The Smartest Kids in the World | Amanda Ripley

Summary of: The Smartest Kids in the World: And How They Got That Way
By: Amanda Ripley


In ‘The Smartest Kids in the World: And How They Got That Way’, Amanda Ripley delves into the international education landscape through the true stories of three American exchange students – Kim in Finland, Eric in South Korea, and Tom in Poland. The book explores the students’ experiences as they navigate through different educational systems and cultures, while providing insights into the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) test. By comparing these countries to the United States, Ripley highlights key elements of success in education, such as rigor, teacher training, and autonomy, enlightening readers on the steps needed to improve the American education system.

The Global Standardized Test

Andreas Schleicher and Thomas Neville Postlethwaite worked together to create PISA, a global standardized test measuring critical thinking skills in reading, math, and science. PISA has been used to measure education worldwide since 2001, with the promise of revealing which countries teach kids to think for themselves. Finland came in first place in the first PISA test, which caused Germans and Americans to be upset with their own performance. Education spending doesn’t seem to contribute to smarter children or higher scores, according to PISA results.

An Inspiring Journey to Finland

Kim, a student from Sallisaw, Oklahoma, is determined to find the secret of Finland’s successful education system. After raising $10,000 by selling her belongings and requesting donations, she travels to Finland as an exchange student. She realizes that Finland’s success lies in a culture of rigor and autonomy, where teachers give space to students to think critically and independently. Kim finds success in these new surroundings while facing great odds, learning about the concept of ‘sisu,’ which is Finnish for the “strength in the face of great odds.”

A Glimpse into South Korea’s Hyper-Competitive Education System

Eric’s experience as a foreign student in a Korean high school highlights the intense pressure and competition that characterizes the country’s education system. Students spend long hours studying, attending private tutoring centers, and taking exams that determine their futures. Eric’s classmates literally lived at school, and student suicides are not uncommon. While Korean students excel in certain areas, such as problem-solving and communication, the system’s hyper-competitive nature takes a significant toll on both students and their families.

Learning from Poland

This summary explores the success of Poland’s educational system and how their approach differs from the US.

Tom is an American teenager who moved to Poland with his family. He loved reading and always wanted to visit Eastern Europe, where people appreciated the works of authors like Dostoyevsky and Nabokov. However, Tom struggled with math, a subject that is seen as a predictor of future success in the US. On the other hand, his Polish peers were proficient in math, as they were taught mental math without calculators. Poland grades on a scale of one to five, and Tom noticed that they didn’t have fives. Kids in Poland were accustomed to failure and embraced its value as a means for learning.

Tom attended a school in a seedy part of Poland called Trójkąt Bermudzki, where outsiders seemed to vanish without a trace. However, Poland’s educational system was turned around by Mirosław Handke, who became the country’s Minister of Education in 1997. He halted the practice of tracking, which separated students based on their abilities and inclinations, and made them complete their junior-high school together by the age of 16. These reforms, from Poland’s educational system, helped their 2003 PISA results outperform the United States’ results that year.

In comparison to the US, where math receives more attention early on, Poland’s education system is different. They focus on core subjects, including math, and once kids finish junior high school, then they decide what to study further. Additionally, Poland encourages routine failure as a means for eventual success, which contrasts sharply the US’s aversion to failure. Poland shows that tracking marginalizes kids and creates a “ghetto effect.”

Polish students have more autonomy and free time, and they aren’t coddled. They can take care of themselves after school, and during school, face hard truths. In this way, both Tom and the author, Amanda Ripley, conclude that Poland’s education system could benefit from being introduced to the US. However, it must be noted that Polish culture is different from that of the US, and merely transplanting such a system may not work.

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