By Kristen Levithan
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In The Smartest Kids in the World: And How They Got That Way, Amanda Ripley shines a spotlight on three countries that successfully teach higher-order critical thinking skills to almost all of their children. Using American exchange students as her field agents, she explores how these countries have done it and questions why we haven’t managed to do the same. Ripley, a journalist known for hard-hitting education writing (like her 2008 Time profile of former DC Education Chancellor Michelle Rhee and this month’s Atlantic cover story, “The Case Against High-School Sports“), is a compelling storyteller who deftly plaits humorous anecdotes and hard data to whip you in the face with her findings. She introduces us to Kim, a sharp, sensitive Oklahoman, who travels to Finland to expand her horizons beyond that of her sports-loving, underperforming public high school; Eric, an affable Minnesotan, who spends a post-graduate year in South Korea; and Tom, a bibliophile from Pennsylvania, who sets off for Poland with visions of Chopin dancing in his head.
From Ripley’s account, it’s hard not to be impressed by the education system in Finland, one that she describes as a model of “balance and humanity” in which the “best and brightest of each generation” make their ways into highly selective teaching colleges and are then rigorously trained and mentored by outstanding master teachers. It’s also difficult not to scratch one’s head at the oddly bifurcated Korean model, in which students spend their days dozing through classes at conventional high schools and their nights cramming at private, for-profit hagwons, ostensibly learning what they were supposed to have learned during the school day. Poland, meanwhile, has enjoyed an upward trajectory of achievement, thanks to 15 year old reforms based on accountability, autonomy at the school level, and early remediation for both students and teachers.
Whatever their methods—and, again, it’s pretty clear that Finland is the country Ripley wants us to be when we grow up—all of these “education superpowers” share a few things in common: highly qualified teachers; parents who act as authoritative “coaches” rather than enabling “cheerleaders”; and, perhaps most of all, a universal agreement that one must succeed in school in order to succeed in the world. By holding these countries up as exemplars, Ripley exposes an American home-school “moon bounce” culture focused more on sports and self-esteem than self-control, endurance, and resilience. According to Ripley, if the U.S. seeks to prepare our students for the global economy, our kids need to take school more seriously and so do we: “To give our kids the kind of education they deserved, we had to first agree that rigor mattered most of all; that school existed to help kids learn to think, to work hard, and yes, to fail. That was the core consensus that made everything else possible.”
So can the U.S. ever attain Helsinkian heights? Well, the new Common Core State Standards that so many of us have seen rolled out in our kids’ schools this fall are aligned with international benchmarks that give precedence to the higher-order thinking skills that the “smart” countries excel at. And perhaps recent economic turbulence will inspire us, just as it did Finland, South Korea, and Poland, to improve education in order to make our people into our most important resource.
Look out Finland; here we come?
Kristen Levithan writes about motherhood, women’s history, and mother-writers for print and online publications. Currently at work on a non-fiction book about writers who were also mothers, Kristen lives in New England with her husband and three children and offers cultural commentary and musings on modern motherhood at her blog, Motherese.
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