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The Smartest Kids in the World

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The Smartest Kids in the World

And How They Got That Way

Wall Street Journal Books,

15 min read
10 take-aways
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What's inside?

Three American teenagers describe their high-school experiences in Finland, South Korea and Poland.

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Journalist Amanda Ripley followed three US teens – Kim, Eric and Tom – as they studied abroad for a year in Finland, South Korea and Poland, respectively, all of which outrank the US on the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), a test measuring teenagers’ critical thinking skills in reading, math and science. At a highly individual level, both Ripley and her subjects discovered profound differences between education in the US and in other countries. The students enjoyed greater freedom and autonomy overseas. They also faced higher expectations and more challenging coursework. They found that foreign teachers don’t coddle kids and that failure is part of learning. High school sports don’t exist: Students who want to play join community teams. Ripley interjects PISA rankings and educational reform information into her story, which makes the narrative episodic, but it remains fascinating and illuminating. She portrays a unique student perspective, showcases how cultural differences affect education and examines the cultural patterns that hold US kids back and spur teens from other nations. getAbstract recommends her exploration to school administrators, politicians, teachers, parents and students.


“The Geography of Smart”

In the mid-1980s, Andreas Schleicher studied physics at Germany’s elite University of Hamburg. Self-proclaimed “educational scientist” Thomas Neville Postlethwaite asked Schleicher to work with him to find a way to quantify education worldwide using hard data. About 15 years later, more than 300,000 teenagers from 43 different countries took a test designed to measure their critical thinking skills in reading, math and science. Today, it’s the international PISA test.

The OECD administers the test through its Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) division. “The promise of PISA was that it would reveal which countries were teaching kids to think for themselves.” On December 4, 2001, reporters waited in Paris for OECD officials to announce the first PISA test results. Drawing from “all over the world,” Finland came in first. Schleicher declared, “In Finland, everyone does well and social background has little impact.” Americans and Germans were distraught, and the Finns were baffled. “The Germans had believed their system among the best in the world, but their kids had performed below average for the developed world in reading, ...

About the Author

Amanda Ripley writes for Time magazine and The Atlantic. Her first book, The Unthinkable: Who Survives When Disaster Strikes – and Why, was published in 15 countries.

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