There is more pressure than ever for kids to do well in school – earn perfect grades, attend a top college and head into a lucrative career. It’s a lot for anyone to handle, let alone a child, and many experts are warning that this intense situation can backfire, leading to social, emotional, and physical stress.
This is something I’ve thought a lot about with my middle-school and high-school-aged grandchildren. I certainly don’t want this path for them. There must be a better way to navigate this stage in life. There must be a better way for success.
And that’s why I’ve enlisted the help of Cal Newport, father to two young sons and author of three books on unconventional advice for students: How to Be a High School Superstar, How to Become a Straight-A Student, and How to Win at College.
Please also be sure to check out his popular blog: Study Hacks.
Paul: Cal, thank you. This is an honor. You’ve researched and written extensively about successful high school and college students. As a father, what is your biggest priority when it comes to your sons and learning?
Cal: I think it’s important to view learning as a noble craft. To train your mind to break down, digest, and ultimately understand complex concepts can be immensely rewarding and an important part of a successful and good life. But, like any craft, it’s hard work and should be treated with respect. I think there’s too much emphasis out there right now on this notion that kids should be always excited and self-motivated in any learning they do. This is a fairytale. Like anything else hard that involves children, a parent can play a key role in setting up expectations and providing guidance.
Paul: In your book, How to Be a High School Superstar, one comment really jumped out at me: “The secret to scoring in the high 700s on the verbal section of the SAT can be isolated to a single trait shared by every high scorer on this section whom I’ve ever met. These students started reading adult-level books around the third or fourth grade.” What else can you say to parents about the importance of reading?
Cal: Reading is to the mind what a lifelong habit of calisthenics is to the body. It sharpens the mind’s ability to focus, intake information, and process the information.
Paul: I love the notion of an under-scheduled student. Can you explain what you mean by this?
Cal: Overscheduling is a plague on students: taking those with potential and turning them into burnt out drones. I am a big believer in scheduling less than you have time to complete. Then spending a lot of time on what remains in your schedule to do it really well, and, just as important, leaving plenty of time to explore ideas and directions, seeking that spark of interest that can blossom into something truly interesting in your life.
None of this can happen if you’re taking the hardest possible course load and participating in 19 activities. As someone who has written a book on college admissions, I can tell you: no one involved in admissions decisions cares how busy you were. They aren’t selecting for diligence and work ethic; they are selecting for interestingness and potential to do one thing that matters.
Paul: Imagine I’m a parent or grandparent of children who are in grades 4 to 6; what three things do you think I should pay attention to with respect to preparing them for success in school…or maybe in life?
Cal: Teach them to cultivate and respect the ability to focus intensely without distraction. Teach them that studying is a skill that deserves a lot of attention and tweaking. Teach them that school is a time to craft their ability to think and tackle cognitively demanding tasks—that they are, in effect, getting their minds in shape to go do interesting things in the world outside of school.
Paul: What would you say to an auditorium of 8th and 9th graders who are entering high school?
Cal: Being a student is your job. Put in the effort to do it well. But keep it confined to a reasonable set of working hours outside of which you explore, without structure, things that interest you.