The Smartest Kids In The World And How They Got That Way
I just finished reading the The Smartest Kids In The World And How They Got That Way by Amanda Ripley. It’s a great read and I truly enjoyed every minute of it. Ripley mainly examines the education systems in Finland, South Korea, and Poland (other countries are mentioned but not discussed as thoroughly) to consider what we can learn from different models around the world. When she described the culture of the hagwons in S. Korea, I felt the tension coursing through my veins as I flipped through the pages. Ripley describes the unique S. Korean culture so vividly, allowing the reader to form colorful images of young Korean students hunkered at their desks during after-school hours gripping their pencils tightly with sweat dripping down their foreheads as they review their lessons feverishly with instructors pacing the aisles and watching over them. The icing on the cake was the author’s raid with the hagwon curfew police who traveled from street to street searching for illegal studying establishments to bust!
Ripley’s descriptions of Finland and Poland were interesting too. The description of those cultures didn’t pop as much as S. Korea’s. There was an interesting bit about Poland’s history and the country’s efforts to revamp itself. With respect to Finland, which is considered the top education model in the world, it was interesting to read about the predominant, maybe even universal, understanding among children and adults about the importance of education as well as the freedom that Finnish students are afforded by their parents and teachers.
Throughout the book, there is a big emphasis on the quality of teachers, the quality of the curriculum, and the level of expectations for students. Ripley talks at length about making teachers’ colleges more competitive, increasing the prestige of the teaching profession, etc. These are insightful and important points. However, I would have also liked to read more about other subjects – like the dynamics of teachers unions and local government, poverty, race and diversity. For instance, the teachers’ unions, which are mentioned but not really explored, are a huge issue in the U.S. right now. I’m curious as to Ripley’s thoughts about how powerful unions can exist abroad without getting in the way of positive education reform. The book is only 199 pages (excluding appendices, author’s notes, etc.), but I would have enjoyed reading more.
Some other interesting takeaway messages: the importance of failing (contrast with “the self-esteem culture” in which everyone gets a trophy, everyone’s a winner), the relative unimportance of sports in a school setting (i.e., as opposed to participating in sports outside of school with private organizations), quality parental involvement at home on academic skills vs. frequent involvement in extra-curriculuar school events and PTA meetings, economic imperatives leading to consensus about rigor (do we need to hit rock bottom first?), and PISA.
At the end of the day, The Smartest Kids In The World is a highly enjoyable read. Even though the personal details about the lives of the exchange students can, at times, feel fluffy, they enhance the reader’s interest and quicken the pace of the book. Ripley also includes a great appendix dealing with the subject of “how to spot a world-class education system,” which, among other things, cautions to “ignore the shiny things” that are not always tied to academic progress.
I wholeheartedly recommend this book.
Congratulations Amanda on your wonderful accomplishment and best of luck with your next endeavor.