An Interview with Amanda Ripley

Amanda Ripley, author of, "The Smartest Kids in the World (And How They Got That Way".

AFS-USA is proud to announce the release of Amanda Ripley’s new book, The Smartest Kids in the World (And How They Got That Way). This exciting work explores schools across the globe through the eyes of the exchange students who attend them. AFS-USA, along with several other student exchange organizations, collaborated with Amanda Ripley to help make her unique research possible.

The book seeks to reveal which educational methods best prepare students to thrive in the 21st century. In doing so, it zeroes in on high schools in Finland, South Korea, and Poland, which are thought to be among the world’s education "powerhouses." 

Yet, it is Amanda’s chosen lens for observation that makes this book particularly riveting.

Throughout her research, Amanda followed US high school exchange students, including AFS-USA participants, who had elected to study abroad for a year. Through them, she absorbed the particularities of the Finnish, South Korean and Polish educational systems in unique ways; as foreigners, who undergo adjustment to the new systems; students, who experience their cognitive impact; and Americans, who compare every aspect of these systems to their education back home in the US. 

The end result is an eye-opening comparison of education in the US to education in these “powerhouses.” It highlights some of the US educational system’s most meaningful shortcomings, and begins to articulate solutions for our students. 

More broadly, Amanda Ripley's work also shows the utter necessity of cross-cultural exchange in fostering global competency and 21st century skills. 

This compelling work is a must-read for all educators, parents, and global learning enthusiasts. You can purchase it online and learn more about Amanda Ripley at:

Exclusive Interview with Amanda Ripley

What books/authors have most influenced your life?

I didn’t know there was such a thing as “literary journalism” until I started working at Washington City Paper, a free, alternative weekly in DC, in the 1990s. There, I learned from my editor, David Carr (now an author and a New York Times writer) that nonfiction writers were actually allowed to use the conceits of fiction (characters, conflict, storytelling) to tell true stories. What a radical idea! David gave all the new writers their own copies of Joseph Mitchell’s book, Up in the Old Hotel, and I realized I’d underestimated how magical journalism could be—at its best.

What inspired you to write your latest book, The Smartest Kids in the World?

I kept hearing about these blissful places where all the children were well educated and all the parents and teachers were perfect. I couldn’t quite believe it. So I wanted to see these places for myself—and try to understand what it might be like to be a child in the smartest countries in the world.

What was the most challenging part about writing this book?

This book was actually very challenging to write, much more so than my last book (about human behavior in disasters). There is a lot of noise in education – a lot of competing narratives and clashing interest groups. It can be hard to sort out what matters most.

Without the exchange students I followed, who helped me stay focused on what matters to real kids, this would have been an insufferably boring and confused book.

What is your connection to AFS?

In 2010, when I decided I wanted to write a book about the smart-kid countries, I realized I needed students to help me understand what I was seeing. And who better to help with this than exchange students, who could compare what they were seeing abroad to their homes and schools in the U.S.?

I knew thousands of Americans studied abroad each year, so I contacted Marlene Baker, the head of external relations at AFS-USA. We got coffee in DC, and she told me all about AFS and the incredible students who set off each year on global adventures. I was captivated by the history of AFS and all that it has done to help create a more peaceful.

Soon, I was asking Marlene and her colleagues to reach out to students who were headed to countries with exceptional education systems. I explained that I would not use the students’ last names in the book, to protect their privacy, and we set about getting permission from the parents of interested students. In the end, one of the three students I followed most closely for the book (Kim) was an AFS participant from Oklahoma. She spent a year in Finland and became an integral character in the book.

In fact, all the exchange students I followed for the book were so helpful and thoughtful that I ended up wanting to hear from hundreds more. Once again, I asked AFS for help, and Marlene, Kate Wood and Melissa Liles gamely and patiently worked with me and Marie Lawrence, a researcher at the New America Foundation, to craft a survey for just over 200 AFS returnees.

As you can see, I owe a huge debt of gratitude to AFS and its partners and student participants all over the world.

Do you see student exchange as a critical stepping-stone towards global competency? What are other ways that you think we can achieve global competency?

Studying abroad is an act of courage and curiosity - a leap into the unknown that creates an invisible, powerful tie between two families and two countries. That kind of experience seems more valuable than ever, given how inter-connected the world has become. Student exchange strikes me as a vital part of any modern education.

Meet Kim!

Click here to read our exclusive interview with AFS Exchange Student, Kim, who is featured prominently in Amanda Ripley's new book.

Your book addresses the lack of rigor within U.S. schools, especially from the viewpoint of international students. What are your thoughts on how Common Core testing will affect academic rigor within U.S. schools?

I am hopeful about the Common Core State Standards, which have now been adopted by 45 states and Washington, DC (where I live). I’ve spent time looking at the standards and they do strike me as more rigorous and strategic—requiring students and teachers to focus more deeply on fewer things.

The debate over the tests aligned to these standards has only just begun, and I suspect it will be ugly. I don’t know what the answer is, but I hope we don’t let our emotions about testing distract us from the broader importance of helping kids learn to think critically and solve problems so they can thrive in the modern economy.

You noted how one teacher in Finland preferred to ignore the background of his students. Can you explain more on this teacher's outlook and how it may have affected students’ performance compared to a U.S. classroom?

That particular Finnish teacher had a large number of immigrant children in his class, most of them refugees from lower-income families. He did not want to think too much about their backgrounds, lest he start treating them differently and expecting less of them.

This is a very complicated subject that I go into in more depth in the book. But, I will just say here that Finland’s relatively short history of dealing with diverse students gave this teacher a sort of freedom; since Finland does not have the history of institutionalized racism that we have here in the U.S., there was no pressing need to explicitly focus on students’ backgrounds. I suspect that might change in Finland as the proportion of immigrants continues to rise.

You mentioned that you would personally choose Korea's "hamster wheel" system over the U.S. "moon bounce" system. Can you tell us more about this?

Well, I also say it’s sort of a false choice; Korea’s “hamster wheel” system, where kids study night and day to get high test scores, is one extreme; the American “moon bounce” where kids are protected from failure and systematically underestimated (especially in math and science) is another.

If I had to choose between the two, then yes, I’d reluctantly choose the hamster wheel. At least that system prepares students to work hard and deal with failure before they are 18, when the American system suddenly ejects them from the moon bounce and drops them into the real world or college, left to discover on their own how unprepared they are.

Luckily, there is a 3rd option—which looks more like Finland—and prioritizes quality (of homework, testing and teachers) over quantity.

If you had to do it all over again, would you change anything about this book?

If I could, I would never finish a book. I would just keep working on it—forever! 

So, yes, there are small things I might tweak, including adding a bunch of fascinating stories people have told me since the book came out about their own experiences.

Happily, a book is a living document these days; I am perpetually writing stories and working on other projects that were born out of the book but add to it in new ways. So it’s never totally “finished.”

Where would you send your child abroad if you had the choice?

He’s only 6, so he’s on the young side. But eventually, I hope he’ll go somewhere that both captures his imagination and challenges him in new ways. He’d be lucky to have that opportunity, and I hope he takes it.