Book Review: “The Smartest Kids in the World”

“The Smartest Kids in the World,” by Amanda Ripley, is a highly engaging look at secondary education in Finland, South Korea, and Poland. The book was published in 2013 and generated quite a bit of buzz , due to its skillful comparison of the systems of these three educational high-achievers with that of the United States. Ripley skillfully combines a variety of statistics (primary compiled by the PISA exam) with a unique on-the-ground perspective provided by extensive interviews with three American exchange students, who each lived in one of the subject countries for a year. Many of her findings challenge key aspects of the U.S. high school experience:

  • Technology is far less prevalent in Finnish, Korean, and Polish classrooms than in U.S. classrooms. This suggests that expensive technology is not required for  better learning outcomes.
  • Parents are less involved in school activities in Finland than in the U.S., but are more likely to read to their children or help them with schoolwork. The impact of parental attitudes on learning outcomes is a major theme of the book. Ripley discusses studies that show a positive impact of reading to children, emphasizing the importance of school, and engaging children in serious “adult” conversations about their schoolwork and current events.
  • Youth sports are typically not associated with schools in the subject countries. Ripley suggests that the large emphasis placed on competitive sports in U.S. high schools, while beneficial for the participants, takes resources and focus away from academics.

These factors contribute to what Ripley describes as a much stronger societal agreement in the study countries on the importance and seriousness of getting an education. This agreement is perhaps most significantly manifested in teacher training programs in the subject countries, of which Finland is used as an example. In Finland, teachers are famously well-respected and well-paid. This level of respect comes from the high degree of selectivity and difficulty of teacher training programs in that country. These programs are as selective as doctor training programs and require 6 years of study and completion of a masters thesis in the area of specialization. This in contrast to many U.S. programs, which are not selective and often require little in the way of rigorous subject-specific coursework.

While Ripley does touch on post-secondary education in the context of teacher training, the primary focus of the book is on secondary education. However, many of the issues she describes are worth considering in the context of college teaching. One of the keys to the high-achieving school systems described in the book is intellectual rigor. Achieving rigor in the college classroom was also a focus of Ken Bain’s “What the Best College Teachers Do.” He advocates considering not only the facts a student should know upon completing a course, but also what intellectual tasks they should be able to perform – i.e. what types of critical thinking tasks should they be able to perform or what kind of conversations should they be able to engage in? Teacher training is also a significant issue at the college level, though I think the problem is inverted from that of secondary education – many college teachers are extremely well-versed in their subjects, but have little or no training in pedagogical methods. In summary, I think that “The Smartest Kids in the World” is highly relevant to anyone involved in education and well-worth reading.

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