Daniel Lemire's blog

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The Smartest Kids in the World: stories from Finland, Poland and South Korea

I have always been interested in what makes us smart. So I read Amanda Ripley’s The Smartest Kids in the World in almost a single sitting. She is a good writer.

The core message of the book is simple and powerful. Entire countries can change how their kids rank in international academic competition within a few short years. For example, Poland (a relatively poor country) was ranked in 25th position in 2000 on mathematics, but in 13th position in 2009. Finland was the strongest democratic country in 2006, but Japan and South Korea have surpassed it in 2012. Meanwhile, the United States always does poorly despite outspending everyone on a per-student basis. Some Asian countries (e.g., Singapore and selected parts of China) put everyone else to shame, but she dismisses them as being too far from democratic countries. She covers three education superpowers: Finland, South Korea and Poland. Beside the fact that they are all democracies, there is very little in common between these three countries, except that their 15-year-old fare well in academic tests. It is not clear whether there is any lesson to be learned from these countries.

To make things worse, her choice is somewhat arbitrary. For example, Canada (my home country) also does very well but she somehow decided that comparing Canada with the United States would not make a good story. Maybe Canada is not exotic enough by itself, but she could have consider the French province of Quebec. It is one of the poorest place in North America, but in the 2012 PISA test, Quebec scored 536 in Mathematics, which is as good as Japan and better than Finland (519), Poland (518), and a lot better than the United States (482).

The book is very critical of the Asian mindset. Kids in South Korea are drilled insanely hard, starting their school day at 8am, and often ending it at 11pm. Finland is a much nicer places in the book. Even Poland appears pleasant compared to South Korea.

To be fair, if half the things she writes about how kids are drilled in South Korea is true, I would never send my boys to school there.

Implicit in the book is the belief that the United States will pay a price in the new economy for its weak schools. American kids spend too much time playing football, and not enough time studying mathematics. Or so the book seems to imply.

This seems a bit simplistic. My impression is that in some cultures, like South Korea, much of your life depends on how well you are doing at 15. So, unsurprisingly, 15-year-old kids do well academically. In the United States, people will easily forgive a poor high school record. You can compensate later on. So maybe American teenagers spend more time playing video games than doing calculus: who could blame them?

What is a lot more important for a country is how well your best middle-age workers do. The bulk of your companies are run by 40-something or 50-something managers and engineers. Only a select few do important work in their 20s. In my experience, you learn much of what you know by the time you are 40 “on the job”.

So I am not willing to predict bad times ahead for the United States based solely on the academic aptitude of their kids. I think we should be a lot more worried about the high unemployment rates among young people in Europe. Sure, French kids may earn lots of degrees… but if you do not have 10 years of solid work experience by the time you are 40, you are probably not contributing to your country as much as you could.

It is important to measure things. I am really happy that my kids are going to go to school in Quebec, a mathematics superpower at least as far as teenagers are concerned. But there may be trade-offs. For example, by drilling kids very hard, very early, you may drain their natural love of learning. This can lead to employees who will not be learning on their own, for the sake of it. Or you may discourage entrepreneurship.

As a general rule, we should proceed with care and avoid hubris because we may not know nearly as much as we think about producing smart kids.