Amanda Ripley's
Library, Tips for School & District Administrators Updated April 13, 2020

More Lessons from Classrooms in South Korea, Finland and Poland

By Brian Gatens

Hoping to improve our schools, some Americans have taken a close look at successful school systems overseas. The idea is to find solid, time-tested lessons from these schools and apply them to our educational system.

Amanda Ripley's "The Smartest Kids in the World: And How They Got That Way"Amanda Ripley, author of “The Smartest Kids in the World,” researched the school systems of Finland, South Korea and Poland. Through her work, she found key conclusions that resonate for us at home. What I found most interesting is that all three nations produce strong results despite vast cultural differences.

Ripley’s key lessons:

Rigor matters, but so does thinking

All three schools systems focused their efforts on the actual work the children were expected to perform, and made certain the work appropriately pushed the boundaries of what the children could reasonably accomplish as developing learners.

It’s important not to confuse rigor with rote learning. For example, South Korean students appreciated how mathematics was taught as a holistic subject. American schools, by contrast, teach math as a separate subject.

It’s difficult to become a (well-paid) teacher

Finland is known as the country that “pays its teachers like doctors” and that’s a good thing: It’s almost as difficult to become a teacher as it is a doctor. Decades ago, when Finnish educators realized that their schools were in crisis, the nation took the drastic step of shutting down its teacher-education programs and shifting that responsibility to its universities.

As a result, the bar to become a teacher became much higher. This has resulted in an increase in teacher quality as well as in teacher salaries. Finland tightened the supply chain, and as a result demand (and salaries) went up.

Technology is not a silver bullet

Ripley noted that the United States is the third-highest spender per capita on its students and, in her estimation, the highest spender on classroom education technology. She maintains that this focus on “gizmos and gadgets” has not increased student performance.

The model countries Ripley studied use very little technology and instead focused on student classroom practice and teacher-guided instruction to help the children succeed. They have most certainly not become sucked into the next “bright shiny thing.”

Students can handle a lot more than we suspect

These countries also take a different approach to how they view student learning capacity. They overestimate — rather than underestimate — how much rigor their students can handle in their classes.

This focus on rigor, combined with a tightly constructed and teacher-understood curriculum, enabled the students to achieve at greater levels than their American counterparts.

Parents prioritize learning

One large takeaway from Ripley’s work is that parents in all three countries, in their own ways, place a greater emphasis on the academic work of their children. While American parents are known for their overall support of the school and their participation in their child’s social activities, they lag in emphasizing the importance of academics, Ripley says.

Questions to ask when applying lessons of ‘Smartest Kids’

If you’re interested in applying the broad themes in Ripley’s book, ask these questions about your classroom practice:

How rigorous is my classroom?

All three school systems shared high academic rigor. Students were expected to tackle complex subjects and learn about them deeply.

Worksheets or other “drill and kill” activities were rare in these classrooms. Students were expected to read authentic texts, not just canned textbooks, and assessments rarely included multiple-choice questions or pure regurgitation of information. Students were expected to write at length about their class subjects and to show mastery through that writing.

Does my classroom encourage higher-level thinking?

In his classic work highlighting a “taxonomy of learning,” Benjamin Bloom identified six key learning activities from easiest to most difficult for students to use in their learning. Bloom’s Taxonomy, from lowest to highest, is:

  • knowledge
  • comprehension
  • analysis
  • application
  • synthesis
  • evaluation

The goal, per Bloom, is to live at the higher end of the taxonomy. Based on the three countries’ classroom examples, you should conduct a class self-assessment and see where you “live.”

If your primary activity has students merely learning and understanding information, you’re living at the lower end of spectrum. While it’s more difficult to teach at the top, that’s the kind of work that best benefits your students.

Do I expect technology to ‘save’ my students?

Ripley said she believes that America leads the world in spending on educational technology. Yet she is quick to point out that our high-achieving counterparts actually have very little technology in the classroom. You don’t see Smartboards or tablets in many of the classrooms.

I’m not saying to abandon technology, as I’ve seen many excellent lessons delivered via these means, but do make sure you aren’t leaning too heavily upon machines to support your students. To explore this more, check out the work of Alan November. He’s a clear and strong voice on the proper role of technology in today’s classrooms.

Can my students handle more than I suspect they can?

All three countries use what can be considered a “tough love” approach. Students aren’t necessarily treated with kid gloves, but their learning environments are rather intense.

It’s worth noting that all three countries developed their educational systems coming out of an economic crisis and their culture set aside a softer approach (worrying greatly about feelings) to help children learn difficult and complex curricula.

I tend to find in America that in order to spare the feelings of our students, some teachers unintentionally make the classwork too easy. It’s OK to be demanding in your work, as long as your demanding nature is tempered with deep levels of caring and dedication. School should be difficult in a positive and growth-oriented way.

Can I help parents prioritize learning?

All three of the profiled countries were “hungry” for academic success as they consciously connected their survival as nations to their children’s education. As a result, parents strongly support the work of their teachers and schools.

What you don’t see as much in these countries (but you do tend to see in America) is a high level of parental involvement in the social side of school, such as plays, author days, etc.

You should make it clear to parents early in the school year that you place some of the responsibility for their children’s success on their support and involvement at home. Just as you can hold their children to a high standard, you can do the same with parents.

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