This paper is a critical analysis of the book “The Smartest Kids in the World and How They Got This Way” by Amanda Ripley. The book follows the author’s investigation as she attempts to determine the reason why children in different countries appear to display significant variance in their learning outcomes despite their similar life circumstances.
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She conducted an experiment, in which three American teenager volunteers visited Finland, South Korea, and Poland, three countries with highly praised education results, and experienced their schools firsthand. She concludes that the primary factor that influences learning outcomes is the state’s establishment of high standards and enforcement of those in a meaningful fashion.
Most Resonant Statements
The idea that I have agreed with the most is the book’s conclusion that statistical, impersonal methods of evaluating the quality of teaching are not a valid approach to the matter. As Ripley notes, countries with world’s best educations spend less per student than the U.S. and have larger classes, and test data are fundamentally biased and do not have a universal value to reference (174). The outward signs, such as discipline, also do not indicate high quality, but the behavior of the children is essential. Children tend to be active and unrestrained by nature, and the best learning environments try to adapt to their needs, convince them of the necessity of the material, and engage their attention.
Correspondingly, the other notion I found highly interesting is the lack of a single unifying standard for the countries investigated in the book, which nevertheless did not prevent them from achieving high results statewide. The display demonstrates that any culture and nation can create a high-quality education program that suits its peculiarities. South Korea took advantage of the hard-working nature of its people, letting students sleep through school and catch up during night studies (Ripley, 175).
Finland chose to require excellence of its teachers, who undergo a long and rigorous selection and education process. Lastly, Poland introduced a general set of reforms, raising the standards, providing financial aid to schools that underperformed, delaying tracking by a year, and granting the schools autonomy. Each of the approaches resulted in the introduction of an outstanding education system for the country in question.
Most Confounding Statements
South Korea’s approach to learning was inspiring, but also surprising and confusing. The children there usually attend private cram schools in addition to their usual educational institutions. There, they learn much of the same material, but they believe the activity is necessary and prefer it to the studies in their mandatory institutions (Ripley 147). While the higher quality of education in the private sector is logical from a competitive point of view, the approach raises questions about the lack of incorporation of the hagwon system into the overall legislator framework.
It appears that there is no obstacle to transforming the private educational facilities into proper schools, which children could attend instead of the government-funded institutions. Nevertheless, South Koreans choose to maintain the system in its current form and seem to spend excessive time on studying while still injecting exorbitant sums of money into private education.
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Another confounding fact was the ease with which educational standards can rise and fall, as shown by the example of Poland. The country was characterized by its relatively poor economic and learning situation when judged by the standards of the developed world. However, in the span of three years of intense and controversial reform, its results went from dishearteningly poor to better than those of the United States.
It should be noted that the U.S. was conducting educational reforms, as well, but its policies did not have a noticeable effect on the success of the students, as opposed to Poland’s. It is challenging to tell whether the increased motivation of Polish children or the aggressive approach of the Polish Minister of Education were responsible, or if the results were a one-time accident.
My View on Education
After finishing the book, I have come to the conclusion that the education system of the United States is inefficient and potentially misguided. The government concerns itself with numbers such as spending per student or class counts and introduces unnecessary new equipment. Meanwhile, the children do not feel motivated to study because the pervading view is that one will not need most of what is taught in school in life, and higher education is expected to supply all the necessary knowledge. As children are not interested in studying, and many teachers value arbitrary test scores more than actual learning, which is harder to quantify, students graduate without internalizing much of the information.
The overall view is likely prevalent in numerous other countries around the world, particularly in those that view teaching in a vein similar to that of the United States. The sentiment that “those who cannot do, teach” leads to increased numbers of teachers who do not treat their job with respect and prefer to concentrate on the more comfortable aspects such as test scores. On the other hand, countries that treat teaching as a prestigious profession, a sentiment expressed in all three countries in Ripley’s book, tend to achieve high educational standards that should inspire the rest of the world.
Inspirations and Concerns
The book has inspired me to try engaging children more in my teaching career and to attempt to understand them. I believe that while standardized evaluation metrics are vital for comparing the relative success of various students, the teacher should be personally familiar with his or her students to comprehend their needs and traits. Without the corresponding awareness, the creation of an environment where children want to learn and can do so effectively becomes nearly impossible.
However, I am concerned about the overall culture surrounding education in the United States. The perception of teaching as a niche profession that does not require high qualifications mentioned above is prevalent throughout the country, being transferred to children from parents. Unless an influential figure can introduce fast and massive reform, like what happened in Poland, the process of changing these beliefs is going to be long, challenging, and highly stressful. It will require a systemic overhaul, which will have to incorporate changes in the teacher training programs, qualification improvements among existing staff, and attempts to convince parents and children that the system is changing for the better.
Amanda Ripley’s book offers a comparison of the American education system to that of countries that have achieved outstanding results in the field. Finland, South Korea, and Poland offer various philosophies and methods, but they are united in their enforcement of rigorous standards for both teachers and students. This trend is in contrast to the view of teaching as an easy profession that is popular in the U.S., a notion that will require significant alterations to the existing methods if it is to change.
Ripley, Amanda. The Smartest Kids in the World and How They Got This Way. Simon & Schuster, 2016.