Re-Ranking Smarts: thoughts from the Ripley/NAF presentation on The Smartest Kids in the World

The Smartest Kids in the World RipleyMy colleagues Denise Borsuk (Research Team) and Zev Vernon-Lapow (A/V Team) also attended this event and contributed to this post.

Looking for something new to read?
If you’ve been hunting for an educational read, you might want to check out The Smartest Kids in the World–and How They Got That Way by journalist and author Amanda Ripley.

Several Saylor staff went to hear her speak last Thursday (September 12), at an event hosted by the New America Foundation. Ripley spoke with one of the book’s real-life protagonists, Kim (Ripley declined to use last names to maintain privacy), in a conversation moderated by David Plotz, an editor at Slate.

The book chronicles the lives of Kim and two other American exchange students who did high school exchange years in South Korea and Poland. Her mission was to find out why these countries have had such successful educational policy, and what lessons could be learned by the United States.

— Marissa

But why these countries? (How can PISA have nothing to with Italy?)

Ripley’s motivation in researching and writing this book came from trying to find answers to the question, Why are some countries’ educational policies so successful? New metrics for judging a country’s educational success have been gaining traction based on data from a new test, the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), created by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development.

PISA is an international assessment designed to measure students’ critical thinking. The philosophy is that mere memorization of information is less important than developing an ability to solve problems and communicate solutions and we ought to be measuring the latter. Many argue that learning those abilities is increasingly important as jobs become more complex, with proponents making the larger connection between critical thinking and robust economies.

Ripley conducted three case studies through American students’ perspectives. She chose countries which she thought would be meaningful for the American public (as well as the policy world).

  • The Utopian Model: The first category, which she calls the Utopian Model, is exemplified by Finland (the number one country in the world according to the results of the first PISA test). In Finland, education is highly valued, teachers are admired, and children achieve high results. Kim explained that Finland emphasizes quality over quantity–students did less work overall, but all of the work they did mattered. One important move that Finland made was to consolidate teacher training programs to elite universities. This helped corral top talent to the field, but also legitimized the profession in a way many countries (including the US) have failed to recreate.
  • The Pressure-Cooker Model: The second category is the Pressure-Cooker Model, demonstrated by South Korea, in which students, under intense pressure to get high grades and to do well on tests, spend practically all of their waking hours studying. Ripley also termed this approach the hamster wheel. Ripley concluded that this model may be more effective academically than that of the US, but is less concerned with students’ well being. She even went so far as to claim that the US system could be seen as a moon bounce (note, not a moon shot) in comparison (though she also noted that her elementary aged son would not like it).
  • The Metamorphoses Model: The third category is the Metamorphoses Model, represented by Poland–who recently overhauled their educational policy to great success. Though similar to the United States by some measures, including a similarly high level of child poverty, Poland has managed to achieve dramatic gains in educational outcomes within a short period of time. The example of Poland is perhaps most encouraging to the United States, proving that education levels in a country can improve dramatically with the proper policy.

— Denise

Author’s Recommendations/Takeaways

During the event, Ripley and Kim largely focused on student’s experience in the “utopian” model the Finland has created. Along with Ripley’s recommendations for American schools, we’ve got some sweet takeaways from her work, the event itself, and what that means for us and our learners.

Author’s Recommendations:

  • Kim pointed out that in Oklahoma, the students at her school would say “I don’t get math,” and they would stop trying. In Finland they would say the same thing, but would then try harder to learn it.
  • Sports and extracurriculars had much less emphasis in other countries. Finnish students didn’t understand when Kim tried to explain school mascots.
  • While America ranks #1 in the world in math grades, that actually translates to #26 in math education. Good grades don’t necessarily indicate true learning.
  • There is no one-size-fits-all solution to this “grand equation”. Each country has factors that make its own situation quite unique.
  • Ripley compared the states that make up the US to autonomous countries elsewhere, since US states have a large say over their own educational policies, which tend to be national in other countries.

Saylor & its Learners (you!):

  • We don’t pretend to be Utopia, but we do provide access to quality educational resources at no cost, for the benefit of both students and educators. Our courses and many materials are openly licensed, so remix and reformat them to provoke critical thinking for yourself and others.
  • Apply your learning to real life, so that they become a part of you.
  • People are developing their critical thinking skills the world over, and competition is fierce. Don’t get left behind…expand your studies with Saylor.org.

— Zev

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