In The Smartest Kids in the World and How They Got That Way, Amanda Ripley looks at education through the lens of PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) which is a test administered around the world to test the math, science, and reading skills of 15-year-olds. In general, student scores indicate that teenagers in Finland, South Korea, and Poland are learning and mastering the skills needed to solve problems and make complex arguments, skills that are increasingly important in the modern economy. In contrast, the scores of American students seem to indicate that teenagers in the United States are not learning or mastering these skills, at least not as well. In an attempt to figure out why or at least how education differed among these four countries, Ripley followed three American students who spent a year abroad in Finland, South Korea, and Poland. She also talked to educators, parents, and a host of other people.
I found this subject fascinating. Ripley does not attempt to provide any easy solutions, or really any solutions at all, to the problems in American education. She simply reports what she discovered through her investigation. This is certainly not an exhaustive study on education in the U.S. or the world, but it does present an interesting picture and hopefully will invite discussion.
There were three lessons I took from this book. The first was the importance of creating a culture of rigor around education. In the countries Ripley focuses on school is expected to be hard, standards are high, and it is assumed that students will meet those standards. Of course, not every student does. Still there is something to be said for assuming that kids can succeed rather than assuming at the outset that are too many obstacles in their way for that to happen. She points out that sometimes policies aimed at helping kids ends up doing more harm than good by providing the kids with reasons to explain why they're not performing better in school.
The second had to with the teaching profession. I have to admit I have never put much thought into how teachers are trained beyond getting a college degree. Ripley suggests that an education major is considered to be an easy major in the U.S. I don't know if this is true or not, but then I majored in political science and journalism (before going to law school and librarian school). In contrast, in countries like Finland becoming a teacher is comparatively much harder. Only the best and brightest are trusted with teaching the nation's youngsters. Ripley's description of the process of becoming a teacher in Finland and the respect with which they are treated reminded me of law school or medical school in the U.S.
The third lesson I learned, or rather was reminded of, was the importance of reading to kids
when they're young and engaging them in conversation when they're older. According to Ripley, engaging your child in these ways benefits the child far more than baking brownies for school bake sales or coaching sports. Not that those activities don't have value; they do. It is just that reading to kids, encouraging them to read on their own, and discussing issues with them encourages them to develop and explain their own opinions which requires critical thinking. Ultimately, critical thinking skills are what kids need to develop as it is those skills that will enable them to tackle complex problems as adults.
When I was high school my stepdad and I use to argue about politics. I hated this (well maybe I liked it a little). In hindsight I'm grateful. It forced me to think about why I believed what I did and to explain why. In other words, it forced me to think critically, a skill that has been invaluable throughout my career, and really throughout life. I have also been in the habit of reading for as long as I can remember. This habit came in handy when I had to get through the massive amounts of reading one is expected to get through in law school. I would like to think that most parents are imparting these same skills and habits to their kids too.
Ripley's book left me feeling hopeful. Prior to reading it education seemed like too big of a problem to tackle. It still seems big but I would like to think I have better grasp of the problems and possible solutions, at least a little bit.