The Smartest Kids in the World : And How They Got That Way, Hardback

The Smartest Kids in the World : And How They Got That Way Hardback

3.5 out of 5 (7 ratings)


America has long compared its students to top-performing kids of other nations.

But how do the world's education superpowers look through the eyes of an American high school student?

Author Amanda Ripley follows three teenagers who chose to spend one school year living and learning in Finland, South Korea, and Poland.

Through their adventures, Ripley discovers startling truths about how attitudes, parenting, and rigorous teaching have revolutionized these countries' education results.

In The Smartest Kids in the World, Ripley's astonishing new insights reveal that top-performing countries have achieved greatness only in the past several decades; that the kids who live there are learning to think for themselves, partly through failing early and often; and that persistence, hard work, and resilience matter more to our children's life chances than self-esteem or sports.

Ripley's investigative work seamlessly weaves narrative and research, providing in-depth analysis and gripping details that will keep you turning the pages. Written in a clear and engaging style, The Smartest Kids in the World will enliven public as well as dinner table debates over what makes for brighter and better students.




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I thought that this book started with promise, and then fizzled out. The topic that was chosen is a very important subject. Education is critical, and even in India, there are voices speaking out against the current system that does not encourage critical thinking.While she chose a good tool of following the stories of the young kids as they spent a year in several parts of the world, I do not think that she went into any real depth in exploring the topics. This is a tragedy, as this book has received good publicity, good reviews, and yet does not cover the subject at hand properly. This is a golden opportunity missed.

Review by

Is this the best book I’ve read this year about education? Yes, it is. And I’ve read a lot of books this year about education. This one was best of all. It looked at education the way I like to look at things: it looked at education that works. Ripley studied the strong educational systems in three countries, Korea and Finland and Poland, and analyzed why each is so successful.Lots of lessons here for those of us here in the US who want our children to get an excellent education.

Review by

The educational systems of Korea, Poland, and Finland, compared to those in the US, both in general and through the experiences of three American exchange students (and one student who moves back and forth from Korea to the US with her family). Ripley argues that high expectations and rigor are the key to success, but that the US has imposed the expectations at exactly the wrong point (tests that punish teachers but have little relevance to the students themselves). Instead, successful countries—primarily Finland is the example here—make teaching a highly rigorous and respected profession by requiring a lot of training for teachers, both academic and hands-on, and only selecting teachers from the top third of their own classes. Finland has produced great results even in schools with large percentages of immigrants who don’t speak Finnish at home, which means that homogeneity isn’t the simple explanation for why we can’t get the same job done. American parents value sports and easy academics over the hard work of learning, especially in math; they’d prefer good grades to good outcomes. The prescriptions are simple but not easy: read to kids and talk to them about current events; have a few tests that actually matter to kids rather than a lot of tests that don’t; train teachers well and have them continue professional development throughout their careers, but also pay them well and give them autonomy; deemphasize sports as part of the school experience; teach kids to work through initial failure—success regularly comes from repeated hard work, not from innate talent.

Review by

I'm very glad I read this book. I've always been interested in education issues, probably since I went through much of my school career as part of the "guinea pig" year for a new curriculum. At first I felt negatively towards the author when she said in the introduction that she had always avoided covering education in her career as a journalist, because it didn't seem exciting enough. But I'm glad I persevered.In examining why US educational outcomes are so bad, Ripley looks at a few of the countries that are excelling in education: Finland, Korea, and Poland. And in order to get a deeper understanding than would be possible for a complete outsider, she focuses specifically on the experiences of three American exchange students, one in each of these countries. There's plenty of discussion about policy too, but the students' story definitely made the book more interesting.The Korean system, while effective in its way, isn't seen as ideal because of the extreme stress it imposes on everyone. So much in Korea is based on test scores, so there's an enormous after-school education market, and curfews were recently imposed to forbid attending one of these tutoring places after midnight. Students studied so much after school that they would fall asleep in their regular school classes, sometimes bringing along a pillow. The whole thing is pretty messed up, but the students do learn a lot.Finland is seen as a much better model, because students manage to learn a lot without overdoing it. The key here is largely in teacher quality and prestige: as part of significant education reforms, Finland moved teacher training programs into the top universities (comparable to MIT etc.), so that only the best students can become teachers. The teacher training is long and rigorous, with plenty of practice teaching, so that teachers come out thoroughly prepared to teach. They're paid a decent salary, and given a lot of respect and freedom. Basically, teaching is seen as a high-level job, and it attracts the best candidates, and the whole thing is a virtuous circle.One interesting point is that in order to enact these reforms, Finland did at some point impose the sort of painful accountability measures that are found in the US today. But while the United States has focused just on punishing teachers who do badly, it hasn't taken the extra steps of producing better-trained teachers who were themselves more academically successful and making the job appealing enough (in pay, prestige, etc.) that those teachers will stick around. In Finland, it actually turned out that all the accountability measures were no longer needed once the teacher selection and training process had been thoroughly revised, but they did play an important role initially.Ripley also points out that the idea of choosing better-qualified teachers wouldn't necessarily fly in the United States. There's an idea that anyone should be able to become a teacher—that they deserve the opportunity—and a fear of elitism if teacher training programs admitted only students in the top third of their class.Meanwhile, for Poland, the most striking and shocking idea was just how detrimental streaming is to the students placed into the lower stream. At one point, the Polish government decided to delay streaming by just one year, keeping the academic and vocational students together until they were 16. This meant building thousands of new schools to accommodate the extra students for that extra year, but the consequences were dramatic and average test scores for 15-year-olds shot up. Even more importantly, though, they plummeted the following year for students who were placed in the vocational stream, showing that a lot of the difference was just about expectations. Students in vocational streams just weren't expected to do very well academically, and so they didn't.This was a particularly significant point to me because I've always been very much in favour of streaming—I was in gifted classes starting in Grade 3, and I definitely noticed the difference in unstreamed high school courses like Civics, where the learning was done at a much lower level. It's tricky to offer extra opportunities to students who are doing well without offering fewer opportunities to the others, but I wonder whether there could be a regular stream and an advanced stream but no below-average stream. I also find it confusing in general that "vocational" often ends up being just less—I feel like there should be plenty of hands-on type stuff that certain types of people excel at, and that I couldn't do at all, but that's just *different*, not a watered-down version of the academic curriculum. Anyway, much to ponder there.This whole book was very thought-provoking, and I'd definitely recommend it to anyone with an interest in education. I may also look for Ripley's other book, The Unthinkable, on a completely different topic.

Review by

This is the best book I have read on education in a long time. It changed my thinking on the topic, and I hope it will change lots of other peoples' thinking about it. To that end, I have already sent it to two sets of parents of young children (these parents are the ones who can benefit most from this book) and plan to send it to more.What's so special about it? The book isn't long, it isn't weightily academic, and it relies in part on anecdotes about four specific kids, hardly a statistically significant sample. The first thing that's special is that it starts with a question -- why, when we spend more per pupil than almost any other country, are our outcomes disappointing -- rather than with an answer. The second is that it bases its answers on how students perform in a wide range of countries, not just in the U.S. Finally, the statistics are amplified by the stories of four kids -- three U.S. exchange students abroad, and one Korean kid here. This added a lot to the book, for me at least. As it turns out, students perform very differently in different countries, and performance within countries can change dramatically over time. And those differences are not determined by the factors I for one would expect. Yes, richer countries tend to do somewhat better than poorer countries, but some rich countries have mediocre results (Norway) while some poorer countries (Poland) have shown dramatic improvement. Yes, big income differentials and ethnic differences do tend to pull down performance, but some countries with big income differentials (Singapore) perform very well. Higher spending per pupil does not seem to correlate well with educational outcomes, nor does technology seem to add much.What does matter is teachers -- where teaching is a highly selective, respected, and well paid profession, children do better. What also matters is expectations -- children who are expected to work hard and do well tend to outperform children who can easily get a do-over. And parental involvement is very important, but not the parental involvement that comes from proctoring the class trip, or coaching the volleyball team. Children whose parents read to the children, and who read for their own enjoyment, tend to outperform children whose parents aren't into books. Ms. Ripley has other specific advice for parents, including a checklist on what to look for if you are evaluating a school.This is a particularly important book for parents, but it also matters for concerned citizens, taxpayers, and businesspeople. And, let's hope, politicians.

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