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January 20, 2014

Smartest Kids in the World

I love to read.  I mainly read YA books, but occasionally a book will grab my attention and force me to pick it up.  The Smartest Kids in the World: And How They Got That Way was one of those books.  I was intrigued to learn what new idea was being shared about education.  Because lets face it, there is always a new "expert" with an idea on how to fix the system.

While I don't consider Amanda Ripley an expert I found her ideas interesting.  The book follows three American teens doing study abroad in Poland, South Korea, and Finland.  I found the insights into three different countries education systems fascinating.  Ripley uses anecdotes from interviews to demonstrate the different countries school cultures, strengths and weaknesses.

Ripley used her observations of the three countries and the students home schools to hypothesize about the education system in the United States.  She theorized that Americans lack standardized curriculum, wide engagement, academic rigor and highly qualified teachers.  The over focus of sports and testing in schools was also discussed.

While her anecdotes and research method's aren't the strongest, her book still made me stop and think. The Common Core is being rolled out to fix the curriculum problem, which should help ensure students are learning the same thing across the country.  This standardization should help with the next two problems, engagement and academic rigor.  It is hard to engage students at all different levels and abilities.  If students have the same foundation to build on the teacher can continue to expand and deepen their knowledge.

Teachers play a huge role in the engagement and rigor as well.  Did you know Finnish teachers get their masters in a subject before they start a teaching program?  Teaching schools in Finland have extremely high standards and take serious effort.  While I don't consider my time at school becoming a teacher a cake walk I think I definitely had an easier time.  I wish that my schooling had been more demanding and informative.

I'm not saying I wish I took more tests.  I believe I took enough of those.  I just wish that the tests I took were used more effectively.  Testing and preparing for tests takes up a huge amount of American school time.  In South Korea students study hard because they know that their final test determines their livelihood.  South Korea education is based not on genetics, money, athletic skill or location, but on merit.

Ripley ends her book with these questions:

  • Ask the students you observe, "What are you doing right now? Why?"
  • Ask parents, "What are the schools weaknesses? How are parents involved?"
  • Ask the principal, "How do you choose your teachers? How can you make teachers better? How do you measure success? How do you make work vigorous enough?" 
  • Ask yourself, "Am I an educational coach or a cheerleader?"

Has anyone else out there read this book? 

What did you think?  

What points stood out to you most?