Friday, August 1, 2014

Book Review: The Smartest Kids in the World

I recently read The Smartest Kids in the World by Amanda Ripley. She compared test results from past PISA tests (international achievement tests given to 15-year-olds), and according to the results, kids in Finland are the smartest. South Koreans scored very well also and Polish kids have made impressive improvements in recent years. United States teenagers have consistently scored in the middle, so Amanda talked to students, educators, and politicians in Finland, South Korea, and Poland to find out what they're doing to get the results they're getting. She also corresponded with US teens who went to Finland, South Korea, and Poland as exchange students. They were able to give her information about the local schools, curricula, study habits, and so on of students in each country.

As she discussed what each exchange student experienced, she also talked about the education policies and practices of each country and what was working for them. Some of the things that she talked about that caught my attention are:

- The need for more exclusive teacher training colleges that only accept students in the top percentage of classes, rather than accepting anybody who applies. Quality teachers with rigorous training who get paid enough. Education standards, but autonomy in reaching/teaching those standards (no micro-managing) because quality teachers can handle it.
- Delayed tracking- no gifted/talented programs or heading off to vocational school till 16. It seems to be the labels that make a difference: "gifted", "accelerated", "average", "remedial", etc.
- Little to no school-sponsored sports (they pull away funding and focus from education)
- Parents read to children from a young age, but aren't necessarily involved at school (PTA, parent-teacher conferences, etc).
- Expectations- high expectations lead to higher results, low expectations lead to lower results/more dropouts/etc. An expectation that children will work hard and that going to college matters is important.
- An attitude of "school matters" is also important.
- More/higher technology doesn't necessarily mean more learning is happening. Finland has quite low-tech classrooms- chalkboards instead of smart boards. The students didn't use calculators either.
- Allow teenagers to be more autonomous- no helicopter parenting.
- Allow kids to fail while still in school, before they go to college and get jobs and it really matters.
- Make sure each child has a solid foundation in math early on- they can't learn and use new concepts if they don't understand the previous ones.
- Kids need to learn critical thinking and problem solving- not just how to answer a multiple choice test.

Obviously, this is not all that was talked about in the book, so I recommend reading it yourself. As a homeschooler, I felt like parts of the book highlighted some of the reasons why we homeschool. It also made me think about some of my attitudes toward schooling. In general, we have fairly high standards for Sunshine, but I do make excuses for her in some instances because of her (and my) ongoing health issues. I'm not sure that I'm doing her any favors when I do that. It also underscored the need to make sure our children are firmly grounded in their math facts from the beginning and after each new concept is added. I also plan on teaching our kiddos critical thinking and problem solving- not just how to choose the right multiple choice answer.

We've actually started this already, since the curriculum we use (books recommended in The Well Trained Mind) encourages children to summarize in their own words what they've listened to/or read, as well as answer open-ended questions regarding what they've heard/read. In the younger grades this is focused primarily on reading comprehension, but as Sunshine gets older we'll branch out to include math and science. I thought this book had a lot of good food for thought.

Have you read this book? What did you think?

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