Greek Mythology is pretty great. It is entertaining, educational and the myths are full of some awfully bizarre stuff that your kids will absolutely love. I don’t know exactly why children love Greek myths, maybe it has something to do with kids trying to make sense of the world just as like the Greeks were, or maybe it is just good story telling. There is no denying that before scientific explanations gave us the answers to so much, the Greeks came up with some pretty awesome explanations for the unexplainable.
How did the Greeks explain lightening? That is just Zeus getting angry and throwing his thunder bolts around.
Why is there sometime dew in the morning? Its Eos the Goddess of Dawn tears.
Although there are plenty of beautiful stories in the myths, a lot of the characters in Greek myology are pretty terrible and they do outrageous things. With all the patricide, infanticide, matricide, torture, killing, revenge cannibalism and lots of other awful behaviour you might be wondering how to teach your kids about the myths in a kid friendly sort of way. We can show you where to start since we have some great books and websites that they will love.
There is a fantastic selection of really good Greek mythology books that are written for kids. If you are just starting out, the book to get is the D’Aulaires’ Book of Greek Myths. Everyone loves this book (including me and my 6 year old son). This book is awesome. It was written in 1962 by the husband and wife team of Ingri and Edgar Parin D’Aulaire and it is considered a classic. With its quirky and beautiful illustrations and matter of fact telling of the myths, it is perfect for children. Some of the language is a bit advanced for younger kids and you might have to stop to clarify what is going on in a particular myth, but this is great choice to help kids learn about Greek mythology. You can most likely get this book at your local library. If you are looking for a starter book, this is the one to get.
The series that has launched millions of kids into the world of Greek mythology is, of course, the Percy Jackson and the Olympians series. It is for slightly older kids (the recommended age range is 8 to 12), but if you have an avid reader you could probably go a little younger. This series was written by a former middle school teacher, who mixes ancient mythology with modern adventure and it is unbelievably popular. If you are looking for a sure thing to get your kids reading and learning about Greek mythology, this is it.
Another author who does a great job making Greek Mythology appealing for modern kids is Joan Holub. She writes the very popular Goddess Girls series and well as the Heroes in Training series. These books are for a younger crowd who might not be quite ready for Percy Jackson. They are easy readers and for kids ages 6 to 10. Goddess Girls deals with the idea of what Greek goddesses would have been like at middle school so lots of drama ensues. While Heroes in Training is about what the Gods would have been like as 10 year olds.
Mythology The Gods, Heroes, and Monsters of Ancient Greece (Ologies) is part of the beautiful and very popular Ology series. This book is a little hard to explain, but basically it is a 19th century textbook that was written but the fictional author Lady Hestia. The textbook has been taken along to Greece by Lady Hestia’s friend, the fictional John Oro, who writes notes in the book chronicling his own journey through Greece looking for treasures. This book is jam packed with beautiful illustrations, cool treasures (including a feather pen!) and lots of information about the Greek myths.
As a bit of a Ken Jennings fan, I have to recommend his Greek Mythology book for kids. This one is for ‘brainy’ kids who want to learn about the wonderful and wacky world of the gods. It is written in a fun and witty way your kids will enjoy reading, and it has lots of illustrations, trivia, and quizzes to keep your kids entertained.
Since the myths can be a bit confusing and hard to remember, you may want to help reinforce what you kids are learning through online games or websites. Here are a few to have a look at:
- Meet the Greek Gods on Rick Riordan’s website. If you have a Percy Jackson fan in the house check out the author’s website with lots of great information on the gods
- Ancient Greece Jeopardy has a simple quiz in the form of a Jeopardy board that kids who already know quite a bit about Greek mythology will find a lot of fun.
- Winged Sandals Games has a few basic games with a Greek myth type theme.
Another easy way to help kids learn about the myths could be through Mythic Warriors: Guardians of the Legend. It is a TV series that is a little cheesy, but actually quite good as far as explaining some of the myths. You can watch the episodes for free on YouTube. It’s an older show made in 1998 that ran for two seasons and it pretty much covers all your kids need to know about the Greek gods.
Another option is a short Greek Gods video from the History channel. It can sometimes be a bit hard to keep all the Greek gods straight, so if your kids need a little refresher this is a super short video that gives a good overview of who is who on Mount Olympus.
The History channel also has a pretty well-known series called Clash of the Gods. It featured stories about Zeus, Perseus & Medusa, Odysseus, Hercules etc. that is really good. You can watch a number of the episodes for free on YouTube, although this series isn’t appropriate for kids, but parents are looking for something to watch it’s pretty good.
If you have any Greek Mythology books or sites that you love, let us know in the comments below.
Geography, in the very broadest terms, is the study of the Earth’s landscapes, people, places and environments. Kids love to learn about the world, and these days there are some really interesting ways to help take your kids on a fun journey around the globe without ever leaving your living room. So if you are looking to spark an interest in this amazing world of ours, look no further, because we have found 19 super cool resources that your kids should know about.
Geography was first studied by the ancient Greeks (of course) and is often called “The Mother of all Sciences” because of its relation and influences on other scientific fields such as biology, mathematics, anthropology, geology, astronomy and chemistry. It is generally divided into two main branches, human geography and physical geography. Check out our list of the best websites, books, videos and apps that cover both types of geography.
Best Geography Websites for Kids
Obviously an easy way to get kids interested in the world is through a fun website, (since most kids will take any chance to be online that they can get). Here are a few of our favorites:
- National Geographic Kids you can’t really go wrong with National Geographic for kids. The website is a fantastic place for kids to spend time learning and exploring.
- Global Trek is a fun site from Scholastic that let kids plug in travel destinations and it brings up information for the countries that the child enters. It’s pretty basic, but fun to use.
- Google Earth is an incredible tool for kids. It lets them go anywhere on Earth using satellite imagery, maps, terrain, 3D buildings, from into space to the depths of the oceans.
- Geography4Kids is a very informative website that teaches physical geography and earth science basics to children. It has info on ecosystems, earth structures, biospheres, food chains, earth energy and lots more.
- Kids Geo is an online geography textbook, that has lots of info plus online videos that are included with some of the topics.
- Geography for Kids is another great educational site that has fun facts, free games, interesting experiments, science fair projects, cool quizzes, and videos.
You can’t beat a good geography book and there are lots of great ones to choose from.
- National Geographic has a bit of a lock on the kids market as far as geography goes, but their books are generally really great for kids. There are a lot to choose from; two that I like are the National Geographic Kids Beginner’s World Atlas and National Geographic Kids World Atlas. Both are written in the typical Nat Geo Kids style which is lots of colourful pictures and interesting facts broken down into short paragraphs that are easy for kids to read.
- Maps and Geography (Ken Jennings’ Junior Genius Guides) is a really neat book for kids who already know a bit about geography and are interested in trivia about the world. It is written by Ken Jennings, who you probably know as that guy who won a lot of money on Jeopardy. If you know anything much about him, you will know that he’s super interesting and very funny (check out his twitter). Not surprisingly, the book is written in a way that reflects his personality, so it is fun to read and you learn a lot of crazy world trivia. This book is part of a series called the Junior Genius Guides, that also has books about US presidents and Greek mythology. It has some questionable reviews on Amazon, but I really liked it.
- A Child’s Introduction to the World: Geography, Cultures, and People is another book in a fantastic series. This book is for kids ages 9 to 12 and it covers: hemispheres, latitude and longitude, continental drift, map notation, landforms, population density, Each section has a different continent, and includes information about climates and biomes, mountain ranges and bodies of water, people and cultures, governments and industries, wildlife, and much more.
- The Everything Kids’ Geography Book: From the Grand Canyon to the Great Barrier Reef – explore the world! The Everything Series are always a great choice if you are looking to introduce a child to a new subject or help them expand on knowledge that they already have. This book includes information on the locations of states, countries, and continents around the world. They will also learn about the features that make each region interesting.
One of the best TV shows that I have come across that help kids learn about the world is Are We There Yet? It is a short show (each episode is about seven minutes long) that has a brother and sister who travel around the world learning about different cultures and countries.
Another show that everyone loves, but it is short of showing its age is Where in the World is Carmen Santiago. Just in case you aren’t familiar with Carmen Santiago, it is educational franchise that has computer and video games, a television series, and books that teach kids about geography. If you are feeling nostalgic you can watch many of the episodes on YouTube.
Free Online Geography Games
- Sheppard Software has video games that are often used in schools. They have a fun game about world geography that also includes a tutorial.
- Your Child Learns has interactive maps for all over the world that are easy to play around with while teaching your kids at the same time.
- Geo-Me! has animated musical stories of children from around the world and helps kids learn about the geography and demography that makes life in a certain place unique from (and similar to) their own.
- Geo Challenge is a fun way for kids to learn the flags and maps of the world. It helps kids learn using puzzles, quizzes and flashcards. One of the neat features of it is that it lets you spin the globe to find out information on 193 countries
- Tiny Countries is an app with a slightly different approach to Geography This app has kids using characters and their knowledge of geography to try to solve missions. It has 15 missions over 6 continents with 75 countries to be mastered. There is also an animated interface to learn about countries, their capitals and famous monuments.
- Kids Planet Discovery is an app that helps kids discover the world with games and adventures all about cultures, animals, music, dresses, geography. This app contains 100 games & 80 videos about our Planet.
So as you can see, there is no shortage of fun resources that you can use to help your kids learn a little bit about geography and about the world. If you have any great resources please let us know in the comments below.
Chemistry can be a fun and fascinating area of science for children to explore at home. Learning about chemistry can help kids develop their analytical skills, help them understand how things work and it can lead them into a wide range of rewarding careers later on in life.
So if your kids are showing an interest in chemistry or you would like them to start to learn about it, we have found lots of really good introductory resources that will hopefully show them that learning about chemistry and science can be super fun and exciting.
Best Chemistry Books for Kids
The best way to introduce chemistry to young kids is to show them what chemistry can do. There are lots of fantastic books that have experiments for kids, as well as some really good books with overviews of what chemistry is all about. Our favourite chemistry books for kids are:
- Basher Science: Chemistry: Getting a Big Reaction (ages 9+) by Simon Basher and Dan Green The Basher Science series are small, visually appealing books that turn ideas and elements of a particular topic into characters. The chemistry book in this series covers things like basic states, atoms, ions, nanoparticles, pH, combustion and lots of other stuff. It’s a very good overview of matter and the ways in which things interact, combine and change.
- DK Eyewitness Books: Chemistry (for ages 8-12) by Ann Newmark The DK Eyewitness books are always nicely done and this one is no exception. It’s another really good overview of facts about chemistry, including information about the traditions of ancient alchemy and the technology of today. Each page is packed with beautiful pictures and lots of information about chemistry and how the world works.
- The Book of Totally Irresponsible Science: 64 Daring Experiments for Young Scientists by Sean Connolly (for kids ages 9-15, although you could go as young as 6 with parental supervision) The experiments in this book are simple and fun. The author tells the reader how long the experiment will take and whether there are any risks or danger. At the end of each experiment he describes the scientific reason for the results. A great thing about this book is that none of the ingredients are hard to find, everything can be made with household products and the instructions are easy enough that a child is able to follow them.
- Naked Eggs and Flying Potatoes: Unforgettable Experiments That Make Science Fun by Steve Spangler (for kids ages 9+) is a very popular book, especially with homeschoolers. The instructions are easy to understand, and the full color photographs and simple along with the directions, help kids figure out how to complete the experiments. The science behind the experiments is also well-explained and engaging and the experiments use items that are everyday household items.
- Candy Experiments by Loralee Leavitt (for ages 7-10) is a fun book that lets kids test candy for secret ingredients, peel the skin off candy corn, or float an “m” from M&M’s. You can spread candy dyes into rainbows, or pour rainbow layers of colored water, growing enormous gummy worms and turning cotton candy into slime, all while learning a bit of science.
- Chem4Kids is a site that teaches the basics of chemistry to everyone. It has tutorials on matter, atoms, elements, the periodic table, reactions, and biochemistry.
- Science Kids has a few easy chemistry experiments for kids, games, facts, lessons and lots of other things to help kids learn chemistry.
- Home Experiments has a really good list of fun science experiments you can do at home.
- Reeko’s Mad Scientist Lab has K-12 educational and fun science experiments and school science projects for teachers, parents and kids of all ages.
- The American Chemical Society has a really good section on its site for kids. Lot of great info and activities listed.
There are thousands interesting online chemistry videos. They mostly involve high school or college kids blowing things up. If you are looking for some good online chemistry lessons for smaller kids, we found some great videos that have a few of the ‘classic’ beginner experiments that are a good starting point to getting kids interested in chemistry.
- Steve Spangler’s You Tube channel and his website are a great resources to find fun chemistry videos for kids. Check out his Mentos Diet Coke Geyser.
- Custard powder bombs are an old school chemistry trick that are fun to watch, but don’t try this at home!
- This video is a good introduction for kids (k-grade 3) about acids and bases.
- Making a crystal garden is an easy and fun experiment for kids.
There is a lot of grumbling online about the modern chemistry set. Partly because of liability concerns and regulations, the modern chemistry set often doesn’t even include any actual chemicals. Don’t worry though, there are still a lot of really great beginner chemistry sets available that will help your kids learn to love chemisty (despite not being able to blow anything up).
A good place to start if you are looking for a good quality chemistry set for kids is with the company Thames & Kosmos. They have a nice beginner chemistry set or if you are looking for something a bit more serious they have a series of sets called The Chem series that has 4 sets starting from a very simple Chem C500 all the way up to their CHEM C3000 (V 2.0). These sets would be great for kids who are showing a serious interest in chemistry, not for a beginner.
Another good beginner kit for ages 5 to 10 is the Sciencewiz Chemistry Experiments Kit and Book 35 Experiments, Chemistry. It comes with all the materials your kids will need to perform 35 experiments. Some of the experiments include how to make candles, squirt with water pressure, sink and float an egg, dye a flower from the inside out, squeeze an egg into a bottle, capturing a CO2 explosion and growing crystals.
If you are looking for a chemistry set for a child who love the series The Magic School Bus there is a fun Magic School Bus – Chemistry Lab is great for kids ages 5 to 12. Some of the experiments included in this kit are: how to make sticky ice, use litmus paper, measure pH, perform chromatography, make bubble sculptures, wake-up fungus, create slime, form a bouncy ball, learn about density, produce a milk rainbow, plate copper, explode a volcano and more.
If you are looking for a simple set for kids ages 4 to 8 you could try the POOF-Slinky 0SA221 Scientific Explorer My First Mind Blowing Science Kit. It is a smaller and cheaper kit than the ones listed above. This kit only has 11 experiments, so it’s pretty basic, but it’s a good intro to chemistry for very young kids.
A good kit that focuses on crystal growing is the POOF-Slinky 0SA230 Scientific Explorer Ultimate Crystal Growing Kit. This kit is appropriate for kids ages 9+ and it is all about growing crystals. It has the materials and the instructions to let kids grow 13 different types of crystals.
DIY Chemistry Sets
For those of you who like to live a little more dangerously and want a bit more excitement in your kid’s chemistry set, you can always make your own. Obviously the internet is a great place to find info on how to do this. Check out Great Balls of Fire on Makezine or Bob Thompsons Homeschooler Chemistry Set for the ultimate instructions on how to create a DIY chemistry set for your kids. There is also a good thread here that has some great info if you want to build a chemistry set from scratch.
- Neopets Chemistry for Beginners is a simple game where you have to build molecules from the atoms given to you.
- PBS Kids Kitchen Chemistry is a great site that allows kids to do experiments virtually online by solving a puzzle.
- Sheppards Software have a couple of games based on the periodic table.
- Chemistry Games have a few chemistry related games listed. Probably most useful for ages 12+.
Hopefully you found something that you can use to help get your children interested in chemistry. If you have any resources that you have used to help your kids learn chemistry that you think are helpful for kids, let us know in the comments below.
Metal Math is the solving of mathematical problems using nothing but the human brain. In its most basic form, mental math can refer to doing simple addition, subtraction, multiplication or division problems in your head. It can also refer to math tricks and secrets that give people the ability to do much more complicated math problems in their heads quickly.
Obviously the ability to do math in your head is a very important skill for children to master, and it will be useful to them throughout their lives. It is really worth the effort in getting your kids interested and excited about math because there is research showing that children’s proficiency in math correlates strongly with their future earnings, and a good way to go about doing this is by helping them become really good at mental math.
Learning to do mental math takes a lot of hard work, practice and can be a bit difficult, but as with most things, the more your kids practice the better at it they will become. Before getting to the really cool part of mental math (the tricks), your kids need to have a solid foundation in basic math facts. They should be able to quickly add and subtract numbers from 1-20, know their multiplication tables up to the 12s, and know basic division. Once that is mastered, they can move onto the fun stuff and learn all the neat tricks that will make them love math and really excel at school.
This post has a mix of resources that can help with mastery of basic math, as well as resources that are helpful for learning mental math tricks.
Free Online Mental Math Games
- Mission 2110 Mental Maths is a very fun and slick game for children in grades 4 to 6.
- Topmarks has a great list of mental math games with appropriate ages listed.
- Math Blasters has been around for a while, but it is definitely worth a look. There are lots of different forms for Math Blasters you can get it as an app, as a Nintendo DS game or play it directly on the Jumpstart site.
- Math Playground is a good mental math game for grade 4-6.
There are lots of great math books that give really good overviews of the best mental math strategies and tricks that are useful for kids to learn. It was a little hard to narrow down the list so we are including all of our favourites. Check your local library for these titles, as they are all pretty popular books and will probably be available (for free!)
- The Verbal Math Lesson Level 1: Step-by-Step Math without Pencil or Paper (for ages 5-7) is a popular book with homeschoolers. This series has three levels that correspond to grade levels, so level one is for kids in grade one, etc. Verbal math is basically the same idea as mental math and this book is a good starting point to help your kids begin to learn how to do math in their head.
- Speed Math for Kids: The Fast, Fun Way To Do Basic Calculations by Bill Handley (for ages 9+) is a good introduction for kids to mental math. It teaches kids how to multiply and divide large numbers in their head, what they can do to make addition and subtraction easy, tricks for understanding fractions and decimals and how to quickly check answers every time they make a calculation.
- Greg Tang has a really cool series of books are a slightly different approach to mental math. There are seven books in this series including Math Fables (ages 3-6), Math for All Seasons(ages 5-8), Math-terpieces (ages 5-9), The Grapes of Math (ages 7-12), Math Appeal (ages 7-12), The Best of Times (ages 7-12) and Math Potatoes (ages 7-12). These books helps students learn to manipulate groups of objects in their mind using rhyming couplets, riddles, and visual clues. Also check out Greg Tang Math.com.
- Arithmetricks: 50 Easy Ways to Add, Subtract, Multiply, and Divide Without a Calculator by Edward H. Julius (for ages 10+) has easy math tricks that are appealing for kids. In addition to the 50 tricks, the text includes a review of mathematical concepts, applications, math curiosities, illustrations and parlor tricks. This is a very well-reviewed and highly recommended book for children in grade 5 and up.
If you are looks for mental math books a couple of titles that you will come across often are Short-Cut Math by Gerard W. Kelly and Secrets of Mental Math by Arthur Benjamin and Michael Shermer. These are great books to help older children to learn mental math, but we wouldn’t recommend getting these for anyone younger than 13 or 14 years old because they are written for an adult audience and would probably be a bit too much for younger kids.
If you want your kid to get good at mental math they will need to practice. It is generally recommended to do at least 15 minutes a day of math practice. An easy way to get kids to practice is with some fun workbooks. Here are a few that have great reviews.
- Daily Mental Math Series have workbooks for kids in grade 2 to grade 10. They are great for math practice to improve kid’s mental math skills
- Singapore Mental Math Series are very popular workbooks that have a strong focus on mental math strategies. They have workbooks for grades 2-7.
Apps are sort of perfect for having kids practice their mental math. There are so many math apps to choose from that would be helpful to mental math practice we tried to narrow it down a bit, here are a few of our favourites:
- Math Bingo (for ages 5-12) helps children learn to add, subtract, multiply and divide using the simple game of Bingo. This is a good app to help kids improve their math basics.
- King of Math Junior (for ages 6+) is a mathematics game set in a medieval environment where you climb the social ladder by answering maths questions and solving puzzles.
- Mathmateer™ has different math missions that involve various math concepts. It’s fun and helpful for kids learning math.
- Mathemagics – Mental Math Tricks this is a very popular app that has been out for quite a while. It shows you almost 60 math “tricks” and then lets you practice what you learned in the lesson with a practice session. For older kids ages 12+ and adults.
- Quick Math – Arithmetic & Times Tables (for kids in Grades 3-6) and Quick Math+ (for kids in grade 5 and up) helps kids practice mental addition, subtraction, multiplication, division and mixed operations using handwriting recognition. It’s very fun and addictive to play.
- Math Evolve (for ages 6+) is an arcade style game that is designed to help kids practice math facts, number sense, and mental math skills.
Free Online Videos
Schoolhouse Rock: Multiplication Classroom Edition If you are looking for something a little retro that reminds you of your own childhood, check out this DVD. It’s not for everyone, but definitely worth a look if you were into Schoolhouse Rock as a child.
For a slightly older child who has mastered the basic math facts have a look at this very watchable series on some of the more common mental math tricks:
Sometimes kids just aren’t into the worksheets and books so you need a little bit of a different tactic. Here are some fun games that will help your kids with their mental maths without them even realizing they are learning.
- Math War Addition and Subtraction Game Cards is a fun game to help reinforce addition and subtraction. A lot of the reviewers for this game mentioned that kids have so much fun that they don’t even realize that they are doing math.
- Think Fun Math Dice (for ages 8-12) and ThinkFun Math Dice Jr (for ages 6+) are both fun and inexpensive games for early math learners. Parents like these dice because the games help reinforce key math concepts, the games are short and you can take these dice anywhere because they are small.
- Sumoku (for ages 9-13) is a fun crossword-style game with numbers. Players add up their numbered tiles to a multiple of the number on the die. Scores grow with every connected row and column. It provides addition, multiplication and division practice, adds in some Sudoku-like puzzle problem solving.
- Sum Swamp Addition and Subtraction Game (for ages 4-7) helps kids learn the basic operations of addition and subtraction. Players roll all three dice and create a number sentence by placing the highest number first, the operation symbol second and the smallest number last. The player then adds or subtracts the numbers, and moves ahead the sum or difference.
Websites with good Mental Math Tricks for Younger Kids
Luckily for parents, many mental math secrets are easily available online. Here are a few sites that break down some of the more common mental math secrets that kids can learn.
- Woodlands Resources is a good straight forward list of some of the best multiplication math tricks that are suitable for younger kids.
- Dear Teacher has a great breakdown mental math tricks for addition, subtraction, multiplication and division.
The Smartest Kids in the World: And How They Got That Way is a fascinating book by Amanda Ripley, that sets out to find out why the United States is doing so poorly on the standardized PISA test (which is given to 15-year-olds around the world, and tests them on reading, mathematics and science.)
Ripley studies the education systems of a few of the countries that had the best PISA results ( Korea, Finland and Poland), and documents the experiences of American exchange students in each of the countries. She finds a number of key points, that these countries focus on, in order to create a top education system.
1. The top performing countries believe in academic rigour. Teachers, politicians, parents and kids in these countries agree that school should be about mastering complex academic content. Students are expected to take school seriously, and there are high expectations from teachers, parents and the students themselves about what the students can accomplish. Comparing the American education system, Ripley writes of a number of disturbing examples, where education boards seem almost afraid to encourage students to aim for a high academic standard. These boards are scared that a large percentage of the students just aren’t up for the challenge, and will be destroyed by failing.
2. Teachers need to be the best and brightest of society and need to be highly trained. Only the brightest students get into Finnish teachers colleges, where they spend 6 years studying. Teachers are highly respected by students and parents, because they know how difficult it is to become a teacher. Getting into a teacher training school in Finland is as prestigious as getting into medical school in the U.S. Ripley provides lots of examples that prove that when the teachers are highly educated, the quality of the teaching goes up.
3. Factors that people assume to be important to student outcomes, like government spending per student and private education, had little effect on academic performance. Poland is a particularly good example of the lesson that more money doesn’t necessarily make a great school. After education reforms in Poland, polish students outperformed the U.S kids in math and science despite spending less than half what the U.S did per child.
4. Investment in classroom technology doesn’t equal better academic outcomes. Of the schools profiled in this book, there was little or no technology available in the classrooms. Many of the most successful education systems don’t even allow students to use a calculator in class.
5. Failure wasn’t considered shameful, but a normal part of learning. Students who were having difficulty with schoolwork were given the best help available until they caught up. In Poland, students were graded on a 1 to 5 system (lowest grade being 1, and the top a 5.) An American exchange student in Poland observed that when students’ exam scores were announced in front of the class, no one ever got a 5, and none of the students seemed too bothered about it. “If the work was hard, routine failure was the only way to learn.” Ripley uses examples to compare that to the American system, and shows that many educators believe failure in American school is demoralizing, and to be avoided at all costs.
6. Math skills are vital in the modern world, and more value must be placed on math education in schools. Math is a very strong predictor of future earnings, with math skills becoming more and more valuable in the global economy. Ripley laments the pervasive idea in the U.S. that math is an innate ability, and that you’re either good at it or you aren’t. As a counterpoint, the education superpowers treat math as a skill that is developed through hard work and perseverance. These countries believe that with the right teachers, who have strong math training themselves, children’s math scores will improve. This is because there is a strong relationship between a teachers ability in math and the students results.
A Finnish teacher needs a master’s degree in math to teach. In North America, many teachers have liberal arts based backgrounds, and they aren’t necessarily as strong in math. Because math lessons build upon what has come before, if a student doesn’t understand a particular concept, it’s easy to fall behind quickly and become discouraged. In the high performing countries, children are not allowed to give up on math, as they are in American schools. It is regarded as a skill that must be learned.
7. Teaching higher-order thinking and reasoning is extremely important. The Smartest Kids in the World spends a lot of time stressing the importance of math in schools, and reminding the reader that math isn’t just math: “Math is a language of logic. It is a disciplined, organized way of thinking. There is a right answer; there are rules that must be followed.” Since more and more jobs are requiring these kinds of skills, kids need to be able to adapt and be prepared for the modern job market.
8. No education system is perfect, but they are dynamic and can change quickly. Ripley writes “Everywhere I went, in every country, people complained about their education system”. She says this is a universal truth. Of the three countries examined in this book, there are lessons that can be taken from all of them about changes that can be made. One of the big lessons is that it’s possible to make radical changes to education systems that will improve student outcomes in a relatively short period of time. Poland is a great example of this. Despite high rates of crime and poverty, the government rolled out dramatic education reforms in 1999. The PISA tests were able to show the test scores from the old education system in Poland in 2000, and then after the reforms were in place in 2003. In only three years, the PISA scores went up dramatically for the Polish students, to the point that they were able to catch up to all of developed countries in the world, and surpass the U.S. within a few years.
9. What parents do at home to help their kids matters more than what parents do at school to help their kids. The common idea in North American society is that the more involved a parent is with their child’s school, the better the child will do at school. Ripley, however, found that volunteering or fundraising for the school has little or no effect on children’s PISA scores. Her research showed that what’s more important is very simple: reading to kids every day when they are young, and then engaging them in conversation as they get older, about things that matter and will get them thinking. Getting kids to become strong readers and thinkers is strongly influenced by what the parents do at home, not at school.
10. There is more than one way to become an education super power. Finland, Poland and Korea all have very different systems. Finland’s system appears to be the ideal, with the key being the highly trained, and carefully selected, teachers. Poland’s system has some great lessons on how to make dramatic changes to education quickly. Korea’s system, despite its amazing PISA scores, is probably not the one that other countries should be aiming to emulate. Ripley goes into great detail about what a typical Korean student’s day is like, and it seems pretty horrible. Kids attend a regular school for lessons, but after school, when most American students would head home, many Korean students stay until about 9 p.m., and clean the school, study, take extra exam prep classes and watch online test prep videos. After they leave the school, they go to private tutors until 11 p.m. These kids are basically living in the classrooms up to 12 hours a day, and they do nothing but study. Even the Minister of Education in Korea doesn’t think the Korean system is deserving of all the praise it’s getting from other countries.
If you are interested in education and what it takes to make a great system The Smartest Kids in the World: And How They Got That Way is a great read and well worth picking up.
***The appendix of the book includes advice for on what to look for when choosing a school:
- Visit the school and look at the students to see what they are doing (e.g., are they engaged)?
- Talk to the students about what they do, not what they like or which teacher is nice.
- Ignore shiny gadgets. They are nice, but only if properly used (e.g., over-reliance on calculators or spell checking don’t help).
- Talk to parents to see if they approve of the school.
- Talk to the principal of the school and ask about how they choose their teachers, how they improve their teachers, and how they measure success.