Study Abroad

What foreign countries can teach us about education


In her recent book, The Smartest Kids in the World, Amanda Ripley argues that Finland, Poland, and South Korea are on top when it comes to education. Students there perform extremely well on tests that measure conceptual thinking, as opposed to rote memorization. Ripley concludes that these countries have managed to achieve something that we haven’t: to get students to take education seriously. Their schools don’t coddle or inflate grades; they teach perseverance and practice.

Ripley finds that the approach taken to learning in these countries resembles the approach we take to sports. There’s the same push for concentration, practice, and getting to the next level. But in Finland, Poland, and South Korea, sports are not central; indeed, they don’t even figure in the curriculum. The focus is on learning at its most essential and basic. In math classes, she notes, the students often don’t use calculators. It’s about the thinking process, not just computing the right answer.

What if we were to take the energy and seriousness, the money and time that we devote to sports and put it into promoting reading, writing, math, and science? It would require a massive change in priorities and reallocation of resources, a conceptual shift of an unprecedented sort.

Sports programs were once extras, added on to the educational experience because we were a rich country that could afford to lavish non-essential resources on our students. But these programs have been allowed to take over and would require a great deal of weeding to get us back to basics. But if we fall far enough behind, that may be motivation enough. This is what happened to the Poles. They saw that their education system was failing and decided to do something about it.

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Paula Marantz Cohen’s new book, Of Human Kindness: What Shakespeare Teaches Us About Empathy, will be published next month.


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