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The Smartest Kids in the World, and What They Can Teach Us

A journalist's look at three different systems producing remarkable results.

By Crawford Kilian 29 Dec 2014 |

Contributing editor Crawford Kilian taught at Capilano College (now Capilano University) from 1968 to 2008.

The title is misleading: they're not the smartest kids, just the best educated. And it's how they got that way that should interest North American teachers, parents and students.

Amanda Ripley is a very good guide. An investigative journalist, she knows how to write. Somehow she got the time and resources to do expensive and time-consuming research for this book, which took her from the U.S. to Finland, Poland and South Korea. But it wasn't just education tourism; she really dug into the school systems she studied, so her findings have some credibility as research.

Americans, and to a lesser extent Canadians, love to beat themselves up about their education failings as compared to the Finns or Koreans or whatever country is currently thriving economically. (Remember the 1990s, when Japan was supposed to be shaming us?)

It's a dubious policy to continue the beatings until scores improve, especially since we also love to rationalize about the "otherness" of the foreign: those ice-eyed Finns with their phonetic alphabet, those Asian kids driven to top grades or suicide -- nothing like our own kids. It might be more persuasive if I didn't remember the same BS being peddled in the 1950s about how super-educated young Soviets would roll over the grinning American ignoramuses of my generation.

Ripley disarms that argument by using three young Americans as her surrogates, experiencing different systems from the inside. An Oklahoman named Kim raises enough money to spend a year as an exchange student in Finland, Eric goes from Minnesota to South Korea, and Tom from Gettysburg High to Poland. Ripley then tracks their progress while also interviewing other students and educators in the host countries.

In the process, she also explains the culture and philosophy behind each country's school system -- and how such wildly different systems can still produce such remarkable results.

Teaching for $4 million a year

The Finns, for example, are minimalists who schedule a 15-minute recess after each 45-minute class, with everyone going home around 2 p.m. The Poles teach math students without calculators, expect kids to do the math in their heads, and flunk everyone who fails. Teachers are accountable through standardized tests, but free to teach as they see fit. The South Koreans run school until late afternoon, when students then head off to a hagwon, a kind of cram school -- the best one their parents can afford. (Ripley mentions Andrew Kim, a star of the hagwon system, who makes $4 million a year.)

No wonder Eric was amazed that his classmates in Busan spent their school mornings asleep on their desks -- some with little pillows conveniently strapped to their wrists. They'd been cramming until midnight or later the night before.

Ripley describes the obsessiveness of South Korean parents and students in pursuing top grades. The grades dictate which university you'll get into, and that in turn dictates the kind of life and opportunities you'll have. Grades dictate your whole family's future social mobility.

What she doesn't explain is that this isn't especially Korean; it's Asian, based on the Chinese exam system that goes back thousands of years. As a brutal Darwinian selection of the intellectually fittest, the system itself has survived because it works. The students I taught in China, not long after universities resumed entrance exams in 1977, were stunningly bright -- but they didn't think so, because their exam grades had got them only into a second-rank languages school instead of a "key" institution like Zhongshan University.

But having selected the best and brightest by age 18, the system then lets them coast through university. I didn't dare assign a whole novel to my students, only excerpts and short stories. (My brightest student, later admitted into an American university, told me he and his classmates would have gone on strike rather than face an American graduate-course reading list.)

When school's not rigorous and we're not serious

Setting aside the cultural variations, two factors stand out in Ripley's analysis: successful schools have "rigour," and everyone takes school seriously. While she has some kind words for Canada, her view of American schools applies largely to us as well: our content isn't rigorous, and we don't take school seriously at all except as a political issue.

I got my first sense of that from a Greek exchange student at Santa Monica High in 1957-58 -- having graduated from high school in Athens, she was essentially having a holiday for a year before continuing to university. I saw it again in my international students at Capilano College, whether from Asia or Europe, who had done most of our course content in high school. They were years ahead of their Canadian classmates, sometimes even in their English skills.

So how did North American education turn into some kind of sheltered workshop, where children and young adults are protected from failure?

"Wealth had made rigour unnecessary in the United States," Ripley says, and it's clear that North American economic and political success has taken our edge off. My generation of war babies, and the early postwar baby boomers, still felt our parents' anxieties about the Depression and the war: my schoolteacher mother was going to drill long division into me if it killed me, and it damn near did. My father, who never got beyond Grade 10, backed her up. But like top-scoring Asian high-school students, we've coasted since the mid-1960s.

Sputnik, the first earth satellite back in 1957, scared the Americans and Canadians into funding education beyond its wildest dreams. Post-secondary education expanded, offering a vision of endless social mobility even as the unskilled labour market dried up.

So we and the Americans found ourselves running huge, expensive education systems that needed more and more bums in seats regardless of demographic trends. We overproduced generations of undertrained teachers. Worse yet, flunking students was out of the question, or the next cohort would be too small to fill the seats available.

Watering down curriculum, pumping up egos

To put it kindly, curriculum was watered down while student egos were pumped up. Educators began to agonize over high-school dropouts, assuming that the kids weren't bright enough to cope (though their parents, with maybe Grade 9 or 10, had won the Second World War). I started my college career teaching what I'd learned in junior-high English, and continued to explain basic grade-school grammar for 40 years.

School culture began to change, trying to retain everyone by not really challenging anyone. Sports became a big deal. So did "relevance," whatever that meant in 1965. Education became a kind of birthday party where everyone got entertainment and a slice of cake and went home with a loot bag, just for showing up.

That was the attitude I picked up from some of my Capilano students when I came home from China in 1984, and it was a bigger culture shock than China itself had been. The attitude changed as the economy tightened. Adults spiked our enrolments in every recession, looking for more employable skills, and their kids got the message.

But North America is still far from being as serious about education as countries like Finland, Poland and South Korea. Those countries have had more than one collective near-death experience. They do not define success as being voted Miss Congeniality. They have had to think and work their way out of crises, and taught their kids that lesson.

Such countries have always known what we have forgotten: kids are smart and tough, and hardwired from birth to control as much of their environment as they can. If that means learning calculus in high school, they'll do it. If it means moaning that "math is hard," they'll do that instead. They can face almost any degree of rigour we throw at them.

Rigorous self-criticism

Ripley defines "rigour" as expecting all students to master academically complex material, whether the exhausting 18-hour physicality of the South Korean system or the seemingly relaxed but very calculated approach of the Finns. But she points out that even Finnish, Polish and South Korean teachers and students find fault with their own systems. It's never quite good enough -- which seems to me a result of being rigorously educated enough to see your own failings.

After a couple of generations of helicopter parenting, anxiety over "self-esteem" rather than self-respect, and education funding based on bums in seats, we have put ourselves at a serious disadvantage with the rest of the world. We can kid ourselves that the Asians and Europeans still send their kids to our schools because we're so good. But it's because a North American degree still carries some prestige, and the coursework is a day at the beach compared to back home in Shanghai or Berlin.

Amanda Ripley's implicit point is that if we adults get really serious about education's value, students will rise to the challenge. The trick will be to get serious without learning the meaning of "rigour" from a war or depression. Her book is a good starting point.

Please note our comment threads will be closed Dec. 22 to Jan. 5 to give our moderators a well-deserved break. Happy holidays, readers.  [Tyee]

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