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  • Writer's pictureRich Haglund

Lessons from the smartest kids in the world

Amanda Ripley's 2013 book, the smartest kids in the world: and how they got that way, was focused on improving education for young people. But in her story, told through the experiences of three Americans who spent a high school year abroad--in Korea, Poland, and Finland--I found lessons that apply much more broadly.

(Wait: why am I just now writing about a book published nine years ago? Because, I have found, that in education, business, and parenting, the same true principles keep revealing themselves to imperfect humans who are learning anew. So, these ideas are still relevant--or perhaps more relevant--than they were in 2013.)

First, Ripley articulated what I believe every adult wishes for the next generation: "Fluency in problem solving and the ability to communicate; in other words, the basic skills I need to do my job and take care of my family in a world choked with information and subject to sudden economic change."

In a world where the existence of problems is "the very substance of a [meaningful existence]," comfort with addressing problems matters. Being able to communicate about difficult issues ("problems") with care and compassion for our fellow human beings is key to survival and happiness. And being able to take care of yourself and those dearest to you despite upheaval from close by or across the world provides peace of mind.

Second, insisting on rigor at the front end of processes can make all the difference. In the countries where teachers had the most autonomy and respect, the entry to the profession was more rigorous. "Because they were serious people doing hard jobs and everyone knew it, they got a lot of autonomy to do their work. . . . [Teachers and principals] were accountable for results, but autonomous in their methods.”

By the way, in those countries, students also had more freedom: freedom to fail and learn to recover, and freedom to learn the consequences of their hard work while in school rather than when they couldn't get or keep jobs as adults.

Third, clarity of purpose is necessary for real change. In education, Ripley explained, real change happened--throughout entire countries--in a shared vision “that economic and social well-being depended on the combined intellectual health of regular citizens and that the only way to get smart was to work hard and learn well.” (The US can start by making this happen state by state. Many US states have more people than the countries the students in Ripley's book visited.)

That clarity of purpose doesn't make a difference, though, if imposed by country-wide unilateral decisions. Instead, it requires "a feeling that spreads among people like a whispered oath, kitchen table by kitchen table, until enough of them agree that something must be done.”

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