The Smartest Kids in the World and How They Got That Way

Capturing the experiences of three high school exchange students venturing to Korea, Finland, and Poland, author Amanda Ripley dissects our education system and presents valuable arguments for why the United States performs at a level behind that of other countries and what steps we can take to improve. 

Reading Notes

Virtually all kids were learning critical thinking skills in math, science, and reading. They weren’t just memsorizing facts; they were learning to solve problems and adapt. That is to say, they were training to survive in the modern economy.

…math skills tended to better predict future earnings.

The American Association of University Professors had called critical thinking “the hallmark of American education – an education designed to create thinking citizens for a free society.”

Most successful or improving countries fit in one of three categories:

  1. The utopia model of Finland – no excessive competition or parent needling
  2. The pressure-cooker model of South Korea
  3. The metamorphosis model of Poland

Four important things learned from Korea’s educational system:

  1. Countries could change
  2. Rigor mattered
  3. In places with extreme student drive, winning the competition become the goal in and of itself
  4. The real innovation wasn’t in governments or public schools; it was in hagwons

Main takeaway: Finnish teachers have a much harder road to become a professor.

He (Bethel, an American professor) also needed a score of 19 or higher on the ACT, a standardized test like the SAT. The national average for the ACT back then was 20.6. Let’s consider what this meant: IT was acceptable to perform below average for the country on a test of what you had learned throughout your educational career if you aspired to dedicate your career to education.

Main takeaway: If parents simply read at home for enjoyment, that could help their kids perform better in school.

Main takeaway: Hiring teachers that are also coaches dilutes the educational system.

The teacher wove trigonometry and calculus into the lesson, following the thread of the lesson across disciplines, as though geometry were just one solar system in a larger universe of math. Together, the different disciplines could solve problems in the read world, where mathematics was not boxed into neat categories. (On how Korea taught Geometry)

Praise that was vague, insincere, or excessive tended to discourage kids from working hard and trying new things.

Four types of parents:

  1. Authoritarian
  2. Permissive – indulgent and avoid conflict
  3. Neglectful
  4. Authoritative – the sweet spot between authoritarian and permissive

Since the 1960s, studies have shown that if researchers tested a class and told teachers that certain students would thrive academically in coming months, teachers behaved differently toward the chosen kids. They nodded more, smiled more, and gave those kids more time to answer questions and more specific feedback.

In fact, the kids had been chosen at random. The label was fictional, but stuck. At the end of the school year, teachers still described those students as more interesting, better adjusted, and more likely to be successful in life. As for the other kids who had done well int he classroom, but were not chosen? The same teachers described them as less likely to succeed and less likable.