The Smartest Kids in the World, by Amanda Ripley

June 1, 2019


What does it take to be #1?

Let me tell you a story.

One day while teaching, out of nowhere I stood by helplessly while Macy, 18, viciously slapped her best friend’s bare arm with all of her force.

In response, Linda (also 18 years old, a voter who could legally marry) rapped her best friend’s hand as hard as she could with her knuckles.

“Quit,” I said, and separated the two girls, who then turned their rage against me.

“What?” Macy glared at me, but in her eyes I could see she was mystified. She had no idea why I was upset.

“We do this all the time,” said Linda, reading my face.

“They do,” said Ryan, a third student, a junior.

“Well, you don’t do it here,” I said.

But they wouldn’t stop, and they forced me to remove them.

Brats will be brats.



How do you reach the top?

But later that class, I couldn’t help but notice two other girls—Audrey and Jennifer—who were basically invisible within a rowdy public school, as mine was at the time.

Audrey and Jennifer worked hard, liked to read, earned A’s, and achieved high ACT scores. They tried hard. When they made a B+, they sought out ways to improve.

So far, so ordinary. But what struck me that day like a jolt from an ungrounded cable was: all year long, Macy and Linda sat within ten feet of Audrey and Jennifer and they hadn’t learned a thing from them.

They’d observed nothing.

Without self-control, Macy and Linda were literally incapable of getting anything they wanted. Yet the answers to everything they wanted and needed in life was literally three yards away. But they may as well have lived in a dark room.

Since then, I’ve thought about Macy, Linda, Audrey, and Jennifer a lot. Not because I want to be critical of anyone. But because soon I wondered about myself: given what I want to achieve, what examples are sitting right underneath my nose?

Harvard did a study on how effective mentoring really is. They found that 50% of the time, mentoring exceeds anyone’s dreams. And you don’t even need to have an accessible mentor. If you’re a musician, for example, you can make Mozart your mentor. Most likely, you’ll need to memorize all of his music and read so much about him that you could predict his actions, conversations, and beliefs about 90% of the time. If you can, then Mozart is your mentor.

So, shouldn’t I find a world-class mentor?

What does it take to be #1?


That’s where The Smartest Kids in the World comes in. For many years, they’re either in Finland or South Korea. (They do have stiff competition.)

I’m a teacher, and I need to be honest with myself. Although American teachers work hard, can be creative, and are often well-meaning, we don’t rank highly in the world. In 2011, we were

#12 in reading, #17 in science, and #26 in math.

And because some states, like Minnesota, tie for #1 or #2 in the world, that means other states, like California are somewhere below #40, 50, or 60.

What does it take to reach the top?

We have argued about education so long in America, perhaps starting in 1983 with Secretary of Education William J. Bennett’s A Nation at Risk report, that the arguments resemble trench warfare from World War One: utterly immobilized and completely futile. But that’s for politicians, bureaucrats, and unions.

Long ago, I got sucked into the arguments, and the excuses. Our system is #1; they played with the statistics, some would say. Or, why make comparisons?   Or, pay us more. Or, yes, we have problems, but that’s the fault of _________________.

But at the end of the day, parents, teens, and grade school kids can’t waste time arguing all day. Debates are for suckers when your life prospects are at stake. So, they skip all the futile talk and they vote with their feet: they move their residence to outstanding school districts. Or they get their kids into charter schools. Or they go private. Or they home school. And they feel bad for the millions of kids trapped in failed schools. But like many tragedies, we’ve lived with this one so long that we’re used to it. As a society, we feel futile about it.

The most American thing I could do was to become un-American.

To see clearly and breathe freely, I needed to start with curiosity and not belief. I needed to not care about some of my colleagues’ defensive reactions. I needed to discard my beliefs, some of which were conservative; others liberal; others professional. Like Billy Beane in Moneyball, I decided I was sick and tired of always being on the losing side. So I desired to see the whole world anew.

With The Smartest Kids in the World, Amanda Ripley wrote something fresh. She followed several American students to South Korea, Finland, and Poland and she looks at all of these systems through the eyes of the people who truly count: the teens themselves.

What she found was a wild adventure.

South Korea.

Frequently #1 in the world, no one loves South Korean education. The teens study 15-18 hour per day, 7 days per week. They study more than most of us are awake. Their lives are hell.

Everyone in South Korea hates their system: parents, teachers, the government, the booming tutoring industry, and most of all, the kids. Their whole lives can boil down to one test score. They are in an educational arms race with each other, speeding on toward doomsday.

One day, the national news in South Korea broke the story of a sixteen-year-old boy who killed his mother. A lurid scandal, this bloody killing became a national obsession. And most South Koreas assumed: his Mom was a typical merciless “Asian tiger”: she’d pushed his academics too hard; he snapped; she died.

And it turns out: the public was right. She had pushed him too hard, and he couldn’t take it. No one justified it, but they understood why he did it.

The South Koreans hate their system so much that they are studying the Finns. They are wondering if they can abandon their entire system and transform their whole country.

But that’s one way to become #1: you simply outwork everyone else.



The Finns actually study less than we Americans do.

They take fewer classes, cover few topics, have 15-minute breaks between sessions, and have no school activities like sports. They play sports—down the street, outside of school, with local clubs sponsored in their towns.

Only 10% of the people who apply to be teachers get in. The other 90% have to do something else with their lives. Yes, they are paid $30,000+ more than American teachers—and they all have Masters degrees or higher. I wish I could say this politely, but in America, you don’t need an M.A.—and many of our M.A.s are in “Curriculum and Instruction”—famously trivial. (Try getting an M.A. in science or English instead; that’s an Ironman competition for your mind.)

To teach in America, you often don’t even need an ACT score of 20, which is in the bottom 50%. Imagine any other situation—I need a neurosurgeon—where you didn’t hire the high achiever, but instead chose from the lower half. I believe everyone can be in the top 10% of something, but not all American teachers are.

In Finland, the government imposes next to no rules on the teachers. “We trust you,” they say. They appear to take the attitude that the teachers are highly trained, naturally smart, and are the people who should be writing the educational rules. It’s as if the government were a group of angel investors who decided to fund Steve Jobs at Apple. “You know what you’re doing,” the investors say. “We’d be foolish to micromanage you and screw you up.”

These brilliant teachers—freed from mediocre rules imposed by government outsiders—have a lot of time to work together. Together, they function like Albert Einstein with his seven best Ph.D. friends—they invent, create, and act. Together, they remake education when they see the chance to raise their own standards.

And their top strategy? Creating deeply caring mentoring relationships with every student.

We pay lip service to relationships with students in the U.S., but we also give teachers 140 pupils, and we allow our energy to be diffused into 15 different extra-curriculars. We don’t do what someone like Arnold Schwarzenegger did when he became #1 in bodybuilding: practice relentless focus. Schwarzenegger lifted weights five hours per day, six days a week, for ten years. No matter how many other projects he had going on in his life, he only had one project everyday from 7:00-9:30 a.m. and 7:00-9:30 p.m.: competing.

In contrast, what do we do without interruption for five hours per day? For most people: nothing.

In Finland, three teachers might have the same teen for four years straight. The teachers discuss each student and what s/he needs and desires. They know their people deeply. We do that for about 1% of kids—at most.

Please don’t misunderstand what I am saying. We Americans love our kids. But let’s not just focus on our warm hearts. Look at how we spend our time. Finnish lives are simplified and streamlined, so they invest a lot of time in every individual.


What does it take to be #1?

In many respects, I realized, I cannot change American educational culture because it—and our larger culture—our culture is the polar opposite of Finland’s culture.

We Americas are 100% about adding things on. More food, more materialism, more activities, more digital time, more interruptions, more everything!

What do we make of Finnish schools with their shabby old buildings, no new technology, and no sports? They don’t look like #1, just like Einstein probably didn’t look like a genius if you shook him out of a sound sleep.

So, the Finns ignore overtones and instead concentrate on the essentials. And for them, the ultimate essential is the individual student.

And yet–

There is also a strand of American culture that strives for peak performance. And another that thinks outside the system. And another that strives for simplicity. So, while we are not Finns, it strikes me that many Americas can intuitively grasp what they are all about—and we like it. We know we won’t change America anytime soon. But maybe we’ll change our one school.

Comprehensive System.

But can’t we just adapt a few aspects of Finnish system to America? I hate to say this, but if you forced me to bet real money, I’d bet no.

Finland is a complex society; hundreds of factors made it the way it is.   Please picture it this way: culture like your body. You wouldn’t say that a single pill can make you super-fit. You know you must address about 20 factors, from nutrition to exercise, to water and sleep, to your career and family, to the dozen things that change your cortisol levels. (Cortisol is the stress-chemical.)

But we Americans like to think there’s always a one-pill solution. A friend with serious problems brought on by smoking once said to me, “I know my doctor will tell me to quit. But what I really hope is that there’s a new pill that will keep me smoking.”

Oh, well.

News You Can Use.

Save time: Who among you invests his or her time in the wisest, most peaceful, most high-achieving way? Shouldn’t you imitate this person?

Save money: Who is the wisest person you know when it comes to money? Shouldn’t you ask that person to mentor you?

Reduce stress: Once you realize that the people around you are wonderful human beings but not #1 in the world, you can stop worrying about whether they approve of you, and you can start doing right by them instead. Go Finnish; imitate the top people.

Think Like a Finn:

* Decide to love your colleagues—but don’t follow them unless they are #1 in the world.

* Find the person who is #1, and make that person your mentor.

* Cut the clutter and concentrate on the essentials.

* Don’t worry about facilities, sports, and extra-curriculars; those items are for recreation and to help you relax so you can think creatively. Shouldn’t you concentrate instead on your #1 goal?

* Multitasking doesn’t exist; psychologists have proven it’s a fantasy. Don’t believe me? Look up the data on texting and driving; it’s more dangerous than drunk driving.

* Relationships are #1, and—this is my pet peeve–they aren’t just “in your heart.”  Warm feelings without actions are perceived as cold feelings by others.

Socially correct words aside about how we in education care about everybody, you actually have to invest time–and everyday.


Linda & Macy graduated on time with G.P.A.s under 2.0. When teachers gave them F’s, their parents protested, and the school decided it wasn’t worth fighting, so it rounded up. They worked the system.

Several of my colleagues said they always gave a D- to kids with a 30, 40, or 50%. They hated how the administration always pushed back. So, they surrendered three different ways: they didn’t challenge the teen, reach the teen, or give the teen what was right.

In my class, Linda & Macy eventually landed in “Special Plan” land. Several adults helped craft ways they could pass: extra work, retake tests for 75%, etc. They survived with D’s.

I give myself an F in terms of reaching them. They always rebuffed me. I was never persuasive enough.

Now, after reading The Smartest Kids in the World, I wonder how different their lives would have been had they grown up in Helsinki. What if a team of four teachers had guided them from kindergarten to third grade? What if many people had mentored them—and not just paid lip service to “every student has a face at Helsinki High”? What if anytime they acted cruelly, the leadership would have stopped them cold?

It is natural to think locally, and within our own era. I do. But a book like The Smartest Kids in the World takes opens our hearts to so many things: including a question that truly is all-American:

What does it take to be #1?

link to The Smartest Kids in the World

Little Green Book is a newsletter written by Tim Wuebker.  Once a week, Tim describes an astonishing book, a real game changer, and/or a riveting read.  Not only are these books thrilling, sometime they save you time, save you money, and increase your peace. 

No author paid to receive a review.  Tim wrote this for free because he loves these books. 

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