“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.