Learn from Global Education

Today I stumbled upon a really interesting TEDtalk. Since it has been a while since I blogged about this topic – and this blog has come to mind regularly since – I figured this TEDtalk by Andreas Schleicher on global education systems was worth pondering, and thus writing. Do note that we are discussing high school education here. Yes; the basics.

The Talk!

First, here is the video in full. It is worth watching simply because it gives you a great idea of the global education playing field. Also, you get a great feel for your experience in comparison to education around the world.

Initial thoughts

Obviously I think: yeah this is cool! Think about it: the team with which this man works took the time and effort to compare, in some way, different global education systems. That is nifty. At the same time I, as any university graduate may agree upon watching the video, have my reservations about the utopia that aggregated data may show. Even though the system you are in may function well in comparison to other countries, it may not be the best education system for you. Or the best education experience for you.

Some highlights 

“We have such a hard time figuring out that learning is not a place, but an activity.”

That, I believe is a brilliant insight into the essence of education. It is something that is done. No matter what country your school is in, how wonderful the facilities are, or how great the teachers – a good education is available anywhere if you do it right.

“We wanted to test whether they can extrapolate from what they learn.”

In other posts I’ve covered how I feel about your ability to reproduce what you’ve learnt. This skill, or trick, should not be a measure of your education – yet it too often is. Rather, what you can create from with what you learn is more important. In life, as is also discussed in the video, the true test is applying what you know to novel situations or ideas. This is the hardest, and most satisfying challenge of learning.

It is not how much you spend, rather how you spend on education.

With similar budgets, according to the measures in this study, results can be very different. By investing differently elements of the system, thusly altering the machinery of learning, what the system produces changes.

“..the believe that all children are capable of success.”

This one really resonates with me. We know now that development of the brain is a continuous process and that what you are capable of today is but a glimpse of what you could accomplish tomorrow. Therefore, to give children the opportunity to develop as much as their potential as possible, seems a logical place to start. And the mindset that any child is capable of success is one of the cornerstones for this philosophy.

“… and nowhere does the quality of an education system exceed the quality of its teachers.”

This makes sense right? And yet, likely, this sentence gave you cause to think of how you perceive the teaching profession. In the Netherlands, it is unlikely that you are urged to pursue a career as a teacher. Not because it is not an honorable profession, because it is. No, likely because you are capable of earning more money elsewhere. This means that people with a gift for education may be pursuing careers where their talents are not being put to the best possible use for themselves or society.

Some afterthoughts

I have no idea what the measures were, how the researchers tested or any of the other requirements to make some sort of academic inference of the quality of their research. Yet,  the main message I believe should not be lost upon you. The quality of education, and thus the capacity for a better future, can be influenced by you today.

Do with it what you will. I know I will!

The reading myth – busted

The Student Achievement ProgramYou are not a filing cabinet! An interesting, brief article today. Even though the results were somewhat surprising, when I connect it to everything else I think I know about learning, here is what I think:

Depending on how you are tested, the way you study influences the test result, making learning a different matter entirely from academic performance.

If you are interested in learning and understanding, then spending time organizing and connecting information in your brain is the most effective strategy you can follow.

Your brain simply is not a library in which you can shelf books in order, to retrieve them in alphabetical order. Rather, it is a vast network of content like the internet and you can access most of this information by linking from one piece to another.

If you want to learn, to remember, and to apply what you have learned, putting information into a context you create matters. Relating new knowledge to which you already know is key, but you can only do this upon reflection (whether you reflect while you read or (right) after you finish reading, depends on your personal style).

We have already talked about deep processing and on using your brain’s strengths; in a way these are organization strategies. I think we have been drilled to think that organization  is synonymous to hierarchy. It isn’t.

The Student Achievement ProgramTrunks and leafs. If you were to sum up the parts of a tree, would you start at the bottom and work your way up; hierarchically from roots to crown? Or does an image of a tree come to mind from which you can associate the different parts you know (squirrel nests included!)? I bet its the second; because that is the easiest way for us to think. Why mind mapping is such a great tool to use when you study? It’s a summary in a language your mind understands.

Organization means putting things into your mind in such a way that you access the information and put it to good use. Regurgitating the the names and years of rule of Roman Emperors is not a useful feat of memory in every day life. But if you are trying to understand how the debauchery of Roman Emperors, or people in power in general, is related to the demise of an empire, perhaps being able to associate your way to a name such as Caligula, and examples of his excesses, can aid you in illustrating your case.

(We’ll talk more about metaphors and why they are so useful in learning at another time…)

To save time tomorrow, you have to spend some time today. Put your mind to work; learning is not like watching t.v., ok?! You don’t laugh when cued and switch to the next channel when you get bored. Be involved and take some time to work with your brain and pick any, but at least 2, of the following things to do when learning:

  • paraphrase what you read in your own words
  • ask yourself: What do I know about this topic already?
  • answer questions about the material after reading it
  • make mini mind maps of key terms and their descriptors
  • aggregate those mini maps into a large map outlining the main topics
  • build your framework of understanding, connecting what you know about the topic

Just remember: learning is not reading. Reading is a first step in learning. And now that you know what the other person thinks about something, find out what you think about it. 

Afterthought. As I changed the title to the blog to: Reading Myth – Busted, a thought crossed my mind, and I really want to share it.

We have all met someone who seemingly did not read all the material thoroughly, yet simply could reason her way to an answer. Could it be that this person had actually mastered the organisation of new information in such a way that she could quickly associate what she read to what she knew and therefore seemed to spend less time learning, when in fact, the learning was almost automatic? Just a thought…. 

Brainiac… what a trip…

The Student Achievement ProgramTime flies… Ok, so I got up around 6.30 a.m. this morning with the intention to read, and consequently write about conscientiousness. Since I had covered this topic in my master’s thesis, I thought a quick refresher would be a good basis for a nice, quick and readable blog. As it is now 10:55 a.m. I thought wrong. Not only did I get a quick introduction to the wonders of neuroscience; I also see that scientists are making great strides in understanding how our brain works. It is truly amazing; and perhaps worth digging into for future blogs. But to go out on a limb on such a precarious topic after having read two or three articles and a book on how the brain works, I think is a bit too brave. I’ll spend some time mastering this stuff, so the reading can be profound and interesting, not merely entertaining.

Conscientiousness pays. It is true, proven without a doubt. And interestingly enough, one of the two articles I read this morning gave an interesting perspective on GPA. Indeed maintaining a high GPA over an extended period of time is a tough task; it requires dedication and the ability to deal with a complex and rapidly changing environment, whilst experiencing undeniable changes to yourself.

True, if you look at GPA in this light, I can only agree that looking at the behavior, perhaps GPA is indicative of some level of conscientiousness. However, just as conscientiousness scores can be inflated on a test, so the validity of GPA can be cast into doubt as students with high GPA might obtain these results through not-so-valid-means… perhaps more often than educators think. As always, the truth is somewhere in the middle.

Back to conscientiousness. If you can describe yourself as hard working, organized, efficient and self-disciplined (Do you recognize in yourself a person with such ideal working ethics!?), then you are already halfway there. Don’t kid yourself; the research shows that you are able to inflate your score on this personality trait given a self-test. And obviously you want to see yourself as hard working, organized, efficient and self-disciplined… But are you really?

The Student Achievement ProgramIn coaching and training students for achievement, what counts is behavior. Not what you say you will do, but what you do. And just as important, how you do what you do.

And that is where conscientiousness kicks in. All though studies say as a personality trait it is constant during a lifetime, I am convinced by my own experience that conscientious behavior can be learned – and that you can apply it with success to achieve your goals and increase your performance.

In fact, if you were to self rate your conscientiousness level “low” before a training and intervention on this behavior and three months later, having changed your behaviors and routines to optimize your effectiveness, would you not rate yourself as more conscientious?

So perhaps, as a trait, it is stable (who am I to argue with scientific research, right?), but as far as the behavior goes – it is learnable.

Back to the brain. Interesting in this light was the note from the authors of an article that your prefrontal lobes are related to regulating social behavior and initiating and regulating goal directed actions. Does that sound like an abstraction of conscientiousness to you? It sure does to me…

You can train your brain and learn behaviors that will either obstruct your goal achievement or bring you closer to accomplishing your objectives. In a sense, you can train yourself to behave more conscientiously. It may take some effort, but in the end you are what you consistently do.

So what is my point? Even though snap shot tests like past GPA or self-rated conscientiousness may be in some way predictive of your ability to perform in the future, whether or not you perform is a different story all together. Understanding your level of conscientiousness is a tool, just like comprehensive reading or time management, and knowing where you stand is a good starting point to move to where you want to be.

Nothing in life is set in stone, in fact, high GPA is also proven to be a very poor predictor for real world performance, i.e. life… So don’t get stuck in the conscientiousness-influences-GPA-influences-my-future rut; there is more to life than getting good grades in university, but practicing your conscientiousness in university and getting good grades as a result will give you strong behavioral and psychological foundations for many of life’s wonderful challenges.

Let’s (re)define performance…

The Student Achievement ProgramWhat is possible? For you? When you want to increase your performance in university, what you are capable of today is not interesting. What you are potentially capable of is.

Setting clear goals for yourself helps (according to today’s article). All though I want to take care not to see goals and goal setting as a cure all to learning in university, goals are an important step in getting you to realize your potential. And that potential is greater than you think.

When you begin to set your standards for yourself, you want to work from where you stand today; what you know about yourself now, looking at your past performance and understanding your own potential.

Too often, I hear students talk about how good other students are, like they have some superhuman a ability to pass exams. Without studying. Sure… In my experience (seven years spent with some of the highest achieving students I could have ever met), the secret is called effort. Students passing exams without studying, are few and rare – if they exist at all. And if such genius appears in your class  you might want to think again about your frame of reference.

The other 99,99% of accomplished students get their results through effort and their ability to develop their mind. That’s it. These students look at what is possible for themselves; not in comparison to others.

Given that a bit of competition may feed your motivation, disappointment awaits you if you compete to outdo the other. There is little satisfaction there. Satisfaction comes when you outdo yourself, your own expectations; when you experience an increase in your ability. Seeing the results of your efforts is the greatest motivator there is.

The Student Achievement ProgramFocus on yourself. An obsession with competition is detrimental to your performance, because it forces you to focus on the other. And when you spend too much time thinking about the genius who is not studying, you lose time you could spend cultivating your own mind. To be competitive, you must focus on yourself. Olympic athletes, when you listen to their comments on their performance, generally have an clear idea of their performance and ability. They are very focussed on themselves, and know that they must give their all. That will determine their score in the end, not what their competitors do. To perform at their peak, athletes focus on their own strengths, not their competitors, and work constantly to perform at their very best.

The past does not equal the future. When you want to do the best you can, focus on yourself. You are a unique individual, and your starting point will determine your growth. What you are capable of today, and what you will be capable of tomorrow are related to each other but one does not define the other. Remember the growth mindset?

Going for your own goals, your own ambitions, requires dedication. Performance is nothing if it is not personal. You can be intensely proud of your growth, yet feel you have lost if you compare yourself to students who are ahead of you in their personal development.

When you focus on your own game, set your own goals and work towards them diligently and deliberately, that is when you succeed. The goal itself should not become the end, but a means to grow and learn from your experience. Do you know that studies show an increase in GPA simply by setting specific, clear goals for yourself?

Goal setting theories can explain why; a clear goal makes doing what is relevant to the goal and discarding what is not is easy. Goals bring focus to your actions. And focussed actions bring you closer to your goals.

How is this relevant to what is possible for you? The greatest threat to your growth is comparison. When you lose sight of your strengths and ability to get to the next level for yourself, you lose sight of your own potential. When you find yourself saying: I am not like the other, the smart one who get it all in one go; think again. In seven years, I have rarely met a student who truly excelled, that did not focus on her studies and work towards specific study related goals.

I can do this is probably the most powerful starting point in any learning endeavor, and saying It is hard, but that makes it worthwhile means that you know you have got what it takes. Do not compare yourself to others, they are not the competition. The real contest is in your mind – between your self-doubt and self-efficacy. Believing you are a winner means you have won half the game.

Performance is growth: going from where you are today to where you can be tomorrow. In the end, it is your capability to move yourself forward, not how well your peers are doing, that defines how far you will go. What is possible for you? Go find out.

When economists analyze learning…

The Student Achievement Program

Garfield – by Jim Davis

Simplistic arguments. This morning’s article was shockingly simplistic. Then again, when economists write about education and performance, certainly you expect to see a utility function (check) and a description of the world in a fixed state – that’s the way it is, people must act accordingly (double check).

Yesterday, throughout the day, I almost completed the audiobook on mindset. It warns you not to fall into a fixed mindset about your ability; rather through effort and practice you can develop yourself.

It’s the way it is. I do not think the authors of this morning’s article disagree with the power of education to improve performance: in fact, in the introduction of their paper they state that if someone acquires the appropriate knowledge and skills they will  do a better job.

The issue I see in their approach is that every recommendation to improve class attendance, which in this article is crucial to performance (GPA…?), tries to influence structure, not the people working in the structure.

Basically, assuming that innate ability (yikes!) is present, improving class attendance through timing, instructors and interaction are cure-alls for class performance measured through GPA (huh??). To top it off, the authors state that prior-GPA, grades from previous classes, are predictors of innate skills.

Obviously I disagree. Innate skills? Get out of here! Go to class and get a good grade if the teacher is popular? Not likely.

Certainly, the system of education consists of different elements, such as the student, the teacher, the classroom. Obviously it is complex, with many interactions occurring simultaneously.

Like a symphony – yet education now is an orchestra playing without a conductor.

But you as a student can develop your ability to learn; it is a skill, nothing more. Your brain is wonderfully adaptable, growing stronger as you use it more and more intensely. In fact, if you apply some techniques which help you use your brain more effectively, learning becomes easier and easier. There is no skill you cannot develop, and studying is a skill.

Is attending classes important to learning? I am sure it is – as is reading a textbook, or reflecting on any new information put forward. In fact, depending on how far you have developed a strategy to process the information in class; put together with the development of the teacher’s ability to instruct in a way that enables learning, classrooms can be very effective.

The Student Achievement Program


When the authors state that putting teachers with good ratings in classes boosts attendance, to my mind their argument goes awry. (Not to mention when students are described as customers…)

Responsibility for the instructor’s ability to instruct lies with that person. And like any skill, they can develop their ability to create engaging classrooms which foster learning. Rather that burdening teachers who have already developed such skills, institutions should invest in developing professors’ abilities to create learning environments that stimulate development and growth.

Responsibility for your ability as a student to develop your skill-set lies with you. Not only does a pallet of tools, strategies and tactics to choose from when studying any course increase your chances of learning more, more efficiently. There is more to it.

The Student Achievement Program

Tennis by Wii

Take tennis. There is hardly a ball that players like Federer, Nadal, Sharapova or Williams, cannot play. In fact, they practice their skills to the point where in any situation, they are likely to place the best shot possible.

The same goes for your repertoire of learning skills. You can read, write, and draw. How you mix these skills to truly learn and master the material your university offers is up to you. But given time and practice, you can improve your ability to learn quite a bit. And whether measured in GPA, or essays or multiple choice questions, the result will always be learning.

The starting point is learning, not performance. The starting point is growth, not steadiness. In learning nothing is fixed – and the sooner you understand that realizing your potential is in your hands, the sooner you can get started on growing it.

(P.S. it’s been almost two weeks of blogging! That’s right – day in day out for the past two weeks, I’ve put out a blog. That makes this number 10. Thank you for reading along and supporting me in this challenge. I am sure I’ll keep writing – and over the weekend I’ll go through these ten posts and see what’s in there.)

The search continues

I am trying to establish a link between study habits and study performance. Intuitively I understand that more time spent on studying leads to better performance; however performance is generally taken to be a measure of GPA or some sort.

That can’t be right. Perhaps in a small learning environment, where the student teacher interaction is intense and the GPA is a reflection of a students performance over a longer period of time, I would buy it. But in a multiple choice, one shot test environment, GPA is strongly overrated. At least, that’s what I think.

So, my first challenge: the measure of study performance. During the programs I have run over the past six years I have always urged students to study for the sake of learning. That in the end is the goal of studying, of attending university: to enrich your mind with knowledge and to develop an analytical and reasoning abilities*.

*Obviously if you are studying (performing) arts the knowledge and application is different. Then again, you master something else entirely. 

An interesting question comes to mind: How does a multiple choice test capture your reasoning ability…?

Now anybody who has ever failed a multiple choice test, only to retake it successfully some time later knows that an increase in preparation; studying more, focussing on cramming and memorization, and practicing the taking of an MC test will dramatically increase your performance.

Doesn’t anybody else get worried knowing that you can “learn to take a multiple choice test”? Like it is some acquired skills. Sometimes students are described as being “very good at taking multiple choice tests”… Is that a useful skill to have acquired during your lifetime? Sure it helps you get through university. Sure it boosts your GPA (hmmm…. a link???), but how does this skill contribute to your ability to reason your way to an answer when posed a question such as; what can explain the existence of mass.** Or rather, does multiple choice test taking aptitude contribute to your reasoning ability?

**Reference to a recent discovery in science of the Higgs boson. 


Source: Wikipedia – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:CMS_Higgs-event.jpg

If scoring on a multiple choice test is part skill, part knowledge, how well does it reflect learning?

I think the definition of learning will be explored in depth in a later piece (i.e. I’ve been up for two hours, read two tediously lengthy and uninspiring academic articles on the matter and want to have breakfast soon…), so let us move on.

My second challenge: what does mastery mean in the context education?

As far as I understand academic performance (measured in more than grades, mind you!), students who excel work to grow, both in intellectual capacity and in their aptitude to learn. These two are, all though I am still to find the academic foundations for linking these, in my mind related.

By challenging yourself to learn, you must find a way to process the information. This is aptitude. The more efficient you become at processing the material, the better it sticks in memory and allows you to build knowledge based on knowledge.

The whole concept of the Khan Academy is to take you from the foundations to more complex material, step by step. This is how knowledge is constructed; and it has nothing to do with high scores (performance) on standardized tests.


Coinciding with the increase of aptitude is your intellectual capacity to understand and apply this knowledge in your day to day life. Obviously applying your ability to think, to reason takes as much practice to develop as your ability to learn.

This is part of mastery in education; getting better at both acquiring and applying knowledge.

Is a GPA, then, really telling on how well someone has mastered the material? Perhaps it depends on how the number is derived; what kind of questions are asked of the student, and maybe just as important; how the student derives an – any- answer.

In trying to link study habits to study performance, perhaps it is important to consider what study performance actually is. Is it confined to grades and academic ability? Or is study performance, the student’s ability to accomplish feats of the mind, perhaps something more than GPA? And if so, why do we cling to this measure so desperately?

Questions, questions… with answers yet to be discovered.

Source Khan Academy image