2.5 views on “The Smartest Kids in the World and How They Got That Way”

Amanda Ripley wrote a new book with a clear title “The Smartest Kids in the World and How They Got That Way”. There have been several reviews published already on this book and I want to share 2 opposite point of views.

First read the review by Annie Murphy Paul, journalist and avid blogger. She is trilled by the book and wants to talk about ‘Where the smart kids are’. A quote:

“In this case, Ripley is offering to show how other nations educate students so much more effectively than we do, and her opening pages hold out a promising suggestion of masochistic satisfaction.”

Next read the review by Alfie Kohn, not a journalist but an educational expert for the Huftington Post. He doesn’t review the book, but the review of the review by Annie Murphy Paul. His title couldn’t be any clearer: Recycled Assumptions: “How Journalists Keep Education Tied to Damaging Ideas“.

A bit larger quote:

The reviewer appears to accept just about all of what she takes to be the author’s key assumptions. The resulting review (titled “Likely to Succeed”) offers a cautionary collection of problematic premises:

1. America desperately need to turn to other countries for solutions because our students’ performance is “mediocre.”

2. The best way to judge educational success or failure is by looking at standardized test scores. High scores are good; low scores are bad — full stop. And high scores are defined in zero-sum terms: The point isn’t to reach a certain level but to outscore students in other countries.

3. The primary objective of schools is to transmit to children the “knowledge and skills to compete in the global economy.” (This statement actually comprises two premises: that education should be understood primarily in economic terms, and — just as with test results — the goal is not to succeed but to triumph over others.)

4. Similarly, from the individual student’s point of view, the main reason to learn is that doing so is a prerequisite to making more money after one graduates. A U.S. student is quoted as asking two Finnish girls why they seem to care so much about what they’re studying, and they supply what Paul and/or Ripley regard as “the only sensible answer”: Studying hard will eventually result in a “good job.” Alas, we’re told, this “irrefutable logic still eludes many American students.”

5. A key ingredient of success is “persistence” — knowing “what it [feels] like to fail, work harder, and do better.” Putting children on a “hamster wheel,” with “relentless and excessive” pressure to succeed at any costs, may have tragic human costs — for example, in Korea — but this is regarded as preferable to the less intense pressures said to be experienced by American students.

I actually read the book and both reviews seem to hold truth. Kohn looks at the matter with some more distance and makes good points. Still I think, and this is my .5 review, the most interesting insight the book shows (almost unintentionally) the limitations of comparing countries. It starts of as a mild critical laudatio of the PISA-comparisons who argue that they bypass the regional differences, but by introducing the different countries you learn that there can be huge differences, some of the things you just don’t want for your own kids.

3 thoughts on “2.5 views on “The Smartest Kids in the World and How They Got That Way”

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