The Smartest Kids in the World, by Amanda Ripley

After five years teaching and administering in an international school, my thoughts on curriculum have morphed, my teaching strategies multiplied, and my ideas of the "perfect school" challenged. This book was an excellent read because it affirmed some of things I do and would like to do as an educator, but more importantly, it convicted me as a parent. No matter where we are in the world and regardless of the school we find ourselves in, when it comes to holistic education of children, it's all about the home. Not after school clubs, not dynamic teachers, and certainly not technology. The responsibility is on me, the parent.

The Smartest Kids in the World travels from the US to South Korea, Finland, and Poland and asks the same question over and over, "What makes a great student?"

The answer isn't all that surprising.

About midway through, Ripley says this, "Parenting, like drive and diligence, was often in international studies of education. The evidence that did exist tended to focus on one country only, and it generally showed what you'd expect: More involved families had children with higher grades, better test scores, improved behavior, and better attendance records. That dynamic held true across all ages, races, and income levels in the United States."

Then she asks this question, "But what kinds of parental involvement mattered most? And did parents do different things in different countries?

Answer: Intentionality.  "When children were young, parents who read to them every day or almost every day had kids who performed much better in reading, all around the world, by the time they were fifteen" because, "Done well, it meant teaching them about the world - sharing stories about faraway places, about smoking volcanoes and little boys who were sent to bed without dinner. It meant asking them questions about the book, questions that encouraged them to think for themselves. It meant sending a signal to kids about the importance of not just reading but of learning about all kinds of new things."

"As kids got older," she continues, "the parental involvement that seemed to matter most was different but related. All over the world, parent who discussed movies, books, and current affairs with their kids had teenagers who performed better in reading. Here again, parents who engaged their kids in conversation about things larger than themselves were essentially teaching their kids to become thinking adult. Unlike volunteering in schools, this kinds of parental efforts delivered clear and convincing results, even across different countries and different income levels" (pg 108-109).

The best days of class, according to Kim, one of the students shadowed, were the ones where her teacher pushed the desks into a circle and everyone talked about the book (pg 40).

No gimmicks, no movies, and no posters. Just conversation. Discovery. And time, where the kids are allowed to ask questions and search for answers. Much like good parenting.


Favorite Quotes:

“I’d like to live somewhere where people are curious.” Pg 38

“The best days were the days her teacher pushed the desks into a circle and everyone talked about the book.” Pg 40

Sisu – Strength in the face of great odds – a sort of inner fire. “It is a compound of bravado and bravery, of ferocity and tenacity” pg 153

“{Tom} looked up in media res and discovered it was a Latin phrase that referred to starting a story in the middle of the plot. He caught up quickly, and by spring, he could toss off his own allusions to Greek mythology in the English classes. He figured out that a lot of the banter had been bullshit, but he’d needed to learn the vernacular.” Pg 188


The Extremes:

South Korea's educational outcome:


United States educational outcome: