“Smartest Kids in the World” Reflection by Lydia

For the last TC Book Club, we read excerpts from The Smartest Kids in the World by Amanda Ripley. The following are my thoughts to some discussion questions posed by the author.

1. In the initial pages of the Smartest Kids, I questioned the premise of the book: “Did it really matter if [the U.S.] ranked number one in the world in education outcomes? Or even number ten?” What do you think? Does it matter how students perform relative to other students around the world? In what ways does it matter or not matter?

My initial thoughts are that it does not matter how students in the U.S. perform compared to students around the world. That being said, it does matter that students are performing well enough to learn effectively and perhaps use their skills in jobs. On an international level, good performance in these jobs would benefit the country. Now that I think about it, comparison can be beneficial in the sense that it can provide information on where a country stands and who it can look to for improvement. However, I don’t think it is important to obsess over the rankings or the numbers, especially because learning and education can’t be measured by something as simple as test scores.

2. Is it fair to compare the U.S. to a small country like Finland? Would it be fairer to compare your state or district to Finland instead of the whole country?

I don’t think “fair” is the right word to use, but comparing the U.S. to Finland, or comparing any two countries, for that matter, is a bit like comparing apples to oranges. Each country has its own set of values and its own culture, and the differing situations in each country mean that an education system that works in one may not work in another. Similarly, I don’t believe that comparing a state or district to Finland is very effective, either.

3. In the book, I divided the world’s smartest countries into three categories: the Utopia model (Finland), the Pressure Cooker (South Korea) and the Metamorphosis (Poland). Which model does your community most resemble now? Which model do you aspire to achieve?

My community most resembles the pressure cooker model, although in a different way than South Korea experiences it. While the South Korean kids in the book focused all their energy into schoolwork and academics, kids in my community focus all their energy into becoming the perfect, holistic, poster child that it seems top tier colleges are seeking. I would aspire to achieve the Utopia model of Finland.

7. In the book and in an Atlantic magazine story, I wrote about the unique role that sports play in U.S. high schools. What is the right balance between sports and academics in your community? How do you know if you are achieving that balance?

In my community, the right balance would include attending all practices and games, but at the same time not being hindered from completing schoolwork or studying. You would know if you were achieving that balance if you were able to do both of those activities.

8. In your local school, are students allowed to miss class for games? Do they travel out of state for games? How often do students have a substitute teacher because their normal teacher is coaching?

Students are allowed to miss class for games, but I have rarely heard of a student traveling out of state for a game, much less a team traveling out of state. Students do not often have a substitute teacher because a teacher is coaching; I can think of three teachers who are also coaches, one of which I had, but we only had one substitute the whole season.

9. Do local media outlets cover non-athletic student activities and competitions? If not, why not? If you believe sports should be secondary to learning in your community, what can be done to illustrate that hierarchy in visible ways?

Local media outlets do cover non-athletic student activities and competitions. I don’t believe sports should be secondary to learning, but I don’t believe learning should be secondary to sports, either. I think they both work together to balance a student’s life – after all, learning is not just sitting in a classroom and absorbing information – it should be the entire school experience, which in an ideal world nurtures a student’s intellectual, social, and emotional growth.

Amanda Ripley posed more discussion questions than those that I answered, but I would like to close with a couple thoughts of my own. As a senior deciding on a college to attend, I am a little daunted by the decision. I want to make the best choice that will put me in a place to learn and grow, and I am realizing that that may not be the path we believe it to be. Thanks to Girls Innovate!, I now know that different things will work for different people, and that education and “making it” is more complex than simply following the steps and playing the game. At the same time, it is frightening to step out of the track that I have been taught my whole life – study hard, earn good grades, get into a top tier college, and therefore get a good job and earn good money. I have been a lot more reflective about school and college lately, and I hope that the message continues to reach more people. I do believe, though, that I will be happy wherever I go – and I have to say that I am extremely excited about this new page in my life.

Lallab Session #2 by Emma O’Hara

Similar to the Most Likely to Succeed screenings that Girls Innovate! hosted in August 2015, the Lallab session on Wednesday, December 30, 2015, forced me to consider my educational experience.

Lallab stands for “Learning About Learning, a Lab” and is a new initiative by Girls Innovate! Unlike the Most Likely to Succeed screenings, the Lallab sessions were small and focused and designed to engage community members and students with exploring the landscape of learning through the eyes and experiences of entrepreneurs in the field of learning; making visible the entrepreneurs’ processes to students; and engaging both the entrepreneurs and the students in a conversation. I enjoyed the session as it was small and focused, felt more real and relevant, and gave me a chance to meet other students – both high school and college, homeschooled and public-schooled, many of whom are from the other side of the Bay (Amador Valley High School, Pleasanton, CA).

When I saw the movie, it revealed to me that a different sort of school can exist and that my eleven years of public schooling wasn’t necessarily the only way to prepare people for the future. (Ironically, after I came to this earth-shaking revelation, I had to take a hiatus from the Girls Innovate! Teen Committee to do college applications.) This Lallab meeting was the first time, since the screenings, that I had a chance to engage in a public conversation about our education system. Having completed first semester of senior year at Sequoia High School in Redwood City, CA, sent out college applications, and been accepted and committed to Colby College, I now have even more experience as a student to reflect on this question.

We sat in a room at the Redwood Shores Library – about 15 of us – engaged in a conversation with two young entrepreneurs (Daniel Huang of CoderCentral and Richard Lo of PreHack) who are trying to innovate in the area of learning and engaging students in and for the 21st century. They wanted to know our thoughts about school and our experiences with projects and learning that have worked for us.

In my mind I thought that I shouldn’t worry whether my school experience and the school system I’ve been part of all my life are in some way ‘faulty’ or incomplete. I felt that we should celebrate the fact that people learn differently and have different experiences with the system. We should honor their stories and find a way to make more room in the world for nurturing such diversity. The meeting did end up providing a small semblance of such a space.


In addition to Richard (a Stanford grad who has been out for 5 years) and Daniel (a UCLA sophomore), there were nine other students (college, high school and middle school), as well as an experienced Silicon Valley entrepreneur (Shariq Mansoor, CTO and founder of FusionOps). Initially when we sat around the table we sat with people we knew; Daniel immediately changed that. He knew the discussion would be better if each of us had someone new as a neighbor. 

In our self-introductions to the group, we were asked to share thoughts on one of three things: (a) why we believe innovation in the field of learning is needed; (b) why it’s important for young people to think about their learning process; and (c) how our education has/has not empowered us (personally).

As we went around the room it became obvious that many felt the education system was too focused on grades, memorization and standards. That it was “about the school; about the test” and instead of innovating new ways to teach, people “assume that the system works, so they grow it”. I had a different take. I shared that, over time, I have developed consciousness about my learning style and my learning environment and have found ways to make them work for me. (Perhaps because I came from more limited circumstances than many of my peers, I had no choice but to work with what I have.)

After the introductions, Daniel introduced himself and then had us pair-share about a project that recently interested us – that we had to stay up late at night to work on.

Not only was it interesting to hear what my partner, Nafisa, did for her animation project, but when Daniel reined us back in and brought the discussion back out to the group, I could see the value in our experiences. He would call on one of us and ask us to explain our project and he would follow up with very pointed and direct follow up questions to get the information that he sought. For example, he called upon Nafisa and once she initially stated her answer he wanted to know what it was that made her be willing to stay up all night to work on it, how she connected with her group mates, and if something could have happened to make the situation better or worse. He was actively learning from her experiences so he could turn around and try to better cultivate such passion in his students and interns.

Following lunch we switched gears for about an hour to meet Shariq Mansoor. Richard led the interview. Shariq shared deep and honest comments about his experiences as an entrepreneur, as an employer looking at job candidates, and as a father with eyes on the changing learning landscape (he talked about how the school system is a factory model that seeks to optimize for further production). As far as future employment and entrepreneurship go, Shariq stressed passion.  He said that although a prestigious degree may get you some nods, the only thing that will make people want to hire you, follow you and keep you is your passion for what it is you’re after that aligns with their interests.

Following the interview with Shariq, we continued the discussion with Daniel. Daniel asked us to reflect on specific experiences in our extracurriculars that really helped us improve. Students shared about: being forced up on stage, being benched from a sport after injury, and having to be more communicative with coaches/teachers. We discovered that some of our best learning experiences came from actual doing, not just from being told what to do.

We did not have enough time to dig deeper into many of these experiences, but Daniel and Richard encouraged us to email them our thoughts on the matter because they want to learn more about what type of situations and opportunities harbor the most growth.

I, for sure, am looking forward to another Lallab session. Perhaps no one has a real and quantifiable solution to our discontent with the “tedious” and repetitive school system, but we can start discovering for ourselves how we best learn, how others can be engaged, and how to deliver better learning experiences for more people. We do this by opening up the conversation and engaging in the conversation in a meaningful way with other people – even the girl you see everyday may have a nugget of truth about her experiences that can enlighten your own journey. It is not enough just to read a book or go see a documentary; we have to meet each other in new and brave ways that push forward the conversation about education.

Happy New Year!

Emma O’Hara


Leadership Practices Update – by Cathy Zhang

As the school year is moving along, I am happy to say that I have challenged myself to practice my leadership challenges (“Connect with people on a personal basis” and “Err on the side of telling stories in a timely fashion”). It’s been great talking with several friends who are seniors and will be graduating soon – connecting with them on a personal basis has helped me develop strong friendships with them and I know that we will still be in contact when they go to college in the fall. Furthermore, participating on the badminton team at my school this year has introduced me to many new people. I love sharing stories with them and also listening to their stories during practices and on the bus when we travel to and from games. Overall, I think I have done a good job implementing my leadership practices!

Leadership Update – Audrey Xie

The year has been good for me and my leadership skills. The leadership skills I chose to work on this year were Encourage Others, Praise People, and Creatively Celebrate Other’s Achievements. The first thing I made myself figure out was why these three skills were important. After a multitude of experiences I came to the conclusion that praising others for their work makes them feel appreciated, which leads to a happy and hardworking group-mate. After figuring out this basic thought I challenged myself to open my eyes and notice other people’s effort and to praise them accordingly. Soon enough all three skills became almost a habit. However, I then realized that meaningless praises are even worse than no praise. My thinking now is that encouragement and praise should be given in moderation in order to preserve meaning.

This shows how much I’ve improved. I have gotten to a point where a praised people too much and had to backtrack!

Leadership Blog Overview – Arushi

Hi, my name is Arushi and my intention for this year was to develop my leadership skills, especially how I inspire a shared vision. The two steps that I wanted to take were to envision the future and to enlist others. I felt that of these two, I started out strong in envisioning the future. In every conversation I tried to think of new ways we could add to the world. For example, thinking about using games to teach children in villages. Or to first start by teaching them things that would be most relevant to their lives. Enlisting others was a little more difficult. At first, I felt uncomfortable starting a conversation about a specific vision of mine or even sharing my thoughts with others. I started out by just sharing my thoughts with one person. After a couple of minutes, the conversation petered out and we moved on to a different subject. I continued to talk to different people and through sharing my ideas I got to know more about them. With some people, our ideas clicked and everything escalated to how the world would look in 10 years and some people were confused.

In the future when I try to enlist others for a vision that I have thought about, I will not try to enlist anyone. It’s important to talk with certain people that you believe will be the most passionate about a certain topic.

Acting on My Intentions During Winter Break by Arushi Agarwal

The part of the Student Leadership Challenge I am working on this year is Inspiring a Shared Vision, in particular Envisioning the Future and Enlisting Others. This break, I looked for clubs to join at my school, especially ones that have mock trials, a new-found interest of mine. I found none. I realized I thought the experience of holding mock trials at my school would be so interesting, I was willing to start a club for it. I envisioned talking to my Criminal and Civil Law teacher about having her as an adviser. “What’s next?” I asked myself. Finding samples of mock trials would certainly be helpful and maybe in the future so would a mock trial championship. Wanting to involve others, I asked a couple of my friends interested in law if they would want to help out. They had all enjoyed Criminal and Civil Law and I built upon that saying that participating in more mock trials would serve to further enhance their experience in the class. In this way, I was able to interact with my community (for now, my friends) to envision something new at my school and enlist the help of others. In the future, I hope to work with my peers to make this vision a reality.


Leadership Practice Commitments over Winter Break – by Cathy Zhang

Over the holiday break, I visited the panhandle of Florida, as well as New Orleans. My trip lasted 10 days, and it was pretty fun! When I returned from my trip, I took the time to catch up on work, but also take a moment to relax at home.

Fortunately, I was able to be around and connect with others, so I used this opportunity to practice my leadership challenges (“Connect with people on a personal basis” and “Err on the side of telling stories in a timely fashion”). For example, I reached out to one of my old friends from middle school and we set up a study session to meet and prepare for a competition. It was great getting to chat with her, as we go to different high schools now. Furthermore, because I had a lot of fun experiences from my trip, when I came back to school, I really took the opportunity to tell lots of stories to my friends. It was great being able to not only share my winter break experiences (fun fact: I caught 15 fish on a deep-sea fishing boat trip!), but also to listen to my friends and classmates share their experiences.

Lallab Sessions by Lydia Sun

On a crisp winter’s day in December, I found myself in the Redwood Shores Public Library, seated around a table with leaders and entrepreneurs. This set up concerned the Lallab – a space for learning about learning, entrepreneurship, and apprenticeship – and also GI’s next big project. I was actually gathered in that room twice that week, along with entrepreneurs Richard Lo and Daniel Huang, and depending on the day, other students my age (both from Girls Innovate! and from other schools in the Bay Area).

These sessions focused on discussing what worked and didn’t work for students under the current school system – and ultimately how students might learn about the way they, well, learn the best. Both Richard and Daniel had started programs designed to teach in a new way. For Richard, this was a post-college program called PreHack that taught grads the skills they needed to land their first jobs. Daniel was focused on tutoring high school students under his organization CoderCentral. Although they had different audiences, both entrepreneurs were interested in discovering more about how people learn.

Throughout the sessions, the groups were accompanied on different days by more experienced adults who had been working for years. These included Mukul Agarwal, Simon Ho, Chinam Kry, and Shariq Mansoor. It was fascinating to listen to their own anecdotes and experiences. Shariq offered some great insight on finding a job and working, and I found it reassuring to know that passion will get you farther than a fancy resume. Simon brought up an interesting point about education – he said that some people will want to talk about it, and some people won’t. He mentioned that he couldn’t be having this conversation with his own kids, and that got me thinking about what it would be like if I brought up education with my friends.

The sessions were quite a new experience for me, as I had never been in a meeting setting before. I remember being a bit surprised that Richard, Daniel, and his team members (Jerry, Brian, and Sidd) were so interested in hearing from the students (the TC members and the interns from Daniel’s tutoring center). I got a chance to share a bit about my own experiences in high school, and also about my extra curricular projects and activities. I was very eager to help them answer their questions, but I often had trouble articulating a thought. Hopefully, that will come in the future with practice.

The Lallab sessions gave me a chance to talk about something bigger than myself, and to meet other people who are just as interested in the topic, from all different ages and backgrounds. Now back in school after break, I’m thinking more about how I can make the most of my education, especially when I go to college in the fall of this year. I find myself noticing when teachers openly question our school or grading system. It’s becoming clear that perhaps more people are invested in education than is immediately obvious. And in order to start a dialogue, we need to include the community – parents, teachers, and students alike.

Lydia Sun

Student Leadership Challenge (Winter Break) by Audrey Xie

Did you have opportunities to be around others during this break?

My family hosted two potlucks over the winter break. So I had many opportunities to be around people.

Did you take any of those opportunities to practice your leadership challenge?

During the potluck for New Years I decided to test my leadership ability.

If you did, please describe the circumstances and how it went. If you did not, why do you think it was a missed opportunity, and what would help you to keep your intention in mind as you enter 2016?

During the New Years potluck my parents invited some of their classmates over to eat dinner. I had never met a single one of these people. It was the perfect opportunity to test my ability to lead. Some kids, whom I’ve never met before, were put under my charge. I had to lead them in all sorts of activities to keep them occupied. I think my attempts were pretty successful. Nobody cried or screamed!

Winter Break Leadership Check-in by Sherry Wang

During the school year, I frequently went to the YMCA to practice basketball. However, after basketball season started in school, I only went to the YMCA on weekends. After my team lost many games, I noticed that we needed extra practice time. To inspire a shared vision, I suggested that our team should find time over winter break to practice together. Many members of my team agreed that practicing together over winter break would improve our skill level and help our team bond.
As a result, our team created a group chat to discuss the winter break practice. I looked on the YMCA website to find out when there was open gym, and scheduled a time when my teammates could come. After we practiced for a few hours, it was clear that our team developed a higher skill level, and we were closer together, not just as teammates, but as friends. The experience of spending time together outside of school not because we had too, but because we wanted too, really helped us bond as a team. In conclusion, I was around many of my teammates for most of winter break and I took the opportunity to inspire a shared vision that connected our team and showed us that we are better together.