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Thinking about Thinking

Thoughts on thinking about thinking from the Raising Thinkers Series

 

Do good grades guarantee success after school?

Tremaine du Preez

Or is it time to rethink our definition of smart?

According to the latest OECD results the smartest teenagers in the world belong to Shanghai, Singapore and Hong Kong. All three cities ranked in the top 3 globally for math, science and reading in what is touted as a test of critical thinking. All three are confucian heritage societies with a long history (since the 10th century) of being grade-orientated. Back then anyone could become a government official by passing the Imperial Examinations with position and rank based on test scores alone. Later, through the Song Dynasty, achievement in formal tests was the only way to advance in a career outside of government too. This system of being able to clearly define and measure someone’s aptitude based on explicit metrics seemed to have stuck. In a country of 1.3 billion people with cities like Shanghai at 23 million strong, heaving under 9,700 inhabitants per square mile, perhaps this is not surprising at all. But do these consistently admirable test scores result in superb critical, creative and agile thinkers able to solve humanities most pressing problems or at least drive innovation forward? 

Comparing apples and apple seeds

To answer this let’s compare apple seeds to apples as we look at the current scientific contributions of a nation’s adults based on their H-Index (a ranking of the quality of scientific output) with the OECD (PISA) academic ranking for science from that country’s teenagers in brackets next to it. 

H-Ranking (PISA ranking)

1. USA (28th)                 6. Japan (4th)

2. UK (20th)                  7. Italy (32nd)

3. Germany (12th)          8. Netherlands (14th)

4. France (26th)             9. Switzerland (19th)

5. Canada (10th)            10. Sweden (38th)

It would seem that high scores in math and science aren’t necessarily correlated with an increase in scientific contributions from a nation’s adults. Yet math and science are exceptionally important as building blocks of knowledge. But only building blocks. In my experience as a lecturer in critical thinking, I’ve learnt that a school system that teaches children what to think at the expense of how to think is missing a golden opportunity to create a nation of ground breakers, scientists and entrepreneurs.  

When is a goldfish not dead?

This is a story from a parent of a child at a Singaporean school in primary 2 level (age 7 to 8 years). She retells the tale of her child’s attempt at answering a comprehension test question as follows;

Excerpt from a paragraph: “… and the cat ate the goldfish” 

Question: What happened to the goldfish?

Answer by pupil: The fish died. 

Surely a most natural conclusion to being eaten by a cat, written in a satisfactory full sentence. But this answer was marked as incorrect. The correct answer, she was told, was that the fish was eaten by the cat. Death was implied when in fact there was no proof of it. Thus there could only be one correct answer. This is an example of a false dilemma where we limit our answers based on our own limited view or knowledge. For progress to continue our children have to grow up to be smarter than their teachers. This creates a dilemma in education. How does a teacher evaluate thinking beyond the boundaries of a curriculum that they are trained in, or their own ability?  

When grades don't mean what they used to

Employers are rapidly looking beyond grades to hire the thinkers and managers of tomorrow. In a company that produces the purest most valuable data that money can buy, it’s no surprise that Google’s recruitment processes have benefitted from their lead in analytics. Lazlo Block, their SVP of people ops and principle architect of their interview process made headline’s recently when he revealed what most Googlers already know; that academic success at college or one’s GPA (grade point average) is the least important metric in their interview process, in fact, he went on to say that it is discounted in the final selection stage. Their 16 years worth of data on recruitment have revealed that there is no link between formal academic success or technical ability and potential to add real value to a company that transacts in new technology.  

So what are employers looking for then?

When Lazlo Block says they are looking for incredible curiosity, intellectual humility and resilience he isn’t saying so because it sounds all googley but because he knows this is what has brought them to where they are and will take them forward. Not only does Google know what skills will drive innovation and sales but they have designed a recruitment process to help them identify candidates who have these qualities - and aren’t evil, of course. Resilience is highlighted several times because someone who has known academic success most of their life has probably never gotten down and dirty with failure. Internally, Google fails a lot, that’s the nature of exploring unchartered territory. Without resilience, no new app or technology would be shuttled into the future. It’s not only tech companies that are looking for mental agility, capacity to learn and a healthy relationship with failure, many traditional companies are also looking for recruits with so much more to offer than good academics, especially demonstrable emotional and intercultural intelligence - an area of research I delve into in depth in my upcoming book Raising Thinkers

Given that employability today and tomorrow is less about math scores and more about adaptability, resilience, social, emotional and raw intelligence you might be wondering how, or if, your child is learning these skills? What steps is you child’s school taking to go beyond test scores to foster and measure skills crucial to employers today? How are you, dear parent, doing this and how is any of this communicated through reports and CV’s?  

I don’t know about you but my son’s school report is still all about maths and science measured on traditional metrics. This is still how schools rank and grade pupils because its far easier to do than set up a system to say, measure emotional intelligence or other intangibles. Unless we as parents change the definition of success academic children may not have the opportunity to develop those intangible talents that employers are after and children that aren’t considered academic may be considered underachievers despite their valuable talents, simply because these skills aren’t defined and measured. 

Next time we’ll start looking at each of these intangible talents and how to help foster them in your children, and perhaps even yourself. 

Tremaine is a behavioural economist and lecturer in Critical Thinking based in Asia. Follow Tremaine on Facebook for thoughts on thinking and raising your children as critical thinkers at http://www.facebook.com/tremainedupreez or her blog at http://www.tremainedupreez.com/raising-thinkers-blog/ 

Her book, Raising Thinkers - Preparing your child for the journey of a lifetime will be out soon.