“The Smartest Kids in the World” Book Review

Justin Ketcham –

In looking at the title The Smartest Kids in the World and How They Got That Way, I immediately inferred that Amanda Ripley investigated individual knowledge in specific children throughout the world, and how he or she came to obtain it. However, as the pages began to roll between my fingers, I learned that Ripley investigates not children, but countries—specifically Finland, South Korea, and Poland—and how they have progressed in producing some of the most highly educated students in the world. She uses the knowledge she obtains about each country and pushes forth the argument that we in the United States are lacking in both math skills and rigor.

Ripley does not merely rely on statistics or evidence brought forth by others in her field, but rather investigates each country on her own by deploying three students from the United States to study abroad in each of the countries. From these students—referred to as “field agents”—Ripley is able to collect information, and use it to draw out a pure and credible argument.

In respect to math, Ripley argues that many parents and students in the U.S. view it as, “optional, like drawing.” After examining a 2009 survey on education, Ripley found that “most American parents . . . said it was more important to finish high school with strong reading and writing skills than with strong math and science skills.” Ripley argues against that claim saying, “based on the standards of modernity, all decent jobs require some math and science fluency.” She uses the examples of contractors and X-Ray technicians to support her claim.

Ripley also makes a good argument against the current math standard within the United States by bringing in the personal perspectives of math from each of her field agents. Not only do two of the three students—Kim and Tom—loath math, but many current students within the United States can identify with feelings of resentment and hostility toward the subject. Through her research within the United States and other countries, Ripley finds that “America’s math handicap afflicted even its most privileged kids, who were more privileged than the most advantaged kids in most other countries.” She also argues that the “prototypical American teenager” is one who struggles in math, rather than one who excels at it.

Ripley also strongly explains how rigor—a quality present within both the Korean and Finish school systems—could be a quality that would benefit the United States. In the “pressure cooker” as she calls it, Korean students are pushed to their limits by “essentially [going] to school twice—every weekday.”  Whereas Ripley argues against the stressful means by which students are educated, she can’t help but admire the drive for success that each student possesses. In Finland, rigor is present as well, but the means by which students are educated is far less extreme than that of the Korean school system.

Ripley argues that in America, “Failure . . . [is] demoralizing and to be avoided at all costs.” Therefore, when students do fail, such as in mathematics, they give up rather than try harder. Ripley criticizes parents in America for holding onto the belief that “American kids [cannot] handle routine failure.” It is because of this that our school system lacks rigor, and if failure were to become more “routine”—as in Finland—then rigor would not be depleted, but rather increased.

John Edelmen from the Huffington Post says it perfectly: “Ripley lets facts and firsthand observations guide her conclusions, not the other way around.” Ripley does not begin with an attack on the American school system, but uses information she gathers from her field agents and her personal research to guide her arguments.

Everyone, even the most stubborn people rooted in education, should consider listening to her.  

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