The Smartest Kids in the World

A book that caught my attention recently is The Smartest Kids in the World by Amanda Ripley. This is a solid introduction to how the education systems in Finland, South Korea, and Poland contrast to the American system. The story is told through the experience of three American foreign exchange students who act as defacto undercover agents that give an account from a students point of view of what it is like to be in the system rather than merely observers of the system.

The book also gives the reader an excellent glimpse into the origins of the PISA exam and how to interpret the results. Clearly evaluating the educational systems of nations is a complex task and the text gives us a good introduction into what it all means.

The ideas that grabbed my attention as both a parent and a high school teacher are:

1) As a parent the simplest things I can do with my kids is read to them regularly, read myself, ask them about their day at school, and talk to them about current events. These are simple and manageable things that ultimately call my kids to a world that is bigger than it appears when one is young.

2) As a teacher I need to continue to increase, and hold the line, on rigor in my classroom. I need to provide kids opportunities to learn and grow, be challenged and deal with frustration. At the same time, I need to manage the line between appropriate support (it is probably less than our culture would suggest) and letting them work towards a high bar (it is probably higher than our culture would suggest).

3) One new idea from the book that I can implement in my classes has to do with communicating with parents. In the Korean hagwons (tutoring services) the amount of direct communication with parents is significantly more than what I currently do. Student progress is provided frequently and calls home with feedback are made two to three times a month. I’m not sure if I could sustain this today, but I think I could provide twice a month email updates to parents of freshmen, about 60 kids.

I recommend this book for a person that is interested in the way public school is done in other countries. It is readable and provides a good glimpse into the lights and shadows of all of the systems without being doom and gloom for the American education system.

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