Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Is Ivy League always good for your kids?

I'm sure you have heard stories about the tremendous effort parents are willing to put into helping their kids to get into elite schools. To those parents, getting in elite schools is almost like a ticket to success for their kids.

Is that so? I don't think it's that simple.

My little story

My high school was one of the most famous ones in Hong Kong. Because of its fame, the admission competition is quite fierce (I've heard one student saying that it's happier to be admitted by my high school than winning lottery). Naturally, my classmates were all pretty smart.

I was kind of an average student back then. Instead of studying, I spent a lot of time playing Chinese chess. As you know, the more one works on something, the better s/he gets and the more confident s/he feels in that discipline: a positive feedback loop. I even managed to win a few prizes in some joint-school Chinese chess tournaments. My academic performance? No, it wasn't that good.

After I came to Los Angeles, I went to a so-called below-average community college to continue my study. It's not as bad as some outsiders think actually (I had one of my best teachers there). Compared to other nearby community colleges, however, the courses were relatively easy, and the students weren't as smart as my classmates in my high school.

Consequently, I got good grades for most of my courses and maintained a decent GPA. I started to believe that I could do well in academics and my interest in math grew a great deal during those days. Finally, I was admitted to UCLA as an engineering student and finished my graduate study there.

During all those years, my intelligence didn't change; I was just as smart (or as dumb, if you wish :P) as I was before. What changed a great deal is my confidence in academics, the belief that I wasn't that bad after all.

My story was by no means a rare case. A friend of mine had a similar story: she did pretty well in her first year in high school. Because of this, she was transferred to an elite class and suddenly she became the student with the lowest grades. She was then "thrown" back to the original class and has lost confidence in academics since then.

As you can tell, confidence is extremely important for one to succeed in any discipline, even much more important than his/her talents.

How does confidence form though?

That's a good question. My answer:

We become confident in something if we think that we are good at it and can continue to do a good job.

"How do we know we are good at something?"

That's even a better question. Although I can't deny the fact that people have the innate ability to appreciate the quality of things (like artwork), we usually conclude that we are good at something because we do it better than others.

I always think that I type pretty fast. According to a Facebook game, my top typing speed is 107 wpm. That sounds pretty good? Well I've seen quite a lot of people typing over 130 wpm before. I would say that I'm above average but not very fast. You just don't know how good you really are until you compare your work with others'.

Is it morally correct to build your own confidence by comparison? I won't try to argue on that since that's not the point of this post. The point is that we often do build our confidence that way.

If we do build our confidence by seeing worse performance from others, "helping" your kids to get into an elite school will probably destroy his/her confidence altogether when s/he realizes that s/he doesn't really "belong there". And, as s/he feels bad about him/herself, s/he will tend to perform worse, and s/he will feel like trash. You can see how it is going to end.

To be honest, my argument should be some kind of cliche; how can no one thinks of this before? Nevertheless, when I see how competitive the admission process is for all those top schools in the nation, I highly doubt if those parents have given a second thought to whether those "top" schools are really good for their children or not.

Everyone is talented in certain area to a certain degree; the job of education is to discover and nuture it instead of burying it by destroying students' confidence and making them feel that they're worthless. Your thought?