Faster Isn’t Smarter: A New View on Academic Excellence

Across human history, societies have held unique and sometimes esoteric ideas about intelligence and achievement. From public speaking to writing poetry, different cultures have defined and measured academic success in a wide range of ways.

Sadly, in current American society, academic excellence is often defined in ways that reduce children to scores and grades. This is a vast oversimplification of learning, if not outright intellectual dishonesty. For this reason, a national group of highly-regarded independent high schools have created the Mastery Transcript Consortium and are attempting to end the outsized impact that grades and transcripts hold in college admissions.

So what, then, is a truly child-centered concept of academic excellence?

First, academic excellence integrates 21st century skills such as creativity, communication, collaboration, and critical thinking. A child who can independently complete tasks at a high level, but is behind on social skills or struggles to work well in groups, is not yet reaching fully-formed academic excellence. The neuroscience on this is very clear: emotions and social connection are integral to learning, and memory, emotion and long-term learning are all linked.

Second, information literacy is a crucial skill; memorization and regurgitation of bits of knowledge are at best minor markers on the path towards mastery and complexity. When students know how to find out what they do not know, evaluate the sources of that information, and integrate it into their problem solving, they become agents and scholars capable of driving their own learning. This is why students of all ages need to be conducting research, applying knowledge to solve problems, and creating original work. Just last month the Wall Street Journal published an article on effective study skills highlighting how research has revised traditional thinking on the subject.

Third, academic excellence means working both hard and smart, and that’s done by learning and then applying strategies. We also recognize that selecting the right strategy for the situation is an essential aspect of academic success. For example, counting on fingers is typically viewed as an appropriate strategy for younger children, but we often expect children to have quick recall of so-called “math facts” that are simply computation. However, Stanford Professor Jo Boaler’s important work with explains why finger-counting can be an effective go-to strategy with older students who are tired, stressed, or struggling to integrate new concepts.

Fourth, academic excellence requires excellent teaching. Cognitive load refers to the amount of mental effort that is being put forth at any moment; when children experience cognitive (or sensory) overload, they can’t perform at their best. So academic excellence depends on children experiencing new concepts that are pitched just right, in what Lev Vygotzky called the Zone of Proximal Development. The ZPD is the range of ideas and skills that children can only learn with teacher assistance; if they can learn it on their own, or can’t learn it even with a teacher’s assistance, it is below/above the ZPD. Goldilocks had it right when she wanted it not too hard and not too soft.

I’m very glad that the Gateway community understands simply going faster and farther in a particular academic discipline is NOT a signifier of a program that is helping the child become a life-long learner or leading to any long-term gains in school or career. As Kathy Seeley pointed out in Faster Isn’t Smarter, having a child accelerate to the next grade’s math curriculum doesn’t necessarily advantage the student; what every child needs and deserves are rich, relevant, rigorous educational experiences.

Recommended reading on this topic
Jo Boaler:
Alfie Kohn: Punished by Rewards
Cathy Seeley: Faster Isn’t Smarter
Glenn Whitman and Ian Kelleher: Neuroteach


Dr. Zachary Roberts
Head of School