How do other countries create “smarter” kids? What is it like to be a child in the world’s new education superpowers? The Smartest Kids in the World “gets well beneath the glossy surfaces of these foreign cultures and manages to make our own culture look newly strange....The question is whether the startling perspective provided by this masterly book can also generate the will to make changes” (The New York Times Book Review).
In a handful of nations, virtually all children are learning to make complex arguments and solve problems they’ve never seen before. They are learning to think, in other words, and to thrive in the modern economy. Inspired to find answers for our own children, author and Time magazine journalist Amanda Ripley follows three Americans embedded in these countries for one year. Kim, fifteen, raises $10,000 so she can move from Oklahoma to Finland; Eric, eighteen, trades his high-achieving Minnesota suburb for a booming city in South Korea; and Tom, seventeen, leaves a historic Pennsylvania village for Poland.
Through these young informants, Ripley meets battle-scarred reformers, sleep-deprived zombie students, and a teacher who earns $4 million a year. Their stories, along with groundbreaking research into learning in other cultures, reveal a pattern of startling transformation: none of these countries had many “smart” kids a few decades ago. Things had changed. Teaching had become more rigorous; parents had focused on things that mattered; and children had bought into the promise of education.
My Thoughts: This book was incredible. I can hold my own in a heated conversation about what is wrong with the education system in our country. I have a lot of opinions and thoughts on the subject, so this book was right up my alley. Interestingly enough, this book didn't affirm all the opinions I already have. In fact, it challenged some of my ideas, and maybe even changed some of them!
For example, academic achievement actually has LESS to do with socioeconomic status and parent involvement than we may have thought. Yes, those things matter, but the author found that children living in poverty in Poland are still performing better than children in the US who live in similar conditions. A teacher in Finland says he tries as much as possible to ignore the various challenges of each student, because he finds when he treats them all the same, they tend to perform much better.
Other questions this book brought to light - In America, are we actually spending TOO MUCH on technology and other classroom toys that don't seem to actually make any kind of difference? Do we allow our schools to spend too much money and time on sports, instead of academics? Do we churn out too many teachers who aren't really all that qualified? What would happen if we truly had a common standard across the US of what kids should know in each grade? What would happen if instead of dumbing everything down, we instead increased rigor and expected MORE of our students?
One quote I loved towards the end "High school in Finland, Korea, and Poland had a purpose, just like high school football practice in America. There was a big, important contest at the end, and the score counted."
A fascinating aspect of a Finnish education was that almost half of kids there have received special education services by the time they turn 17. Children in special ed are seen as having temporary problems, not permanent setbacks, and all kids can improve. This actually reminded me of the attitude we had at the school I worked at for years. I worked helping kids who didn't qualify for special ed, but still needed help. Our goal was to get them out of our program as soon as possible. And not in like a hooray we got rid of that kid type of way, no. We saw it as they graduated and no longer needed our help and that was always a huge victory.
Lest you think this is just a book to make you feel worse about our education system, there's a handy appendix in the back listing things to look for in a good school. I found that really helpful and interesting, as actually most of the ideas are ones that I would not have considered.
I feel like this book should be required of every teacher, parent, administrator, and lawmaker! You won't regret reading this one, and it's not full of technical scientific jargon. I found it easy to read and keep reading. I was finished with it in 2 days.