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The habit of excellence – an antidote to our K12 education

It is undeniable that K12 education in America is pathetic.  Study after study and several international competitions provide incontrovertible proof of how inadequate the US K12 system is.

But why?

After all, the educational system focuses on making sure kids understand why things work the way they do.  In my opinion (formed by 25 years of living in Asia and, as of this writing, 25 years in the USA), there is no other educational culture than the American K-12 system that’s better in fostering understanding.

But then, why do American kids continue to fail?  Why do these kids have math phobia?  Why are most people convinced that they are no good at math?

Why are we so focused on math anyway?

Because math, among all subjects, embodies the central issue so clearly.  This is the subject that polarizes opinions decisively.  In just about any other subject you can get away with memorization without understanding.  But not in math.  It is only in math that understanding is paramount.

Or is it?

Generations of school teachers graduating from teachers’ colleges have been convinced, and in turn they have convinced parents, that understanding mathematical concepts is absolutely vital.

This, I submit, is nonsense.

Let’s take an example from math.

2x = 20.  What is the value of x?

It is important to understand, the teachers assert, that you have to reduce the left hand term to a term that has nothing but x, and you have to do the same operation to the term on the right side of the “=” sign.

Every adult knows that.  So far so good.

Let’s see how they teach the application of this principle.

The x on the left side of “=” has a coefficient, 2.  This is what we have to get rid of.

So, divide 2x by 2.  This yields x.  Now you have to do the same to the term on the right side of “=,” namely, 20.  So, 20 divided by 2 equals 10.  Hence, x = 10.

This is perfectly correct of course.

Why then do kids do so poorly on tests?

Let’s see how Asian kids (educated in Asia) would solve the same equation.  When they are confronted with “2x = 20,” they immediately see that x = 10.  The key word is “immediately.”  What’s more astonishing is that they may not actually understand why.

So, here’s the paradox in education.  The American kid has understanding but poor execution, the Asia kid has excellent execution but may be not enough understanding.

The distinction is important not just for taking tests.  After all, there’s more to life than tests.

It has to do with a fundamental attitude – or lack of – towards life: the attitude of excellence.

Back to the poor American student.  He thinks he understands why x = 10.  Then comes the Friday quiz.  He gets 30 questions to be solved in 50 minutes.  How does he tackle them?

Let’s take the first two.

First question: 2x = 20.  Find x.

The student’s thought process (this, by the way, is a ‘good’ student who ‘gets it’) – and each thought step below is accompanied by actual scribbling in the answer sheet:

1. Eliminate the coefficient of x (namely, 2).

2. So, divide 2x by 2.  At the same time, divide 20 by 2.

3. x on the left side, 10 on the right side.

Time taken? 5 seconds.

Second question: 2x +1 = 21.

1. Eliminate everything that surrounds x.

2. So, first subtract 1 from the left side and the right side.  (Why subtract first and not divide by 2? Many kids fail in understanding this completely – but our student gets it).

2x + 1 – 1 = 21 – 1.

2. That leaves “2x = 20.”

Repeat the steps as for the first question.  3 more steps to get the answer “x = 10.”

Total number of steps (both mental and actually on paper): 7

Time taken? 10 seconds.  (That’s being generous.)

The rest of the problems increase in complexity.  When the class bell goes off, our poor student is on problem #25.  Result: great understanding, hopeless execution.

So, you might say, this kid gets a B perhaps.  Big deal.  Life’s not always a timed test.

Let’s assume that’s true (actually, everything in life IS a timed test).  The biggest problem is that our American student develops this attitude that understanding is all well and good but he’s getting a poor grade.  He’s no good at math.

Let’s see how an Asian student attacks the same thing.

First problem: 2x = 20.  Easy, 10.

Second problem: 2x +1 = 21.  (Mental picture: 2x = 20. Easy, 10. What a dumb question!)

Total time for the first two problems: 2 seconds.

To clarify a bit more: an Asian student may not actually know why the subtraction must be performed first before doing the division, but – and this is key – this lack of understanding does not stop her.

All 30 problems done in 5 minutes.  Looks around.  Everyone else is busy.  What are they doing?  Suspects she may have missed a extra sheet of more problems or maybe there are more on the other side?  No, she has done it all.  I’m bored, she thinks.

In contrast, it’s pathetic to see high school kids struggle through math problem solving by laboriously following a sequence of steps that’s supposed to teach them a concept when what they need is practice.

You see, what’s more important than understanding is the feeling of confidence in one’s ability to solve problems fast.  It’s what I call the feeling of excellence.  Yes, excellence is a habit, a quality, but it is also a feeling, a mood.

The primary purpose of education should be to develop this feeling in kids and to give them the mental tools to invoke that feeling at will.  It is this feeling that is the foundation of a strong, confident, efficacious mind.

The primary purpose of education is not to stuff all kinds of information into brains – that’s the secondary purpose.

The kid who is well-acquainted with the mood of excellence is highly motivated to experience it again and again.  And the only way to do this is to stop doing boring math problems at the level of “2x + 1 = 20″ and go on to higher algebra.  When that gets boring, go on to calculus…and on and on…

Like a drug addict that wants stronger and more frequent doses. To learn more about drug addiction and its consequenses, visit for more info.

The mood of excellence is addictive.

Contrast this with the state of mind of the student in the ‘understanding is primary’ school of education.  He understands  the content, but wait, why is this useful in real life?

When was the last time you estimated the height of a building using the length of your shadow?  How much time did you spend laboriously solving trigonometric problems about this?  What for?

99.99% of the content of our education is a complete waste.  The ROI (return on investment) of our educational content is terrible.

Our American kid, faced with the barrage of seemingly useless information, has nothing but a feeling of frustration.

Our Asian kid seeks tougher problems so he or she can experience the feeling of triumph, of excellence, of confidence.  The question of the relevance of the content to real life is itself irrelevant.  Scholastic ability and scholarship become an addictive game.

Did I mention that the mood of excellence is addictive?

That’s why all kids seek it actively.  If they can’t get it through math, they’ll seek out video games.  Somehow, somewhere.  The nature of the content is secondary.

If our Asian student is lucky, she will realize that at some point she has to augment her basic skills of execution with understanding.

The habit of excellence, the feeling of confidence in one’s own mind, is the primary purpose of education.

Now, this does not imply that understanding is unimportant (an attitude that is probably carried to the other extreme in Asian educational culture).

I just mean that kids must first experience success and make the attitude of excellence a firm part of them consciousness.  Only when they are addicted to excellence will they actively seek out things to be excellent in.  Only then will they have sufficient motivation to explore understanding.

The kid with no strong experience of the mood of excellence has no motive power for future development.

This relationship between execution and understanding is inverted in adults, who feel frustrated if they don’t understand something.  They are not as concerned about solving things fast as they are about solving things.

This, then, is the tragedy of the American educational system: cultivating understanding at the expense of the habit of excellence.

So, how do you begin cultivating the habit of excellence?


Practice techniques so well that they become second nature.  After all, kids are taught to do this with the multiplication table.  Why not continue that with higher level techniques?

Let’s take an analogy with learning the piano.  If our traditional K-12 techniques were followed, piano classes would churn out mediocre players (or more accurately, non-players), who have a smidgen of knowledge about formal music and poor technique.  These unfortunate students would have no ‘habit of excellence’ to support their growth as pianists.

Contrast this with private piano schools – especially those with good repute.  They have more practice, interspersed with learning repertoire pieces.

Take another analogy with professional tennis players.  They spend 90% of their practice doing drills.  Only 10% of the time is spent playing games.  In contrast, consider weekend warriors.  After a few warm up minutes, they dive right into playing games.

Why?  What are they out to prove?  Well, you may say, we don’t all want to become professional tennis players.  We just want to have fun, not do boring practice.

Oh yeah?  Have you actually practiced drills?  Do you even know how much more fun it is when you can keep the ball in play for 10, 15, 25 ground strokes? How exhilirating it is when you can place the ball consistently in a 5-foot circle in the far court over the course of 10-15 strokes?

Don’t tell me playing sets is fun.  Speak to me after you try my method for a few months.

We don’t all want to become concert pianists, you say.  All I want to do is to play Mary Has a Little Lamb, you say.  I don’t want to practice for four hours a day, you say.  Well, do you know how much more pleasure you can get if you practice good technique for 15 minutes a day – if you focus on getting the technique correct?

This is what I mean by the tragedy of American schooling.  Kids (who later become adults) have no experience of the ‘mood high’ one gets when skills improve with practice.

So, learn a fundamental concept, gain initial understanding – then practice it so well that it becomes second nature.  Then review periodically.  Repeat with another concept.

There you have it.  The ONE and ONLY way to fix education.

Not more technology, not more money, not more philanthropic efforts from well-meaning billionaires, and especially not more Ph.D.s from teachers’ colleges.


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