The Smartest Kids in the World: And How They Got That Way

An exploration of how students in these top three nations learn to think and build resilience in a new world.

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Karsen: From the Parents Club, I’m Karsen Kolnicki. This is your briefing.


Karsen: Today, we’re discussing The Smartest Kids in the World. Written by Amanda Ripley.

In a handful of nations, virtually all children are learning to make complex arguments and solve problems they’ve never seen before. In this New York Times bestseller, the author follows three Americans embedded in these countries for one year to find the answers for her own children.

Karsen: Vincent Phamvan on the key takeaways [pause] and what you need to know.


Karsen: Vincent, what was the most surprising thing for you in this book?

Vincent: So the author follows a handful of Americans in other countries to understand the differences behind the upbringing and education of the smartest kids in the world. And in one of the countries, Korea, it’s actually common for a third of the students to sleep in class.

Karsen: Wait what...

Vincent: Yea, so if you walk into a class in a Korean school at 10 in the morning, you’d see about a third of the students asleep. And that’s because so many of the students are tired from long days of studying that they sleep during classes in the morning so that they can be alert for their hagwon lessons later in the day.

Karsen: What is hagwon?

Vincent: Hagwon teachers are private teachers that are paid directly by families. In Korea, the Hagwon schools are generally thought of as having higher quality education so the time spent there is considered more useful than the time spent in public school classrooms.

In fact, when students were surveyed, they felt that their hagwon teachers were more dedicated and more prepared for their jobs compared to public school teachers.

Karsen: And why is that?

Vincent: It’s because hagwons are private. The teachers are paid more, or at least they can be paid more. It’s a free market, so it’s subject to market forces. The teacher’s performance dictates their pay, whereas public school teachers get a base salary regardless of how well their students do on test scores.

Also, Hagwon teachers are regularly fired if their student’s test scores are low. It’s also possible for Hawgon teachers to make insane amounts of money when they’re really really good.

Karsen: Like, what’s considered an insane amount of money?

Vincent: Like, it’s possible to make a few million dollars a year. In fact, one teacher named Andrew Kim was so in demand that he earned $4 million a year. So those incentives drive the hagwon teachers to drive results.

Karsen: That sounds really really good. Should other countries adopt this as well?

Vincent: Kind of. There’s one big downside, which even Andrew Kim feels makes this a bad idea. This system promotes inequality because only the richest parents can afford to send their children to the best hagwons.

Many Koreans have already begun to notice that a parent’s wealth drives the educational outcomes for their children, which is clearly an unfair situation.

Karsen: It seems like Korean parents take on a different type of role than American parents do in their children’s education.

Vincent: The Korean parents take more of a coach role in their child’s education whereas American parents take more of a cheerleader role.

Korean parents are definitely known for pushing their children hard when it comes to academic achievement. They take on a coach role at a young age when it comes to parenting. Research shows that they coach their children informally, by quizzing them on multiplication tables while doing chores, and also in a more structured way, such as by devoting time in the evenings by teaching them to read or by doing math using a workbook.

This is different than the typical American parent, who is often reluctant to engage in structured learning. Western parents often feel their children should learn organically through playing.

Karsen: Yea, that’s quite different than the traditional American way.

Vincent: Yes, American parents are often worried about crushing their children’s self-esteem, so they heap praise on them for even the smallest successes, acting as cheerleaders.

In one study, 85 percent of American parents felt that they needed to praise their child’s intelligence to convince the child that they were smart.

Karsen: Okay, so which style is better for the children?

Vincent: Well, the studies showed that the coaching methodology is far more effective for the child: children whose parents spend more time coaching them when they’re young consistently do better in school.

In fact, the cheerleading approach can have negative effects on the child: studies show that insincere or excessive praise can actually discourage children from working hard.

Karsen: That’s not good. So it seems parents from all over the world might benefit from taking a page from their Korean counterparts’ book and introducing some structured coaching into their interactions with their children.  But, can this also go too far?

Vincent: Yes, it can. One horrifying example in the book was a Korean boy named Ji. His mother pushed him so hard that he eventually murdered her. She demanded that he improve on his top one-percent national academic standing to become the top individual student in the nation.

Karsen: Oh wow. Okay… switching topics… What are other great examples of education systems in the world?

Vincent: Finnish students get consistently high rankings, and unlike in South Korea, the students there don’t study all day and night.

Karsen: So what’s the difference in the Finnish education system?

Vincent: The Finnish teacher education system is the big game-changer. The entrance requirements to become a teacher are highly demanding. Only 20 percent of applicants are accepted. To make the cut, you have to be in the top third of your high school classes.

In the United States, many teacher education programs have no admission standards at all, so only 20 percent of teacher trainees were in the top third of their high school classes.

Karsen: It sounds like they really only take the cream of the crop.

Vincent: Yes, and on top of that, the actual teacher training program is no joke either. The rigorous program is six years long and includes a year of practical training in a public school where they are mentored and critiqued by three professional teachers.

In the United States, teacher training programs are much shorter and not nearly as demanding. Sometimes, education is actually known as one of the easier majors in college, and US teachers on average spend 12 to 15 weeks actually practicing teaching.

Another interesting country that was able to raise test results scores was Poland.

Karsen: So, what did they do in Poland?

Vincent: In Poland, they dramatically raised their test scores by standardizing the tests that were used. In the past, individual teachers had a lot of autonomy in deciding the details in the curriculum, like which textbooks were used.

Then, the Polish government introduced a new, more rigorous national education curriculum with higher expectations for students. The idea was that the curriculum set uniform national goals to be achieved in each classroom.

To track the success, the government also introduced a new set of standardized tests that all Polish school children would take at various stages of their education. These tests would determine which highschools and universities the students would attend.

So the tests not only motivated students but also helped universities and employers better gauge applicants by providing a national comparison.

Karsen: How does this compare to the United States?

Vincent: Well, the author shares that the US lags behind the curriculum of many other countries. For example, the typical eighth-grade math class in the United States has the content that would typically be taught in the sixth or seventh grade elsewhere in the world.

When the author surveyed students who had gone on foreign exchanges either to or from the US, she found that nine out of ten students who had either come from or to the US felt that the US classes were easier than abroad.

Karsen: Is there progress being made on raising the curriculum?

Vincent: Happily, yes. There seems that there is a consensus regarding the need to raise curriculum standards. Recently, 45 states agreed to adopt a common set of more rigorous standards for reading and math built around those used by leading global standards.

Karsen: It sounds like the key takeaway from this book is that to improve the state of the education system in the United States, it needs to adopt measures like a more rigorous standard curriculum and add more consequences to standardized testing with tracking of students based on performance. At the same time, the selection of teachers needs to be more demanding with more rigorous training for educators. Parents must also play a role in their children’s education by being coaches from a young age.


Karsen: That’s it for your briefing. I’m Karsen Kolnicki. See you next time.


How do other countries create “smarter” kids? In a handful of nations, virtually all children are learning to make complex arguments and solve problems they’ve never seen before.

They are learning to think, in other words, and to thrive in the modern economy. What is it like to be a child in the world’s new education superpowers?

In a global quest to find answers for our own children, author and Time magazine journalist Amanda Ripley follows three Americans embed­ded in these countries for one year. Kim, 15, raises $10,000 so she can move from Oklahoma to Finland; Eric, 18, exchanges a high-achieving Minnesota suburb for a booming city in South Korea; and Tom, 17, leaves a historic Pennsylvania village for Poland.

Through these young informants, Ripley meets battle-scarred reformers, sleep-deprived zombie students, and a teacher who earns $4 million a year. Their stories, along with groundbreaking research into learning in other cultures, reveal a pattern of startling transformation: none of these countries had many “smart” kids a few decades ago. Things had changed. Teaching had become more rigorous; parents had focused on things that mattered, and children had bought into the promise of education.

A journalistic tour de force, The Smartest Kids in the World is a book about building resilience in a new world-as told by the young Americans who have the most at stake.

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