Wednesday, 26 March 2014

Review: The Smartest Kids in the World, by Amanda Ripley

I was very much looking forward to reading Amanda Ripley's The Smartest Kids in the World: And How They Got That Way. My eagerness stemmed from the fact that I'm currently studying my Masters of Teaching. One of my main areas of interest has been the comparison of different education systems from around the world in order to understand how the Australian education system can be adjusted for the better. The Smartest Kids in the World concerns itself with just this issue, though given that Ripley is an American investigative journalist, her main focus is on how the education system in the United States compares to other international education systems.

Ripley selected Finland, South Korea and Poland as her main case studies in the book. Finland and South Korea were chosen as students in both countries are some of the best performing ones in the world, based on the international PISA tests which examine the skills and knowledge of 15 year olds from around the world. Yet, both countries have diametrically opposing approaches to education. Finland is renowned for its prestigious, select-entry teacher training colleges, and students are generally not expected to complete homework. Conversely, South Korean students are renowned for spending the majority of their school life cramming in study, spending up to 16 hours a day doing so. Interestingly, the students in both of these countries were not in such a privileged position twenty-odd years ago. How have they come so far? This is the question at the heart of Ripley's book. Hence, Poland makes for an interesting inclusion as it mirrors the positions that Finland and South Korea were in prior to their educational dominance, showing the potential to reach similar positions.

A graph representing how various countries have fared internationally in education. Similarly to the US, Australia has improved relatively little in the past 50 years.

In order to contextualise her research, Ripely follows the stories of three United States exchange students to these respective countries. Such an approach provides an intimate and honest insight into what it's like to learn in these countries firsthand. While for the most part this was effective, at times I did feel that Ripley's own voice took over from the students' ones, causing me to question the genuineness of the position she was attempting to portray as theirs.

Regardless of this, Ripley's findings are quite surprising and incredibly fascinating. So much so that my own copy of the book is riddled with post-it notes from all of the points I wanted to return to at a later stage. Now do not fear, because I won't pummel you with all of the points of interest I came across right now. Instead, I've decided to focus on a select few to capture how expansive this topic is:

'The quality of an education system cannot exceed the quality of its teachers' (p.63).   The success of the Finland's education system in particular can be attributed to the extensive teacher training that occurs prior to becoming a qualified teacher. Entry to teacher training colleges in Finland is so highly selective that it is akin to how difficult Medicine or Law school courses are in Australia. Such an approach reflects how seriously Finnish society considers education, by ensuring that the teachers who will influence future generations of students are only the best of the best. This reality provides students, parents and even policy makers with the confidence that these teachers have been thoroughly trained and deserve the utmost respect for this. Again, think of how revered Doctors and Lawyers are in Australian. In turn, thorough professional training (which continues throughout their career) equips teachers with the skills to cope with adversity in the classroom. It's really a win win situation.
Educational success requires rigour.                                                                       Achieving good results is hard. It requires a lot of effort. But students who do well are rigorous with their studies. Rigour is not only an important element of education, but of life itself. It teaches perseverance, particularly in times of failure. Yet in the current educational climates of Australia and the United States, it's almost impossible for students to fail. Instead, we cotton-ball them and teach them that there aren't really any consequences if they chose not to put the required effort into things. Such an approach is not benefiting anybody.  
When the going gets tough, it's only education that matters.                                              Ripley attributes the severe economic crises that Finland, South Korea and Poland have all faced for their educational successes. For, these countries appreciate how important education is in empowering nations, and how this can positively impact on a nation's economy. Unfortunately this realisation hasn't occurred in countries like the United States (or arguably Australia), who haven't experienced economic crises and/or high levels of illiteracy to the extent that the aforementioned countries have. Hence, there's been no real reason for education to be overhauled and reformed in countries like Australia and the United States. The consequence of this is that students have become used to getting away with not doing what's expected of them, because there'll often be ways out for those not willing to put in the effort (such as going on the dole). This links in with my previous point regarding rigour, and Ripley puts it well when she states, 'Wealth has made rigour optional in America' (p.192).  
Students need to be set high expectations.                                                                           If students are set these, then they are more likely to aspire to them and achieve high results. Unfortunately the opposite is true if teachers set unchallenging tasks, as this suggests they have low expectations of students, and thus students will not strive for high results. There is an abundance of research that affirms this. Part of the challenge that Ripley attributes to this is the lack of trust adults seem to have for students in countries like the United States, which effects the mutual levels of respect each party has for the other. But if we can learn to trust our younger generations, such as the Fins do, and firmly believe they are capable of achieving high results, as the South Koreans do, then positive outcomes will develop. 
'When looking for a world-class education, remember that people always matter more than props' (p.215). Of the four focus countries in this book, the United States spends the most amount of money per student. Yet, as Ripley discovers, this expenditure is having little effects on how well students are performing in schools. If anything, it is unnecessarily distracting all those involved in the education system. For, Finland, South Korea and Poland have all managed to become successful while also maintaining relatively traditional, no-frills approaches to schooling. This was probably one of the points that challenged me the most out of the book, particularly as much of the emphasis in my Masters of Teaching has been on steering away from such formal approaches to teaching. But it's also reassuring in that it suggests schools don't need fancy gadgets or state-of-the-art resources for students to do well. 

Overall The Smartest Kids in the World was a fantastically informative and enlightening introduction into various education systems from around the world. There is a clear message that if nations want their education systems to improve, a dramatic shift in how education is understood and valued by society as a whole is required. At the same time I didn't agree with everything Ripley proposed. My main gripe was that the book focused too heavily on the idea that educational success is based on how well students fair in traditional, old-fashioned tests, where in fact this is only one of many ways to measure student learning and potential. While tests like PISA are incredibly comprehensive, they can only measure so much, and its limits do need to be considered when praising the successes of particular nations.

The Smartest Kids in the World provided some incredibly powerful and significance points to reflect on in terms of the Australian education system, and how we can think differently about the ways we can achieve educational success. Reading it has been particularly poignant given that I'm currently undertaking my Masters of Teaching, and has left me hungry to learn more about this area. I highly recommend it to anyone who has works within, or has an interest in, the education system.

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