yet we know from many studied that ‘willpower and grit prove to be better predictors of grades and future success than did IQ or SAT scores;’ and that ‘IQ is not a complete predictor of success. IQ without motivation lies fallow.’ The authors remind us that ‘impulse control is like stamina. If you ran five miles every few days for several months, you’d build up stamina, which would allow you not only to run farther, but to perform all sorts of unrelated physical tasks better than you could before… If people are made to do any impulse-controlling task – even as simple as getting themselves to sit up straight – on a regular basis for even a few weeks, their overall willpower increases.’

At Michaela, our pupils are instructed to sit up straight in every lesson, and can be issued with demerits for turning around or slouching in their seats. The impulse control ingrained through this one simple policy is extraordinary: visit our school, and you will see 100% of pupils sitting up straight for six solid hours a day, facing the front, rarely speaking, listening to their teachers and writing. Hands are raised to contribute to the lesson, but a pupil may speak only twice in an hour’s lesson; perhaps less in some (though much more in others). Despite this, pupils wait patiently with hands raised to speak, and calling out is prohibited. Homework and holiday homework is set through centralised systems which ensure very nearly 100% compliance and 100% of non-compliant children being issues with a sanction. Firm consequences reinforce positive habits and develop our pupils’ impulse control.

 

If we can harness each of these elements, superiority, insecurity and impulse control, we create pupils who know they are special, need to prove themselves, and develop the will-power and dedication to persevere despite difficulties. Such pupils, I believe, will become the outlier overachievers of our school system. But perhaps, after all, it is better to steer clear of the extremes set out in this survey, and rather focus on their calmer, simpler cousins: quiet confidence, humility and work ethic.

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Tiger Teachers

In Amy Chua’s Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, there are two key messages for parents and teachers. The first: hard work pays off. The second: strict discipline is the best way to ensure our kids succeed. Statistical evidence shows that Chinese kids are ‘stereotypically successful’: in 2014, Chinese children were the highest performing ethnic group, with 74.4% achieving 5 A*-C EM compared with the national average of 56.6%. What is the secret?

Chua notes: ‘In one study of 50 Western American mothers and 48 Chinese immigrant mothers, almost 70% of the Western mothers said either that ‘stressing academic success is not good for children’ or that ‘parents need to foster the idea that learning is fun.’ By contrast, roughly 0% of the Chinese mothers felt that way.’ The idea of learning as ‘fun,’ ‘discovery’ or ‘exploring’ does not seem to exist for Chinese parents. Throughout the book, Chua makes references to poor teaching methods holding Western children back: ‘While the other kids were learning to count from 1 to 10 the creative American way – with rods, beads and cones – I taught Sophia addition, subtraction, multiplication, division, fractions, and decimals the rote Chinese way.’ When Chua talks about skills, she explains: ‘I don’t mean inborn skills, just skills learned the diligent, disciplined, confidence-expanding Chinese way.’ Underpinning this comment is the highest of high expectations: children can learn anything, as long as they are taught it explicitly and drilled enough in it.

To those who may argue that not all children can be successful with hard work, Chua cites her sister Cindy, who was born with Down’s syndrome: Chua’s mother ‘[spent] hours patiently doing puzzles with Cindy and teaching her how to draw. When Cindy started grade school, my mother taught her to read and drilled multiplication tables with her. Today, Cindy holds two International Special Olympics gold medals in swimming.’ As the mother of young children, Chua notes: ‘As I watched American parents slathering praise on their kids for the lowest of tasks, I came to see that Chinese parents have two things over their Western counterparts: 1. Higher dreams for their children, and 2. Higher regard for their children in the sense of knowing how much they can take.’

And by ‘how much they can take,’ Chua is referring not only to how much children can learn, but how much discipline they can handle. Each of Chua’s daughters, Sophia and Lulu, play instruments; Chua, a professor of law at Yale university, attends every music lesson and every practice session at home, coaching, guiding and, in reality, shouting. The extraordinary results are achieved through this disciplined and strict practice. She explains: ‘What Chinese parents understand is that nothing is fun until you’re good at it. To get good at anything you have to work, and children on their own never want to work, which is why it is crucial to override their preferences.’ Furthermore, while Western parents worry about self-esteem, Chinese parents: ‘assume strength, not fragility.’

Chua’s harshness has been condemned in the media, notably when given a sub-standard birthday card, hand-made by her daughters. She quotes herself saying: ‘I work so hard to give you good birthdays! I deserve better than this. So I reject this.’ In a later letter, her daughter notes: ‘funny how some people are convinced that Lulu and I are scarred for life. Maybe if I had poured my heart into it, I would have been upset. But let’s face it: the card was feeble, and I was busted. That’s why, when you rejected it, I didn’t feel like you were rejecting me. If I actually tried my best at something, you’d never throw it back in my face.’

It is not easy to discipline children in this harsh way: ‘you have to be hated sometimes by someone you love and who hopefully loves you, and there’s just no letting up, no point at which it suddenly becomes easy.’ We believe exactly the same thing at Michaela. There are times when I really, really don’t want to give a pupil a demerit or a detention: I know how hard they are trying, even though they are still doing the wrong thing, and I love them so, so much. I’ve started saying in my head: ‘do I love them enough to give them a demerit right now?’ By turning our thinking from indulgence to discipline, I do think that in the long term our children will be more successful, not to mention more resilient.

For hard work is the gateway to future success: if a child achieves lower mark than wanted in a test ‘the Chinese mother would get dozens, maybe hundreds of practice tests and work through them with her child for as long as it takes to get the grade up to an A. Chinese parents demand perfect grades because they believe that their child can get them. If their child doesn’t get them, the Chinese parent assumes it’s because the child didn’t work hard enough.’ Even on holiday, Chua insisted on daily instrument practice, telling her children: ‘every day that you don’t practice is a day that you’re getting worse.’ She reflects: ‘Will Sophia recall with bitterness the time I laid in to her at a piano in Barcelona because her fingers were not kicking high enough? If so, I hope she also remembers Rocquebrune, where the manager of our hotel heard Sophia practising and invited her to perform for the entire restaurant that evening, overlooking the Mediterranean, [getting] bravos and hugs from all the guests.’

She rails against the indulgence of choice in Western parenting: ‘they just keep repeating things like “you have to give your children the freedom to pursue their passion” when it’s obvious that the “passion” is just going to turn out to be Facebook for ten hours which is a total waste of time.’ Children do not know enough to make the right choices, which is why indulgence will lead to lower academic success. Nearly half of young people are leaving school without even the minimum qualifications: this is a national tragedy, and something we need to take seriously. When Chua’s rebellious younger daughter gives up the violin in her most rebellious teens, her mother feels she has lost – but when she takes up tennis the coach comments to her: ‘she has an unbelievable work ethic – I’ve never seen anyone improve so fast. You and your husband have done an amazing job with her. She never settles for less than 110 percent.’ And today she, like her older sister before her, attends Harvard.

We want a happy ending for our children. But this means hard work, and discipline to ensure they do that hard work: ‘In Disney movies, the “good daughter” always has to have a breakdown and realize that life is not all about following rules and winning prizes, and then run into the ocean or something like that. But that’s just Disney’s way of appealing to all the people who never win any prizes. Winning prizes gives you opportunities, and that’s freedom – not running into the ocean.’

Winning prizes, passing exams: these give children choices. In the short term it is so very, very hard to be strict, to be demanding, and to not settle for less than 100%. At Michaela, we have very, very high standards, and are not afraid to tell our pupils: ‘that’s not good enough. Do it again.’ In the short term, it feels bad for them to have ‘failed,’ but the extra practice, and seeing the improvement in the second piece should stand them in good stead in the long term.

Chua writes: ‘All decent parents want to do what’s best for their children. The Chinese just have a totally different idea of how to do that.’ This resonates strongly with me: at Michaela, we do things totally differently. We all want our children to succeed, but we just have a very different approach.

Battle hymn