Ripley bookRipley, A. (2013) The Smartest Kids in the World – and How They Got That Way New York/London/Toronto/Sydney/New Delhi: Simon and Schuster

OECD (2013) PISA 2012 Results in Focus Paris: OECD

Amanda Ripley’s book isn’t about online learning at all, but it was the best book on education that I read in 2013, and there are lessons for online learning.

What the book is about

This book is an exploration of the OECD’s PISA tests, what they mean, and in particular, why students from the USA do so badly on the PISA math tests. Amanda Ripley is a journalist, not an educator, and doesn’t even specialise normally in education stories. But she had a good question: why are some kids learning so much – and others so little? In particular, why do kids in Finland, Korea and Poland do so much better on math tests than students from the USA?


First, she examined the history and methodology of the PISA tests, interviewing in particular Andreas Schleicher, who helped create the PISA math test. Readers of my blog will know that I am somewhat sceptical about PISA testing, not so much the tests themselves, but in particular how they are often interpreted, especially by national media. Differences between countries’ scores may be statistically significant because of sample sizes, but small differences in average scores between countries over different time periods can result in large drops or gains in comparative rankings, and differences within countries are often greater than differences between countries, due to a wide range of factors.

It became clear from talking to Schleicher that what may have seemed obvious factors, such as children from low income homes will do worse than children from high income homes, just didn’t hold true, particularly when cross-country comparisons are made. Other factors were at work that influenced a nation’s PISA scores that could not be explained by the statistical data alone.

So Amanda Ripley hit on the brilliant idea of tracking several American high school exchange students and asked them to describe the differences in their experience between their home schools in the USA and their foreign exchange school. She picked kids who had gone to Finland, South Korea and Poland respectively. The three exchange students came from three quite different schools and home backgrounds in the USA as well. These students were tracked and interviewed over a period of nearly two years,, both in the USA and abroad. Ripley also visited all the schools these students attended, both in the USA and abroad, and interviewed other students, teachers and administrators in these schools.


The mini case studies were very revealing both about the USA school experience and the school experience in the other three countries. It was clear that many different factors are associated with student performance in math. Amanda Ripley herself is cautious about jumping to conclusions and you have to work out some of the conclusions for yourself, but some clear patterns emerged from the case studies for me:

  • setting high standards and expectations is critical for success in teaching math;
  • successful schools and teachers expect all their students to succeed/meet the standards set; no excuses (low income parents, immigrants, race, learning styles, learning difficulties, illness) are accepted
  • high standards mean that most students, at some point in their school career, will fail; this is an important lesson in itself (successful schools of course provide extra help for students who fail, so that they don’t fail next time)
  • successful schools have teachers who are highly qualified in both math and teaching. Finland is the best example of this: the highest scoring high school leavers are chosen for teacher training; the opposite is true generally in the USA. Salaries reflect the status of teaching also within a particular country – low salaries, low status.
  • it is not necessary to cram or take extra tutorial help outside school to succeed if the schools are doing their job properly – indeed such private, outside school cramming undermines the public schools
  • Korea may have high scores, but the methods used to get these high scores – cramming, late night private tutorials – destroy childhood. There are social and cultural as well as educational choices to be made, but this need not compromise high academic standards if the right choices are made – see Finland again
  • learning was taken far more seriously by students in Finland, Korea and Poland, where students seemed to be more aware of the importance of doing well academically, than in the USA, where success in sport ranked higher than in education; again, this is an expectation set by both the school system and by parents.

What are the lessons one can take away for online learning from this book, which after all is about campus-based education? Here’s what I take from this:

  • the quality of teaching matters. This means both having highly qualified subject expertise, but even more importantly, high quality teaching methods
  • online learning should aim if anything for higher standards – better outcomes, higher completion rates – than classroom teaching;
  • this requires using well qualified, well paid and well trained instructors for online learning
  • these expectations and standards need to be clearly communicated to, and understood by, students entering online learning for the first time.

What about Canada?

Hey, it’s not all about you. Indeed, there is very little about Canada in this book, but it is clearly different again from both the USA (Canada does much better on PISA scores) and the other three countries (Canada does worse, but not a lot worse).

In fact, removing individual cities such as Hong Kong, Singapore or Shanghai, Canada was fifth, after Taiwan, Japan, Korea and Switzerland, in the PISA 2012 math rankings. (Finland, Poland, Estonia and the Netherlands scored almost the same as Canada). However, Canada’s overall math score has dropped from an average of 534 in 2006 to 518 in 2012. (The tests were given to 15 year olds). It’s difficult though to know what this means – have the tests got harder over the years, is the average affected by a high rate of immigration, etc? Who knows. This seems to be a trend with all the major countries who scored higher in 2006. Which is the problem with PISA tests – they tell you what, not why, which is why Ripley’s book is so useful.


This is a fascinating, extremely well written book. Anyone who cares about PISA testing, what it means, and how to interpret the results, should read this. Particularly fascinating was the description of the Korean system, with late night vigilante raids by government agencies on cramming schools operating after a midnight curfew. But I also found the in-depth descriptions of USA schools and school systems very enlightening and hugely depressing at the same time.





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