The Smartest Kids in the World: A book review by Bob Morris

Smartest KidsThe Smartest Kids in the World: And How They Got That Way
Amanda Ripley
Simon & Schuster (2013)

Valuable lessons to be learned from how school children are educated in Finland, South Korea, and Poland

Amanda Ripley shares what she learned while studying pre-collegiate education in three foreign countries: Finland, South Korea, and Poland. The quality of education in any country reflects – for better or worse – what the adults in each country value most. For example, in Finland, rather than “trying to reverse engineer high-performance teaching culture through a dazzlingly complex performance evaluations and value-added data analysis,” as in the United States, education leaders ensure high-quality from the beginning, allowing only top students to enroll in teacher training programs. Unlike in the U.S. the education of children is entrusted only to “the best and the brightest” teachers who demand academic rigor and best effort.

In a country such as South Korea where that is not the case, ambitious parents enroll their children in hagwons (highly intensive, after-school for-profit teaching centers) to ensure that they will pass the country’s stringent graduation examination, “the key to a successful prosperous life.” In 2011, parents spent $18-billion on these cram schools. Ripley calls this system “rigor on steroids,” a “hamster wheel” that has created as many problems as it has solved. In 2010, one Hagwon teacher – Andrew Kim – earned $4-million and in South Korea is renowned as a “rock star teacher.” Most of his teaching is done online. Thousands of students are charged $3.50 an hour. They or their parents select specific teachers — not hagwons – with selections based entirely on how well their students score on the national exam.

As for Poland, its public schools seem to accomplish much more with less than do he other two. As in Finland and South Korea, however, parents have high hopes and great expectations for their children and generously support well-trained teachers, a rigorous curriculum, and a challenging national examination for all graduating seniors. Ripley was surprised to learn that “sports simply did not figure into the school day” nor does athletic competition between and among schools have any appeal. “There was no confusion about what school was for – or what mattered in kids’ life chances.”

I think the title of Ripley’s book is somewhat misleading. Public school education in Finland, South Korea, and Poland does not produce smarter students than do schools anywhere else but they [begin italics] do [end italics] seem to produce students who are better prepared to compete in what Ripley characterizes as “an automated, global economy” in which competitors must be “driven to succeed” and have learned – during their school days — how to adapt in a “culture of rigor.”

As she observes in the final chapter, “The stories of Finland, Korea, and Poland are complicated and unfinished. But they reveal what is possible [in the United States]. All children must learn rigorous higher-order thinking to thrive in the modern world. The only way to do that is by creating a serious intellectual culture in schools, one that kids can sense is real and true. As more and more data spills out of schools and countries, and as students themselves find ways to tell the world how much more they can do, these counternarratives will, I hope, be too loud to bear.”

After reading these concluding remarks, I was again reminded of the “10,000-hour rule” revealed by decades of research conducted by Anders Ericsson and his associates at Florida State University. With rare exception, those who invest (on average) 10,000 hours in deliberate, highly disciplined practice (of almost anything) under expert supervision can achieve peak performance. If a student spends (on average) five hours a day in a classroom for 40 weeks a year for twelve years (grades 1-12), the total is 12,000 hours.

To repeat, the quality of education in any country reflects – for better or worse – what the adults in each country value most. What does the performance of students of U.S. public schools – in internal competition — tell us about what their parents’ values? How well prepared are these students to compete with those from other countries in the “an automated, global economy,” the one to which Ripley refers, a business world in which competitors must be “driven to succeed” and have learned – during their school days — how to adapt in a “culture of rigor”?

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