Wednesday, 26 March 2014

Review: The Smartest Kids in the World, by Amanda Ripley

I was very much looking forward to reading Amanda Ripley's The Smartest Kids in the World: And How They Got That Way. My eagerness stemmed from the fact that I'm currently studying my Masters of Teaching. One of my main areas of interest has been the comparison of different education systems from around the world in order to understand how the Australian education system can be adjusted for the better. The Smartest Kids in the World concerns itself with just this issue, though given that Ripley is an American investigative journalist, her main focus is on how the education system in the United States compares to other international education systems.

Ripley selected Finland, South Korea and Poland as her main case studies in the book. Finland and South Korea were chosen as students in both countries are some of the best performing ones in the world, based on the international PISA tests which examine the skills and knowledge of 15 year olds from around the world. Yet, both countries have diametrically opposing approaches to education. Finland is renowned for its prestigious, select-entry teacher training colleges, and students are generally not expected to complete homework. Conversely, South Korean students are renowned for spending the majority of their school life cramming in study, spending up to 16 hours a day doing so. Interestingly, the students in both of these countries were not in such a privileged position twenty-odd years ago. How have they come so far? This is the question at the heart of Ripley's book. Hence, Poland makes for an interesting inclusion as it mirrors the positions that Finland and South Korea were in prior to their educational dominance, showing the potential to reach similar positions.

A graph representing how various countries have fared internationally in education. Similarly to the US, Australia has improved relatively little in the past 50 years.

In order to contextualise her research, Ripely follows the stories of three United States exchange students to these respective countries. Such an approach provides an intimate and honest insight into what it's like to learn in these countries firsthand. While for the most part this was effective, at times I did feel that Ripley's own voice took over from the students' ones, causing me to question the genuineness of the position she was attempting to portray as theirs.

Regardless of this, Ripley's findings are quite surprising and incredibly fascinating. So much so that my own copy of the book is riddled with post-it notes from all of the points I wanted to return to at a later stage. Now do not fear, because I won't pummel you with all of the points of interest I came across right now. Instead, I've decided to focus on a select few to capture how expansive this topic is:

'The quality of an education system cannot exceed the quality of its teachers' (p.63).   The success of the Finland's education system in particular can be attributed to the extensive teacher training that occurs prior to becoming a qualified teacher. Entry to teacher training colleges in Finland is so highly selective that it is akin to how difficult Medicine or Law school courses are in Australia. Such an approach reflects how seriously Finnish society considers education, by ensuring that the teachers who will influence future generations of students are only the best of the best. This reality provides students, parents and even policy makers with the confidence that these teachers have been thoroughly trained and deserve the utmost respect for this. Again, think of how revered Doctors and Lawyers are in Australian. In turn, thorough professional training (which continues throughout their career) equips teachers with the skills to cope with adversity in the classroom. It's really a win win situation.
Educational success requires rigour.                                                                       Achieving good results is hard. It requires a lot of effort. But students who do well are rigorous with their studies. Rigour is not only an important element of education, but of life itself. It teaches perseverance, particularly in times of failure. Yet in the current educational climates of Australia and the United States, it's almost impossible for students to fail. Instead, we cotton-ball them and teach them that there aren't really any consequences if they chose not to put the required effort into things. Such an approach is not benefiting anybody.  
When the going gets tough, it's only education that matters.                                              Ripley attributes the severe economic crises that Finland, South Korea and Poland have all faced for their educational successes. For, these countries appreciate how important education is in empowering nations, and how this can positively impact on a nation's economy. Unfortunately this realisation hasn't occurred in countries like the United States (or arguably Australia), who haven't experienced economic crises and/or high levels of illiteracy to the extent that the aforementioned countries have. Hence, there's been no real reason for education to be overhauled and reformed in countries like Australia and the United States. The consequence of this is that students have become used to getting away with not doing what's expected of them, because there'll often be ways out for those not willing to put in the effort (such as going on the dole). This links in with my previous point regarding rigour, and Ripley puts it well when she states, 'Wealth has made rigour optional in America' (p.192).  
Students need to be set high expectations.                                                                           If students are set these, then they are more likely to aspire to them and achieve high results. Unfortunately the opposite is true if teachers set unchallenging tasks, as this suggests they have low expectations of students, and thus students will not strive for high results. There is an abundance of research that affirms this. Part of the challenge that Ripley attributes to this is the lack of trust adults seem to have for students in countries like the United States, which effects the mutual levels of respect each party has for the other. But if we can learn to trust our younger generations, such as the Fins do, and firmly believe they are capable of achieving high results, as the South Koreans do, then positive outcomes will develop. 
'When looking for a world-class education, remember that people always matter more than props' (p.215). Of the four focus countries in this book, the United States spends the most amount of money per student. Yet, as Ripley discovers, this expenditure is having little effects on how well students are performing in schools. If anything, it is unnecessarily distracting all those involved in the education system. For, Finland, South Korea and Poland have all managed to become successful while also maintaining relatively traditional, no-frills approaches to schooling. This was probably one of the points that challenged me the most out of the book, particularly as much of the emphasis in my Masters of Teaching has been on steering away from such formal approaches to teaching. But it's also reassuring in that it suggests schools don't need fancy gadgets or state-of-the-art resources for students to do well. 

Overall The Smartest Kids in the World was a fantastically informative and enlightening introduction into various education systems from around the world. There is a clear message that if nations want their education systems to improve, a dramatic shift in how education is understood and valued by society as a whole is required. At the same time I didn't agree with everything Ripley proposed. My main gripe was that the book focused too heavily on the idea that educational success is based on how well students fair in traditional, old-fashioned tests, where in fact this is only one of many ways to measure student learning and potential. While tests like PISA are incredibly comprehensive, they can only measure so much, and its limits do need to be considered when praising the successes of particular nations.

The Smartest Kids in the World provided some incredibly powerful and significance points to reflect on in terms of the Australian education system, and how we can think differently about the ways we can achieve educational success. Reading it has been particularly poignant given that I'm currently undertaking my Masters of Teaching, and has left me hungry to learn more about this area. I highly recommend it to anyone who has works within, or has an interest in, the education system.

Friday, 14 March 2014

Author talk: Elizabeth Gilbert

Last week I attended my first author talk*. The author was Elizabeth Gilbert, who is best known for writing the international phenomenon, Eat, Pray, Love. However, this evening wasn't about her previous book. Instead, it was a discussion about her latest creation, The Signature of All Things.

Prior to attending the author talk, I had watched an interview with Gilbert online. She spoke so eloquently about a number of different subjects -  from what it's like to become an international phenomenon after being an underrated writer for many years, to what it's like being a female writer in this day in age - that I was completely charmed by her by the end. Thus at the interview's conclusion, I thought to myself 'I would very much like to meet this Elizabeth Gilbert - she's so intelligent, witty and delightful to listen to.' So when the opportunity came up to be in an audience at one of her events, I had to attend.

While the main topic of conversation for the night was Gilbert's new novel, I've actually decided to focus on another aspect of the evening instead. That is, the wisdom and knowledge Gilbert shared with us incidentally as a result of the questions she was asked in question time. Some of the thoughts she shared came from her own life experiences and the values her family instilled in her, some that friends have shared with her throughout the years, and some were from the research she conducted for her most recent novel. The points I've focused on are ones which resonated with me the most for one reason or another, and Ms. Gilbert, if you happen to come across this post and feel that I've completely butchered your words, I sincerely do apologise.

So without further ado, I'll now share the points that resonated with me the most from the night:
1. Throw yourself into what you want to do confidently and wholeheartedly. Gilbert related this to females in particular, who she thinks can sometimes be detrimentally cautious and hesitant in trying things they haven't before. Without wanting to perpetuate negative stereotypes, Gilbert compared such an approach with that which men take, who can often be unnervingly confident in their own abilities, regardless of their experience in a particular area. More women should confidently throw themselves into new situations.
2. Get out of your own way. It's another way of saying not to be your own worst enemy. The context of this comment was an audience member's question to Gilbert, asking what advice she would give to budding authors who are nervous about publishing their work. Gilbert's response was that she couldn't imagine why someone would work on something so hard only to not have it published due to nerves - if you've created something, share it with the world! Don't allow yourself to be the last obstacle that's stopping your creations from being shared.
3. Done is better than good. An extension of the previous point, Gilbert's philosophy is that if you have something creative in you that you want shared with the world, then finish it and share it. It's ok if it's not exactly how you envisaged it to be - perfection is rarely attainable. But at least once it's done, it's out there for others to enjoy. 
4. An author creates jewellery for other peoples minds. This beautiful analogy resonated with me so much because it articulates how special I think books are. The fact that I also really like jewellry helps.
5. We were given imaginations because a mysterious source wanted a way of communicating with us. This idea is paraphrased from the evolutionary theorist Alfred Russell Wallace. While 99% of evolutionary theory can explain why humans are the way we are, it cannot explain why we were given imaginations and the abilities to be as creative to the extents that we are. Thus, this was Wallace's suggestion. It blew me away.

It was advice and ideas like the ones just mentioned that made this evening such an enjoyable one. I felt stimulated, empowered, and excited about the future of women's writing. It also confirmed how knowledgeable, entertaining and thought-provoking Elizabeth Gilbert is, not to mention how wonderful she is to listen to in person.

My own shiny new signed copy of Gilbert't latest book

If you haven't attended an author talk yet, I would highly recommend it as well. It's such a wonderful opportunity to spend some intimate time with an author; to get a sense of the person behind the jewels your mind has enjoyed. This event was organised through The Wheeler Centre in Melbourne. To find out about more upcoming events such as this one, visit their website.

*I have to say that I feel like 'author talk' is quite an awkward expression for an event of this nature. Doesn't it sound awkward to you? However, Google assures me that this is the correct term, and I haven't got any better ideas, so it'll have to do for now. 

Tuesday, 4 March 2014

Review: The Railway Man, by Eric Lomax

The past few months have welcomed many firsts for me in terms of reading. Previously, I hadn't read many non-fiction books. Nor had I read many memoirs. The same went for books of essays. However, I've slowly started experimenting with and reading a wider variety of genres, including the ones just mentioned. With my 'have read' collection being in the midst of a serious genre expansion, and considering I received Eric Lomax's The Railway Man for Christmas, I thought what better time than to continue expanding my reading horizons, this time with a wartime memoir.

While I was excited to commence reading this new book and genre, I was also a little bit nervous. Would the narrative draw me in enough? Would all of the military and train jargon go over my head? Would the accounts of torture be too gruesome for me to get through? Would the fact that I dislike war and what it stands for hinder my ability to enjoy the story? I knew these concerns were petty, yet I couldn't help thinking them. However I needn't have worried, for Lomax's story was crafted so eloquently and told in such an accessible way that I was glued to it from beginning to end. 

The Railway Man is the remarkable story of Lomax's life, focusing largely on his time as a Prisoner of War (POW) along the notorious Burma-Siam line during the Second World War. Also known as the 'Railway of Death,' around 12,399 Allied POWs and 90,000 Asian civilian labourers died in its construction. Lomax himself only just survived the harrowing ordeal, spending over three years captured and tortured by the Japanese in various POW camps along the railway. For those of you unfamiliar with the chilling history of this line - a line that was never even completed - I'll borrow Lomax's words to describe it to you, who states that 'it was not only the last cruel enterprise of the railway age, but the worst civil engineering disaster in history.'  (p.98)

While a large portion of The Railway Man deals with the atrocities of working along this Death Railway as a POW, reading about what Lomax went through - which was unimaginably horrific - was never to much for me to bear. Instead I was completely gripped by his story. That's very much due to Lomax's highly skilful writing and his ability to communicate what he went through in the poetically simple and palpable way that he does. One example is when Lomax describes his state of delirium after days and days of intensely repetitive and aggressive interrogation, where he states:
'My mind was turning into a machine that produced texts, words and images, cutting them up and feeding them to me in disconnected and confused snatches, slogans, scenes, fantasies. I became a screen with bits and pieces unfolding across me.' (p.159)
This vivid snapshot of Lomax's chaotic and manic state is a prime example of his ability to recreate moments in words so well. It captures the inhumanity he and his fellow prisoners suffered, who were made to feel anything but human, being reduced to mechanical shells of the people they previously were.

Despite all of the horrors recounted in his story, Lomax still manages to offset the harsh brutality of his life as a POW by discussing his lifelong passion of trains throughout his narrative. What's more surprising is that this passion, which stemmed from Lomax's childood, was not weakened while being made to work on the worst railway in history. If anything it reinforced his fascination with these machines, for somehow Lomax was still able to find pleasure in them. Though the cruel irony of all of this is not lost on Lomax, his inherent obsession with trains is nonetheless perplexing for the reader, given what he and his fellow servicemen were being put through. Putting perplexities aside, Lomax's passion nevertheless remains a heartwarming example of the mysterious workings of the human spirit in times of severe hardship, suggesting that hope is possible even in the most desperate of times.

Being freed by the Allies in 1945, Lomax's story continues with a heart-rendering insider's perspective into what it's like to survive a war, and the sheer numbness and isolation that can result out of not knowing how to cope. With little support services available for ex-servicemen at this time, it's little wonder that Lomax was left to feel like a shell of the man he once was. 

Patti and Eric Lomax
After years of being tormented by his past demons, Lomax finally meets the person who will help him start to heal. And that person is Patti, who - through some extraordinary act of fate - he meets on a train. Together with Patti, Lomax is able to start facing the demons that still haunt him. This culminates with Lomax meeting one of his previous tormentors in the areas where he was once a prisoner; an event that prior to meeting Patti was simply unimaginable.

Within this wartime tale is also a story of lost innocence and nostalgia for times gone by. After all, the Second World War was the first time in history that technology and machinery was used like it never had been previously, where weapons of mass destruction caused unprecedented devastation. It moved the rest of the world and everyone in it into a new, uncertain era. Lomax's story is thus a transition from one of the last eras of true innocence - when 'technology was still powerful and beautiful without being menacing' (p.34) - to our modern era which is very much ruled by advancing technology; sadly more often than not to the detriment of our world.

Thus, Lomax's story also acts as a foreboding warning against the delusionary confidence that comes with living in the present and having little regard for future consequences. That for me was one of the strongest messages I took from the book - that humans have brought upon themselves much of the devastation and havoc caused to them, yet surprisingly do not learn from these mistakes, preferring much of the time to ignore or forget.

This is why stories like Lomax's are so important to read, as they are part of the process of remembering and understanding so that past mistakes don't need to be repeated. Unfortunately, even this isn't always enough, for as Lomax states from his own experiences, 'remembering is not enough, if it simply hardens hate' (p.319). Fortunately for Lomax, he was able to transcend the hatred and demons that had built up inside of him, finally finding peace with his past. And from this came the strength for Lomax to be able to share his story with us, a story that is so touching, powerful and important to read.

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