The eating utensil that's ruining American education

Tommy Rot

Pioneers in the field of anecdotal data analysis recently dropped another surefire education policy blockbuster: Surpassing Shanghai 2: Lessons from Lunch. In it, Clark Mucker and Belinda Darling-Sammons build on their first book, Surpassing Shanghai: How America Can Be Like Better Countries.

The innovative methodology they employ, often called “best practices,” is beloved by business leaders, life coaches, and celebrity nutritionists, and its powerful logic can be applied in numerous domains of life. For example, many Americans are aware that elite athletes wear expensive shoes and eat specific breakfast cereals, prompting many of these same Americans to purchase these products for themselves. If following best practices didn’t work, how could the shoe and cereal industries be worth nearly $1 trillion? The beauty of best practices research is that little analytical thinking or understanding of comparative methodology is required of the researchers, and even less is required of the readers.

The new book’s main contribution is to go beyond typical education policies and pedagogical methods to explore customs that Mucker and Darling-Sammons discovered while sitting around lunchroom tables in a handful of top countries: Finland, Japan, Singapore, Shanghai, and South Korea. In fully four out of five (80 percent!) of them, students normally used a pair of small dowels to pick up their food and bring it to their mouths. This practice—which the authors postulate may help train the parts of the developing brain controlling physical movements and rudimentary number sense (there are two dowels)—likely affects youngsters’ hand-eye coordination and mathematics abilities. And the statistics bear this out: Although data on manual coordination was unavailable, the four countries where students typically use these “eating rods” have a mean PISA math score 48 points higher than the average country.

So what’s up with Finland, whose children ingest food with quadruple-tined metal object that resemble farm tools? As a statistical outlier, it deserves further attention from researchers on “cuisine-related and other cultural correlates of academic performance,” say the authors. “But the Finnish practice of swatting oneself with the ‘vihta,’ a birch branch used in conjunction with ceremonial bathing, may be a good place to start.”

As edu-reformers have been saying since Sputnik, the U.S. has much to learn.