Most of us know, or can at least name, several wildly successful individuals who didn’t take top academic honors at any level of their schooling. Over the last forty years, research has consistently demonstrated that cognitive ability is only part of the equation when it comes to predicting which kids will succeed. It turns out—which probably won’t surprise you—that attitude and motivation are just as important.
The combination of positive attitude and strong motivation is often termed persistence, and in 2002, a group of researchers at the University of Pennsylvania set out to measure students’ persistence rates by country. They did so by examining a survey that’s part of a test called the Program for International Student Assessment. The PISA exam, developed to compare the abilities of students from around the world to think critically and solve problems, doesn’t test what students know, but what they can do with their knowledge.
The survey at the end of the PISA exam asks students to answer questions about their families and lives. The researchers investigating persistence didn’t care about students’ answers to the questions; they were only interested in their actual diligence in filling it out. As Amanda Ripley writes in her new book, The Smartest Kids in the World: And How They Got That Way, “This simple measure—the thoroughness with which students answered the survey—was more predictive of countries’ scores than socioeconomic status or class size or any other factor that had been studied.” The country with the highest rate of persistence? Poland.
Ripley devotes an entire chapter to Poland’s educational ups and downs after they ousted the Communists, but after spending ten days there last month, it’s that persistence metric I keep coming back to. Despite the fact that their country has been Europe’s battleground for centuries, everywhere I went I saw ample evidence of the persistence those researchers identified. A monument documenting the anti-Communist protests that began in 1956 and continued for 33 years, until Lech Wałęsa’s Solidarity party finally triumphed in 1989. The building boom in Poland’s spectacular winter capital, Zakopane. Old women selling mushrooms beside the highway in the pouring rain.
In 1995, Poland’s economy reached pre-1989 GDP levels, the first post-Communist country to do so. Still, unemployment remains a problem. When Poland joined the EU in 2004, a million Poles left to find work in other parts of Europe. That’s often quoted as a negative, but doesn’t it also underscore the fact that these are people who persist, who get the job done no matter what? In Poland, I saw a country working hard to reinvent itself. Given their track record, I’m pretty sure they’ll succeed.
Finally, whether you’re an educator, a parent, or a grandparent, The Smartest Kids in the World: And How They Got That Way is worth reading. It’s food for thought, for all of us, about the direction our schools are headed.
My novel, Yard Sale is available on Amazon.