The Rise of Superman


I stumbled across this Steven Kotler book at my library when I was looking for a copy of Tomorrowland. As a person who has coached high school distance runners and with children who play football, downhill ski, and mountain climb, I was interested in what I could learn about improving human performance.

In The Rise of Superman, Kotler wonders why the boundaries of extreme/adventure sports have been pushed so far, so fast. Perhaps you read the stories of Laird Hamilton surfing at Teahupoo or Alex Honold climbing in Yosemite. (Both of these videos have allusions to the ideas that Kotler is exploring.) Kotler provides some insight into how these amazing athletes are able to do this.

This is not a book on the training you will need to do to become the next Dean Potter. If nothing else you need to know up front that the stories of what the best are doing all have a level of commitment to their individual endeavors which is nothing short of unabashed focus and determination.

The most interesting takeaway for me had to do with the Flow Genome Project and how to begin to recognize what we can do to enter into Flow, a mental state where a person is completely in the moment and experiencing things Neo-like as we enter the Matrix. Some of it comes down to recognizing how we are wired and then putting ourselves in positions to experience that mental state.

For me, that has more to do with being in the moment in the mountains and connects to why I enjoy hiking, climbing, trailrunning, and mountaineering. I could say before reading this book that those are the times when I was fully present to the world around me and not encumbered by distractions which would bother me in other places.

This is a good read a a great place to begin understanding Flow. To take this idea further a person would want to read Flow, by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi.  One question I have as a teacher is how to create an environment where students can have an easier time entering into flow in the classroom. As a parent, I am interested in how to help my kids recognize what kinds of situations they will experience flow and how to support and encourage them in this.

The Smartest Kids in the World


A book that caught my attention recently is The Smartest Kids in the World by Amanda Ripley. This is a solid introduction to how the education systems in Finland, South Korea, and Poland contrast to the American system. The story is told through the experience of three American foreign exchange students who act as defacto undercover agents that give an account from a students point of view of what it is like to be in the system rather than merely observers of the system.

The book also gives the reader an excellent glimpse into the origins of the PISA exam and how to interpret the results. Clearly evaluating the educational systems of nations is a complex task and the text gives us a good introduction into what it all means.

The ideas that grabbed my attention as both a parent and a high school teacher are:

1) As a parent the simplest things I can do with my kids is read to them regularly, read myself, ask them about their day at school, and talk to them about current events. These are simple and manageable things that ultimately call my kids to a world that is bigger than it appears when one is young.

2) As a teacher I need to continue to increase, and hold the line, on rigor in my classroom. I need to provide kids opportunities to learn and grow, be challenged and deal with frustration. At the same time, I need to manage the line between appropriate support (it is probably less than our culture would suggest) and letting them work towards a high bar (it is probably higher than our culture would suggest).

3) One new idea from the book that I can implement in my classes has to do with communicating with parents. In the Korean hagwons (tutoring services) the amount of direct communication with parents is significantly more than what I currently do. Student progress is provided frequently and calls home with feedback are made two to three times a month. I’m not sure if I could sustain this today, but I think I could provide twice a month email updates to parents of freshmen, about 60 kids.

I recommend this book for a person that is interested in the way public school is done in other countries. It is readable and provides a good glimpse into the lights and shadows of all of the systems without being doom and gloom for the American education system.