A young business teacher from Barnum in the UMD Education Administration program recommended this book for the blog. The Smartest Kids in the World follows three AFS exchange students who go from Minnetonka to Busan, South Korea; from Gettysburg, Pennsylvania to Wroclaw, Poland; and from Sallisaw, Oklahoma to Pietarsaari, Finland. Ripley, a Time magazine journalist, writes an easy to read and often entertaining description of her observations of schools, students, teachers and parents in these three countries.
Rigor, and the lack of it or the appearance of it, is her main focus. Use of the PISA scores could be dismissed as Rick Hess does in the Education Week blog of December 4, 2013. However, the anecdotal stories she uses bring descriptions to life of what education looks like in the classroom and the hagwons of Korea, as well as the cafeterias and coffee shops of Finland or the Bermuda Triangle of Poland.
Heikki Vuorinen, a sixth grade teacher in a diverse classroom in Tiistila, Finland, gave Ripley the following advice, "You should start to select your teachers more carefully and motivate them more. One motivation is money. Respect is another. Punishing is never a good way to deal with school." Autonomy matters as much to Vuorinen as cash. His principal supported him with her trust, her ability to work with the surge of families who could not speak Finnish, and her financial acumen. There was no imposition of curriculum nor teaching methods required from on high. Teachers are respected and trusted to create classrooms for learning.
Another insight provided a curious contrast of a Korean teacher who earns $4 million a year with the after school education system that is completely competitive and the stress placed on Korean children and their parents that have such a focus on test scores that there is no time for socializing much less sleep.
The young people have a solid way of cutting through details to provide their own observations. One found that Polish kids wasted time on Facebook just like kids back home. There were no sports at the school in Poland, although kids kicked a soccer ball around afterwards. However, football took greater print back home in Pennsylvania than academics and made for newspaper copy.
Read the book with some others and have a discussion on what makes each think education systems vary in different countries, much less different schools in one city. Assessments, choices, values, and consideration of rigor or independence or definitions of "success" are all a part of the conversation to be addressed. This book will be a great jumping off place for a very interesting dialogue. Try it.