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

  • Amanda Ripley
  • Simon and Schuster
  • 320 pp.
  • Reviewed by Paula Novash
  • August 20, 2013

A look inside some of the world’s best educational systems to find out how and why the U.S. system is falling short.

In a 2012 editorial in The Washington Post, Georgetown University student Darryl Robinson discussed his struggles with classwork during his freshman year. Although he excelled at a high-performing charter school in the District of Columbia, Robinson wrote that he was unprepared to tackle a college-level curriculum. “My former teachers simply did not push me to think past a basic level, to apply concepts, to move beyond memorizing facts and figures,” he explained.

Robinson is not alone in these difficulties: According to investigative journalist Amanda Ripley’s fascinating account of the state of education around the world, The Smartest Kids in The World: And How They Got That Way, his experience is more typical than you might think. Smartest Kids makes the case that an alarming number of students in the U.S., even those from the top private and public school districts, aren’t being taught to analyze, problem solve, synthesize and form their own opinions about the material they study. And, according to the Program for International Student Assessment, U.S. students are also underperforming worldwide; in PISA results from 2009 U.S. students placed 26th in math, 17th in science and 12th in reading. Yet in “a handful of eclectic nations,” Ripley points out, “something incredible [is] happening. Virtually all kids [are] learning critical thinking skills in math, science, and reading.”

In this terrific, informative overview of what we and other countries are doing well and not so well, Ripley examines three of the most successful educational systems, in Finland, Poland and South Korea, and the major reforms and economic imperatives that brought about changes in their policies and practices. Upheavals to the educational status quo in these countries were sometimes painful, involving overhauls of curricula, teacher training, and qualification and graduation requirements. Ripley outlines these changes and also discusses the day-to-day ramifications of them with the help of U.S. exchange students.

It’s a smart move. Ripley’s voice is engaging, and Smartest Kids is impeccably researched and packed with interesting interviews and anecdotes. But it’s students Kim, Tom and Eric whose perspectives make this book come alive. Kim revels in the greater freedom teenagers are given to manage their time in Finland; Eric learns taekwondo, eats baby octopus and visits a Buddhist temple in South Korea; and Tom hangs out at his favorite Polish coffeehouse listening to the patrons argue about philosophy. Their insider observations are amusing and illuminating, highlighting the values and practices, good and questionable, that these countries have cultivated to help their kids succeed.

For example, Kim learns that one reason her Finnish teachers are so respected is that gaining admission to a teacher-training program in Finland is comparable to getting into MIT in the States. Tom sees that to his Polish classmates failure is normal and acceptable; as Ripley points out, “If the work was hard, routine failure was the only way to learn.” And Eric is surprised to see Korean students, whose school day routinely runs to 12-15 hours, unashamedly sleeping in school — some even bring their own pillows.

Kim also observes that, although her classmates seem “normal” — they go to parties, text in class and generally behave much as she and her friends do back home — they take their schooling seriously. Even the kids she characterizes as “stoners” are always well-prepared and participate in class. One day she asks two Finnish classmates why they care as much as they do about school. One of the girls replies, “How else will I graduate and go to university and get a good job?”

It’s a logical answer and one that, Ripley points out, has large ramifications. “They took school more seriously because it was more serious. And it was more serious because everyone agreed it should be. … That consensus about rigor had then changed everything else.”

Ripley postulates that this societal emphasis on rigor, which encompasses ideas such as having high expectations for students and teachers, working toward clearly articulated and shared goals, developing self-discipline and conscientious work habits, etc., is the greatest contributor to the success of the education superpowers. In her comprehensive review, she also addresses the roles played by child poverty, multiculturalism, technology, extracurricular activities and parental involvement, among many other factors.

The book ends on a positive note, one that is echoed in a recent editorial about change in The Atlantic, where Ripley is a frequent contributor. The Atlantic’s editor, James Bennet, notes that “optimism about change — impatience for it” was an idea upon which the magazine was founded.

That’s an important takeaway from this book as well. While the issues are complex, we certainly get the message that we can improve our educational system for our kids, and relatively quickly — as long as school administrators, policymakers, teachers, parents and even students are willing to tolerate being uncomfortable in the process.

Paula Novash has written on topics ranging from rock climbing to sushi and edits books, articles and journals in fields that include medicine, linguistics, philanthropy and neuroscience. 

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