When I attended the National Book Festival I was excited to hear Amanda Ripley discuss her book The Smartest Kids in the World: And How They Got That Way (Simon & Schuster, 2013).
Ms. Ripley talked to a full room about her best-selling book and how she followed three American teenagers--Kim, Eric, and Tom--who, as foreign exchange students, traveled from Oklahoma to Finland, Minnesota to South Korea, and Pennsylvania to Poland, respectively, to gain a global perspective through their high school education.
When all three American students first arrived at their new schools, they were not initially impressed.
“There were no digital white boards, no green fields for sports” Ms. Ripley said. “Students did not see the parents hanging out selling things, coaching, or fundraising.” However, as Kim, Eric, and Tom adapted to their new environments they moved past their schools’ appearances to focus on the learning that their schools were devoted to, instead of “shiny objects” like yearbooks and football teams, powerful presences in today’s American high schools, explained Ms. Ripley. She argued that compared with these schools, American schools were the outliers because they did not focus solely on learning.
Ms. Ripley gave the example of Elaina, a foreign exchange student from Finland who attended high school in the United States (Ms. Ripley didn’t specify the exact location or the year that she studied in the United States). She was required to write 10 articles as a final project for her journalism class. When the due date for her final project arrived, she was the only student to turn in all 10 articles. She was able to meet her teacher’s expectations with ease and told Ms. Ripley that American schools do not demand much work from their students.
“Something was communicated to Elaina [along the way in her education in Finland] to meet the high standards of not only what she should do but what she is capable of,” noted Ms. Ripley. “Foreign exchange students say school in America is easy.”
Ms. Ripley concluded her talk with a call for change, a call for schools in the United States to focus more heavily on learning:
“We are systematically underestimating what our kids can do....They need a mental agility to audition for jobs...and although we don’t know what jobs will be available in 20 to 30 years, we do know that critical thinking skills will be valued and needed.”
A version of this news article first appeared in the BookMarks blog.