the smartest kids in the world[easyazon-link asin=”1451654421″ locale=”us”]The Smartest Kids in the World[/easyazon-link] is my first almost-five-star read of the year! This engaging and well-written book follows three American teenagers who, as part of Ripley’s research into the best education systems in the world, go on year-long exchanges to three of the ‘top’ countries. The narratives of Tom in Poland, Kim in Finland and Eric in South Korea frame Ripley’s thoughts on what makes a good teacher or school, the importance (or not) of standardized testing, and what really is the most vital component of a good education.

I was impressed by the breadth of research Ripley consulted. For example, she discusses (at length) a test called Pisa, which was designed to test the critical thinking skills of students in numerous countries. But as well as the main research itself, she also discusses a sub-study that was done analyzing the level of detail students put into an optional survey all test-takers received about their lives at home. The study found that there was a correlation between the diligence with which students answered the survey, and the degree of proficiency they displayed in the actual test. In short: their diligence in the optional survey reflected an overall diligence that was reflected in their test score. The book abounded with such tiny little insights.

I appreciated, too, her conclusion that intelligence really was about more than just a collection of test scores. Eric in Korea exposed her to the world of the Hagwon, the after-school learning centres most Korean students attend where their ‘real’ learning actually happens. They are motivated to attend these schools in order to pass the high-pressure graduation test which determines their options for university. But the Pisa test found that students tested the year after they graduated showed declines in all areas. They performed, when motivated to do so. But when they lost the motivation, they lost the performance. Here was her most powerful conclusion:

“Mastery of math never made anyone get to work on time, finish a thesis, or use a condom. No, those skill sets had more to do with motivation, empathy, self-control, and persistence. These were core habits, workhorse traits sometimes summed up by the old-fashioned word ‘character.”

As someone who has always had low math scores, I did appreciate the validation that a person’s whole worth is about more than that! And I found her observations on both the American system and the others she examines to be interesting and well thought-out. I’d have liked to see a little more follow-up on the three kids, and the book seemed very padded to me—I finished the actual text at about the 53% read mark, and the rest of the book was all appendices and footnotes. And, as other reviewers have pointed out, three kids is not exactly the most scientific sample size. These small quibbles made this a 4/5 and not a 5/5 for me. But this book was one which I suspect will take some time to fully absorb, and one which was a worthy and worthwhile reading experience for me. I hope the rest of 2015 is full of books as good as this one!

TeleRead Rating: 4 e-readers out of 5

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"I’m a journalist, a teacher and an e-book fiend. I work as a French teacher at a K-3 private school. I use drama, music, puppets, props and all manner of tech in my job, and I love it. I enjoy moving between all the classes and having a relationship with each child in the school. Kids are hilarious, and I enjoy watching them grow and learn. My current device of choice for reading is my Amazon Kindle Touch, but I have owned or used devices by Sony, Kobo, Aluratek and others. I also read on my tablet devices using the Kindle app, and I enjoy synching between them, so that I’m always up to date no matter where I am or what I have with me."


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