The Smartest Kids in the World: a Look at Schooling in Finland, South Korea, and Poland

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This story is based on a radio interview. Listen to the full interview.

Audio Transcript:

Marco Werman: I'm Marco Werman and this is The World. I recently saw a post on Facebook explaining why Finland's school system is considered the best in the world. It said, "We pay our teachers like the doctors. Students enjoy over an hour of recess. And there's no mandatory testing", the opposite of what America does. From the outside it sounds kinda idyllic, but there's not much in the way of details and you don't get a sense of the actual experience of the students themselves. Well, one journalist, Amanda Ripley, decided to look at the top ranked school systems in the world (Finland, South Korea and Poland) through the eyes of American exchange students. She wrote about what she found in the new book, The Smartest Kids in the World.

Amanda Ripley: Finland is really the utopia of the world in education right now and nobody is entirely sure why. Korea is an example of a pressure cooker model, that's very common in Asia, where students work incredibly hard to get the results they get. Poland is really exciting and interesting because they've dramatically improved their results in the past 10 years, despite having significant levels of child poverty.

Werman: Now, exchange students aren't exactly representative of most American public school students, but they did provide you with this exceptional view of other countries' education systems. What kind of things were they telling you?

Ripley: They found that the schools were very old fashioned. They didn't see the technology that they had in their American schools–the fancy digital white boards on the wall, the laptops or iPads. Even in countries like Korea that are extremely wired and advanced compared to the US.

Werman: Let's go to Poland and hear from the exchange student you were working with there. His name is Tom. He's an 18-year-old from Gettysburg, PA. And here he's reflecting upon the technology in his classroom back home.

Tom: It's not a question of how much technology we have in the classroom because all of my classes we do have laptops, and all of my classes we use smart boards. And what do kids do on their laptops? They play Flash games. And smart boards don't work all the time, and if they do, you're not doing anything that you wouldn't do on a chalkboard.

Werman: Now you cited, Amanda, an amazing statistic in your book, the US is one of the largest spenders per pupil int he classroom. So what exactly are we spending all this money on?

Ripley: The US is the third largest spender per student on K-12 education. Anecdotally we know that the US seems to invest more in classroom technology, none of which tends to consistently produce returns in learning. And so it was interesting to see that the emphasis in these classrooms in Poland, and Finland and Korea was more about rigorous learning and less about you know, shiny objects.

Werman: Right, do they have shiny objects in Korea, Finland and Poland?

Ripley: There are certainly schools that are more high tech than others, but anecdotally people, including myself who have visited many of these schools, the facilities are really an afterthought compared to the teachers.

Werman: Let's go back to Finland. Here's Kim, who's 15 years old. She's from rural Oklahoma and she spent a year in Finland.

Kim: I've never had a teacher here where I would say, "Oh, that's the mean teacher. That's the teacher who's so and so." Whereas in the US I feel like there are teachers who I have no idea why they went to the trouble of getting a degree. They genuinely do not seem to like being there.

Werman: So from technology to the actual teachers themselves, is that the secret, Amanda, the teachers, as Kim says?

Ripley: The United States has some amazing teachers. I've surveyed hundreds of students who came to the US as well, and they raved about how friendly and interactive their teachers were, but it is true that the top performing countries in the world are all much, much more selective about who gets to even attempt to become a teacher, to study education in colleges…which has a lot of implications including the signal it sends to kids, and parents and politicians about how serious this profession is and how serious the country is about education.

Werman: Finland actually closed its teaching colleges. How did that help?

Ripley: In the late 1960s as part of a larger reform, Finland shut down all of its education colleges and moved them into the top eight most elite universities in the country. People here when you try to say we should raise the bar for getting into education college, people say well you're gonna end up losing diversity among teachers. And the same argument was made in Finland, interestingly. It wasn't racial diversity, but it was about geographic diversity. There was a real fear that there would be no rural candidates for teaching. So what they found is that eventually that was not the case. When you make a profession more serious, more prestigious and better paid, you tend to get more diverse candidates who want to be part of it, particularly men, I should note.

Werman: Right, interesting. South Korea, it's a different story from Finland, what you call the pressure cooker model. Let's listen to a clip from Eric, who transferred from one of the best high schools in MN to spend his year in South Korea.

Eric: In Korean high school, home and school intersect constantly. If you're at home, you're either studying, eating or sleeping. If you're at school, you're studying, eating or sleeping. So many students sleep during class because they don't have time to sleep at home.

Werman: They're working hard, but is that really being held up as a recipe for success?

Ripley: It's not working smart, that's for sure, and no one in Korean advocates that the United States should try to use Korea as a model. There are pieces of that model that are incredibly compelling. One of the things that Eric, the student I followed from MN noticed was how much more interesting math was in his Korean school. Math is taught in a more holistic way, so you're actually making connections between trigonometry, and calculus and geometry, as opposed to learning them all separately and never understanding what they're for, you know.

Werman: Right. So, Amanda, when you pull back from everything you did and you saw in your research this past year, what surprised you? What did you really take away?

Ripley: Rigor matters. All these country came to a consensus that it was desperately urgent to get serious about education and that means the parents prioritize helping kids learn at home as opposed to just showing up at school for events, and activities and sport. That means making it very competitive to become a teacher and demanding more of kids and overestimating rather than underestimating what they are capable of.

Werman: Amanda Ripley, her book, The Smartest Kids in the World, is out this month. Amanda, great to meet you, thanks a lot.

Ripley: Thanks, Marco, I appreciate it.