Amanda Ripley’s: The Smartest Kids in the World

Increasing rigor and emphasizing mastery is key to making American students competitive on the world stage.

The Smartest Kids in the World, by Amanda Ripley, serves up a bit of tough love to the American education system by exploring the reasons our kids fall further and further behind their international counterparts—especially in math and science—as they progress through our schools.

Our students ranked 26th in critical thinking, well below average for the developed world, as measured by the Program for International Students Assessement (PISA).  Ripley explored the high school experiences of American exchange students in Finland, Korea, and Poland to understand the disparity.

All the schools had a strong sense of purpose; teachers who were carefully selected, educated, and trained; and the schools enjoyed substantial freedom in fulfilling their mission. Ripley noted that the foreign students were similar to students in the United States—they hung out with friends, surfed the Internet, and watched television—but they took their education more seriously.

Core ideas to improve our educational outcomes:  parents should coach, teachers should emphasize rigor, and schools should insist on mastery

Parents Should Coach

Parents who acted like coaches to their children taught them how to become thinking adults. What does this mean? Parents who act as coaches listen more than they advise, prompt their children to think about different options and consequences, accept mistakes as a natural part of learning, and help their children process failures. This parental effort even had a bigger impact than volunteering in schools and helping with homework. Parents who help their child develop self-control, empathy, and persistence have children who are more successful.

Teachers Should Emphasize Rigor

Teachers who focus on rigor have the power to foster positive changes in our schools. Students need the opportunity to do challenging work. They learn most when challenged to reach beyond what they can master easily. Then, they also learn valuable non-cognitive skills and build confidence. Rigor enables our children to learn by thinking, working hard, and—yes—failing before ultimately succeeding.

Schools Should Insist on Mastery

Schools need to enforce firm standards based on mastery of material. We are doing a disservice to our kids by not insisting that they learn essential concepts prior to progressing to the next level. Schools should provide a supportive environment where mistakes are expected and valued as a learning opportunity.

If we are to get serious about improving American education, Ripley asks which is better: fail now or fail later?

Teacher Takeaways:

  • Encourage a growth mindset; this means students believe effort is the key to success. When all students are required to meet the same standards, expectations are that all students are capable of learning the content.
  • Explore the connectedness of concepts; depth is better than breadth. Students who understand how what they are currently learning fits into the big picture can more easily recall and remember previous concepts.
  • Emphasize equity allowing all students the opportunity to work at challenging levels. When schools follow a strict code of equity and delay tracking students until later, student outcomes were much improved.

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