The Smartest Kids in the World by Amanda Ripley

My friend, Anthony, challenged me to read more, almost doubling my reading intake from 2012, so I made a new year’s resolution last year to read 24 books in one year. I didn’t complete this resolution in 2013, and I am already behind this year, but I am determined to try again! Here is a review/summary for my 3rd book this year (and if I have time, I will blog about my 2nd book, Counterfeit Gods by Tim Keller, which I finished reading and discussing with my book club).

The Smartest Kids in the World: And How They Got That Way by Amanda Ripley

“Success is going from failure to failure without losing your enthusiasm.” (Winston Churchill)

Even though Anthony reads a ton of books, he recommended this book to me because it might be his favorite book that he read in 2013. It’s a new book and a popular pick at the library, so I finally got off the wait list to borrow the book a few weeks ago. I wish I had picked it up to read right away so I wouldn’t have been so rushed to read through it in the last couple of days before I had to return it, but I managed to finish the book in a few days. It was an easy and engaging read, filled with interesting stories of 3 American students’ study abroad experiences around the world from Finland to South Korea to Poland. This book definitely gave me some global perspective on education, parent-child relations, and culture outside of the U.S.!

“I’d been looking around the world for clues as to what other countries were doing right, but the important distinctions were not about spending or local control or curriculum; none of that mattered very much. Policies mostly worked in the margins. The fundamental difference was a psychological one. The education superpowers believed in rigor. People in these countries agreed on the purpose of school: School existed to help students master complex academic material. Other things mattered, too, but nothing mattered as much.”  (Amanda Ripley)

Here is what I learned or took away from this book (although there may be overgeneralizations):


  • An American student asked a Finnish student, “Why do you guys care so much? I mean, what makes you work hard in school?” The answer was simple, “It’s school. How else will I graduate and go to university and get a good job?” However, many American students do not care about school because they have given up on this purpose of education.
  • Finland allows only top students to enroll in teacher-training programs, which are far more demanding (in application requirements, educational background, experience, etc.) than programs in the U.S. They believe that teachers who are better prepared and better trained can be given more autonomy, which leads to more satisfied teachers who are more likely to stay in teaching.
  • Amount of spending per pupil does not correlate with success in education. Finland spends much less on each pupil than the U.S. does, but Finland achieves remarkably higher scores on international tests.
  • Finnish students seem to have a lot more freedom than American students. They are given less homework and receive less parental control in their lives.

South Korea

  • Rigor is to the extreme in South Korea. Korean students spend all day studying.
  • Many Korean students sleep in class because they are so tired. After regular day school, they head to hagwons, cram schools where they get their real education until 10 PM or even midnight if they have to study for tests. Korean patrols penalize hagwons and make them shut down for weeks if they keep students past the 10 PM curfew in Seoul.
  • A well-sought-after hagwon teacher in Korea makes $4 million a year!


  • Poland has made changes to its education in record time by also focusing on well-trained teachers, rigorous curriculum, and a challenging exam for graduating seniors.
  • U.S. has a much greater emphasis on the participation of sports than other countries do.

Miscellaneous thoughts

  • Education and poverty do not necessarily correlate.
  • Students need to engage in critical thinking!
  • Parent’s involvement in the classroom or extracurricular activities does not correlate with student’s success in school. Parents can best help their children by reading to them and exposing them to books when they are little and talking to them about books, movies, and news as they get older. This will help them to become critical thinkers in reading.

“One thing was clear. To give our students 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.” (Amanda Ripley)

Teacher or not, I would recommend this book too! It helped open my mind to see what I have become familiar with in America, having lived all my life, studied 18 years, and taught 3 years in the U.S., and how other countries are doing things differently or more effectively.


One thought on “The Smartest Kids in the World by Amanda Ripley

  1. Pingback: Orphan Train by Christina Baker Kline | kamelican

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s