Alright, I’m already calling it. This will be one of the most impactful books I read this year.
In The Smartest Kids in the World, Amanda Ripley uses her investigative journalism skills to artfully craft a story as rich with personal narrative as with statistics, figures, interviews, and everything else that is needed to make a story sell. And boy, is this story convincing!
Ripley follows three American teenagers as they engage in study abroad programmes, in 3 separate countries: Korea, the powerhouse for exceptional student grades, Poland, the emerging country for students, and Finland, the globally accepted leader in education. (In a quick google search, the first autocomplete option for Finland is in fact for “Finland education”!) But Ripley goes farther than that: She investigates all sorts of different perspectives, from the teachers to the government, from reforms in the past to the plan for the future.
Originally when I read this book, I thought that it was a convincing read, but focused far too much on a single test and the lives of three single students. And while it is not a comprehensive book on education reform, this author did her research. What inspired me was that while the book is 306 pages, the actual narrative is closer to 200 pages. There is a good 100 pages of footnotes, of a “selected” bibliography, of references and of research! That immediately made the book “pop”, in my opinion. Having substantial amounts of research is always beneficial to your story!
Americans need to read this book because we are too often constrained within our own perspective of what education should and will look like. I am a watcher of Korean dramas, and often in school scenes, I would see students flat out sleeping on their desks. I always believed that this action was more creativity based on the producer rather than the truth. Boy, was I wrong! Students in Korea practically live at school, and most of them do in fact live in this fashion: cramming all day and catching a quick nap in the middle of class. I was also rather surprised to learn about the limited activities in Poland and Finland. I thought that my crammed afternoon schedule was the norm, not the exception.
Another one of the key points of the book is that selectivity and wide spread reform are the only things that could bring about change. Rather than the incrementalism that is taken in America, only a sudden shock could drastically change what the world looks like. The Poland reforms did not have a perfect transition. The change in Finland is almost just as dramatic, but only after such events could the future become brighter! As for the selectivity of teachers, I was always brought up to thoroughly respect anyone who taught me. The culture that I had at home always placed the teacher as one of the most important people, close to the parent in terms of raising me. What if we implemented the same reforms as they did in Finland, limiting the number of teachers produced per year from colleges?
This book also refers to the process of tracking, or in my world, “gifted education”, as something that inherently harmed students. For me, this was a definite, but expected, shock. As a junior in the Bellevue School District, one of the most prestigious public school districts in the country, one might expect all of the students to be equally amazing. And that is entirely true! All of my friends seem to possess phenomenal skills of reasoning, of understanding, of being human. Yet, we are divided into two distinct programmes at my school: The gifted and traditional tracks. I witnessed an all-out flame war on the internet as the page “Interlake Confessions” provided an outlet for all of the pent up frustrations students had towards other groups of students. There were pointed fingers of superiority, of being happy or miserable, and I was dismayed. How could students who were united in learning act this way?
I reconsidered a situation where my parents would constantly claim that some other kid was always better than me. No matter what I do, regardless of what rewards I earn, s/he would always be better than I for some odd intrinsic reason. How would I feel? I realized what Ripley was speaking to: by separating students in this fashion, you are creating lines of division that are not so easily forgotten as a student.
When I was introducing this book to Mr. Millhollen, one of my favorite teachers, he asked me: “How should I be reading this book?” When I responded with a puzzled look, he gently prompted “Should I be looking for ways to change my teaching, or …?” Immediately, I understood. This book was not intended to change the way that things are in America, at least not for this decade. I read this book not with the purpose of immediately changing the world, but rather, with the goal of learning how change could be possible. I don’t believe that this book was meant to change the opinions of education leaders of the world. It doesn’t go in depth enough to do so. Rather, it is for people like me, students who are struggling to understand why they are learning what they do. It is for parents who are wondering where America is in regards to the world for education. It is for the common person who is interested in learning some history and who may be inspired to take action.
I’m not sure if the majority of Americans want to listen to these words that are said here. I’m not sure if even I want to. America has been a conservative country on the whole, preferring to take changes slowly and guarantee the success of as many people as possible. It often seems as if our motto is “Do no harm” rather than “Create a better world”, for creating a better world is often rift with mistakes and possibilities for failure. While I disagree with these ideas, I think that this book helps address these points. You don’t have to be devoted to a new system to appreciate how others have built up their lives. No matter what your stance is, this book will be a good read!