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I’d like to share with you a book that I have read recently, which I found to be actually quite an interesting read.

It is called “The Smartest Kids in the World and How They Got That Way” by Amanda Ripley.

The blurb tells us that,

“America’s most privileged teenagers have high-tech schools and well-educated parents. Yet they perform below affluent kids in twenty-seven other countries in Math. “

And so, Amanda Ripley visited three different countries, Finland, Poland and South Korea to find out  how their education systems differed from the USA.

I was particularly interested in two countries in her list (sorry Poland!). Firstly, I currently live in Korea, so this was of personal interest to me, but I have also been particularly captivated by Finland’s successes in education. It’s also interesting that two extremely different approaches to education could top the OECD’s PISA test league table. So these are the two I’ll focus on here.

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Firstly, the PISA (Program for International Student Assessment) was developed by the OECD (check out PISA here) to evaluate the relative abilities of students and their education systems worldwide. In the past decade, South Korea and Finland have constantly topped the ranks – interesting since these two countries are poles apart in terms of their education systems.

The Case of South Korea

Ripley’s observations in her Korean case study interested me. She noted that since Korea had no natural resources “it cultivated its people instead” (p.59) Education had become a kind of currency that would buy a child’s ticket into the best universities. “Without education obsession,” she states, “South Korea could not have become the economic powerhouse that it was in 2011.” (p.60)

And she’s right. It’s still true today.

The problem in Korea is that there are not enough university places or jobs. So competition is extremely high. Getting accepted to a place at one of the top three, most coveted universities (Seoul National University, Korea University or Yonsei University – SKY)  is every child’s dream – it means everything. It will elevate a family’s status no-end. But this continued pressure to achieve the highest results and win a place at SKY has dominated education in Korea – and the enjoyment of actually learning has been sacrificed as a result.

This unhealthy preoccupation with test scores has lead to a dependence on private tutoring academies (hagwons). Kids are actually busier during vacation times than they are during school time – they are trying to get ahead.

Korea scored highly on the PISA test, but it’s more a result of their and their parents’ efforts – not because of their schools.

Many Korean kids sleep in class; teachers in Korean schools don’t mind, because they know the kids have been studying hard at hagwon the night before. My own observations are that nowadays, it’s illegal for private tutoring academies to operate after 10pm, but it’s amazing how many of these places pull down the black-out shutters after 10 and continue lessons until much later. Interestingly, this has lead to a growing number of hagwon spies stalking the streets at night in search of  illegal operators. They get paid very handsomely, as well, if they find a perpetrator or  two!

Along with it’s top place in the international education league tables, Korea also tops the world in its suicide rates. It’s no coincidence that teenage suicide rates are the highest in Korea than in all other OECD countries. The pressure of education has seen to that.

But amongst all this negativity comes a positive – it is widely thought in Korea that children can handle a lot more than we credit them for. Give them the right conditions -and lots of loving parental support – and they will fly. The problem in Korea’s case is that they’ve gone a little bit over the top.

Let’s now look at Finland…

In her case study on Finland, Ripley recounts an experience of a girl called Kim. She was in a high school Finnish class one day, and they were reading the book Seven Brothers. Since it was written in Old Finnish, the teacher took the time and effort to look for a version of the book that would engage and include Kim in the lessons.

In Finland, the teacher training program is a very rigorous one, and teachers need to be the best.

As a result of such high levels of training, teachers are entrusted with the responsibility of designing lesson plans, materials, assessments etc. which are suitable for the children in their class; in short, they have the responsibility (and autonomy) of making sure their students are engaged, included and motivated to learn.

This style of education in Finland developed over time. It was not suddenly devised one day by government officials sitting around a table. What the Finnish case shows us, I think, is that education systems need to evolve and adapt to the needs of our  students.

An interesting book by Amanda Ripley. Thank you!

If you’d like to try some sample questions from the PISA test, click here.