As most of us in the Northern hemisphere slide back into school, it is worth taking some time to look at a few books that might give us some thought about the organization of our classrooms and our buildings.
The first book that I want to recommend is called The Smartest Kids in the World. Written by Amanda Ripley, who freely admits that she did all that she could in her career in the past to avoid stories about education, this book is a fairly quick read and won’t overwhelm you with theory. This is a fairly slim book firmly focused in real schools, lives and classrooms.
The basic premise is that US schools (and yes, it is very heavily focused on US schools) are doing a poor job. From that starting point, the author goes on to look at a lot of PISA information and three countries who’s scores are consistently near the top of the world:
Korea, Finland, and rising star, Poland.
Ms. Ripley from that point follows three American teenagers through a year as a Rotary exchange student in each of these countries. For those of us involved in education, the stories that follow are fairly predictable and well worn:
- The lives of Korean students are hell as they careen from school, to study halls, to cram schools in the evening.
- Finnish teenagers have a lot of freedom in what they learn and how they learn.
- Polish teens are treated as adults. Their schooling is difficult, kids often do poorly and buckling down and studying is the only way to really pull through.
As educators, many people are probably aware of the general outlines of these stories. But I still think that this quick read is worth your money. First of all, it is one thing to know something about the school system in another country, it is something altogether different to follow a student for a year through their lives and experiences in these places. This puts these stories into some context.
Second, and much more interestingly in my mind, is Ms. Ripley’s look at PISA data, educational policy in each of these places, and the decisions that need to be made along the way for schools and students to achieve at a global level. For example, I didn’t know that Finland’s educational “miracle” is very recent, only 10% of Finns graduated from high school in the 1950s. As well, PISA data goes on to show that educational superpowers are not the nations that spent the most money on education. In fact, in very dramatic fashion, Ms. Ripley points out in each of the schools that she visits in Finland, Poland and Korea, technology is almost completely absent and interactive whiteboards are mentioned repeatedly and specifically as being common in the US and absolutely nowhere to be found in other places.
Ripley places great stock in the importance of two things throughout the book: the importance of setting, reaching for, and testing students on high standards, and, second, on the importance of teacher education systems only accepting high achieving candidates who are willing to undergo a rigorous program of learning in order to become teachers.
Another point that Ms. Ripley raises is the actual job of teachers and schools. In the US (and Canada as well), the school is not only the place for academic learning takes place, but also a place for students to take part in sports and other activities. In fact, in some schools, these “other” activities have taken over being the main concern of the schools. In places like Korea, Finland and Poland, students certainly take part in sports, dance and other activities just as they do in the US and Canada. But these activities are more often tied to the community than the school. The schools focus on being places of learning and academics.
In the book, Ms. Ripley goes on to tackle myths of parental involvement (read to your kids, don’t just join the PTA), testing (Korean airlines change their schedules around national testing days), interviews a teacher who makes $4 million a year, and gives us a look at a whole host of other bits and pieces that together make up the total picture of how education happens in each of these places.
Overall, I thought this was an interesting, big picture kind of book. It made me think about the hows and whys of doing things in my own classroom. I’m also going to pass it along to my principal.