Book Review: World Class by Teru Clavel

Note: The publisher sent me a copy for review, but all opinions are my own. 

Comparing education systems is a well explored topic. However, author Teru Clavel’s book is fresh because it is also a memoir of her own and her family’s experiences in different countries and schools, a parent’s guide to navigating education, and a thoughtfully researched commentary on the societies and educational ideologies of the countries she experiences. Clavel’s unique circumstances essentially allow her to perform a comparative education experiment on her own family as they live in Hong Kong, Shanghai, Tokyo, Palo Alto and New York. Interestingly, she does this while getting her master’s degree and working in comparative education herself. 


Her book features inset guides to choosing schools, how parents are involved in education, family values and how you model your family’s commitment to education, tips for prepping for preschool, and other helpful and necessary topics. As the book blurb mentions, this felt similar to Bringing Up Bébé by Pamela Druckerman— but the carefully researched version about education. In that sense, this is a useful book for parents who are looking for how to think about or approach their child’s education, and provides some very useful resources and critical perspectives. 


There are two underlying themes to her book that are very important— her awareness of the part that privilege plays in education, and her repeated emphasis on needing to find a middle ground. She acknowledges the downsides of the societies and schools that her family lives in, while at the same time highlighting their positives. While many of these East Asian schools could work toward increasing room for creativity and providing greater equity for girls (a societal issue, seen a lot in her experiences in Japan), they also have a lot to offer in terms of how they approach education as a community, among other things. Recent data about the 2012 PISA test further supports her perspective on how these schools teach math. As a teacher who sometimes gets tired of all the comparisons with Finland, and as a parent who sometimes gets tired of all the comparisons with France, such an in depth and personal look at education in these countries felt enlightening and refreshing. 


Clavel’s discussions of the need for children to be bilingual and bicultural are persuasive and necessary. Additionally, within education she explores numeracy and the very relevant topic of mastery, making arguments for an increase of both in the United States school system, which is strengthened by her perspective of being in education systems abroad that are successful with both. In fact, this— along with her discussion about teachers, school lunches and use of technology in the classroom— felt like the sharpest reproach of United States education. 


While I disagree with her on students learning to code— I think this is an empowering, engaging, and increasingly necessary skill— I can’t help but agree with her about teachers. Beginning in highly selective teacher education programs, to paying teachers the equivalent of other professionals with the same amount of training, to the investment in professional development and training which has the biggest returns, Clavel’s research is thoughtful and her writing is passionate. The experiences she shares with her family in places that are foreign to stateside readers— Hong Kong, Shanghai, Tokyo— are at times hilarious, moving, impressive, and fascinating. She follows her son on a walk home from school in Tokyo, unknown to him. She makes friends. She experiences norms of expat culture, and is in turn shocked and pleased with the things her family encounters in the cultures and local schools they become a part of. This book fills a gap for parents, teachers, and anyone who feels deeply the importance of education.

How Google Works (and how it can work for teaching)

Do you ever read books, not entirely or even not at all related to education, and your mind just spins with the possibilities and implications it has for teaching? It’s one of the reasons I love to read nonfiction, especially from disciplines other than my own. It broadens your perspectives and gives you fresh ideas that revitalize your approach to teaching (in addition to being entertaining). My husband is in the business world, and once I sampled a little of this book about the successful ideologies of Google written by the people behind Google, I stole it away to finish–and was thrilled at multiple points with thinking how it could relate so well to teaching . . .

From How Google Works by Eric Schmidt & Jonathan Rosenberg:

One of the concepts that most resonated with me was the idea of the “smart creative”. Isn’t this really what a teacher must be? Isn’t it what we want to be–autonomous and highly effective in our own classrooms? Their description of a smart creative brings new ideas on how a teacher can function effectively in this day and age of education. In order to not violate fair trade guidelines by quoting entire chapters of this book to you, I’ll settle for summarizing and listing just a few of the things they say about smart creatives:

  • Have a deep technical knowledge
  • Comfortable with data, understanding “its fallacies and is wary of endless analysis. Let data decide, she believes, but don’t let it take over.”
  • Innovative, and not always just during the hours they are being paid for
  • a “power user” who “understands her product from the user or consumer’s perspective.”
  • a “firehose of new ideas” who has her own perspective but can see things from other perspectives too
  • “always questioning, never satisfied with the status quo . . .”
  • an “open creative” who collaborates and “judges ideas and analyses on their merits and not their provenance”
  • “communicative creative”–communicates with flair and possibly charisma to diverse  audiences

The authors are fair in also mentioning how not every smart creative possesses all of the characteristics that they discuss. Smart creatives are diverse but can also be found in all places. They are “the ambitious ones of all ages who are eager (and able) to use the tools of technology to do a lot more. Their common characteristic is that they work hard and are willing to question the status quo and attack things differently. This is why they can have such an impact.” (page 18-20)

Isn’t it exciting to think of teachers as smart creatives? People with deep subject knowledge, who are innovative and curious? It almost goes without saying that teachers are hard working–doing the work even beyond the normal hours. A “smart creative” teacher can combine those things with technology and the many digital and other literacies demanded by students these days and achieve amazing results. As a teacher, do you think of yourself like this–as a smart creative?

And a word on passion (cause obviously we’re not in it for the money):
“Passionate people don’t wear their passion on their sleeves; they have it in their hearts. They live it. Passion is more than resume-deep, because it’s hallmarks–persistance, grit, seriousness, all-encompassing absorption–cannot be gauged from a checklist. “ (page 101)

I can’t think of a better way to describe a teacher. Deeply passionate about what they do, of course. But also possessing those things that we are coming to realize make a big difference for students when they are young and in our classrooms, and also when they are people out there in the real world: persistence, grit.

Lastly, I thought these ideas on the “learning animal” are particularly prescient for the teaching profession:
We know plenty of very bright people who, when faced with the roller coaster of change, will choose the familiar spinning-teacups ride instead. They would rather avoid all those gut-wrenching lurches; in other words, reality. Henry Ford said that “anyone who stops learning is old, whether at twenty or eighty. Anyone who keeps learning stays young. The greatest thing in life is to keep your mind young.” Our ideal candidates are the ones who prefer roller coasters, the ones who keep learning. These “learning animals” have the smarts to handle massive change and the character to love it.” (page 102-103)

As educators, we know that this business is a roller coaster ride. From changes in policy and curriculum to the changing dynamics of the students that come in and out of our classrooms, change is something we must accept. But embracing it, and even taking it a step further; as teachers we must always be learning and growing, particularly in this time of widely available information and technology. Keep up with the times and teach your students the things that will help them be successful for the world today. How can we expect our students to be lifelong learners if we don’t make the effort to learn and grow with the times we live in? It’s easy to feel overwhelmed, sure, but that doesn’t make it any less important. I love thinking of teachers as intelligent people who make the best of the change they are constantly faced with.