Author Spotlight: Meet Amanda Ripley, author of “The Smartest Kids in the World (And How They Got That Way)"

AFS-USA is proud to announce Amanda Ripley’s new riveting book, The Smartest Kids in the World, which explores educational systems through the lens of three American exchange students from AFS and partner organizations, studying abroad in high schools in Finland, Korea, and Poland. Ripley follows their intercultural journeys so closely that her in-depth discoveries will give you rich food for thought. Her comparison of American education to world-leading systems reveals the utter necessity of cross-cultural exchange as an integral component of fostering global competency and 21st century skills in our schools and beyond. Here you will find our exclusive interview with Amanda Ripley, and Kim, one of the AFS students that she follows. If you are interested in learning more about Amanda Ripley or would like to order her book, please follow this link: http://www.amandaripley.com/

The Author: 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 was true. 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 and what does not.

If not for the exchange students that I followed, who helped me stay focused on what matters to real-life kids, this would have been an insufferably boring and confused book.

What is your connection to AFS?
Back in 2010, when I decided I wanted to try to write a book about the smart-kid countries, I realized I needed students to help me understand what I was seeing in these places. And who better than exchange students, who could compare what they were seeing abroad to their homes and schools back in the U.S.?

I had spent a semester in France in high school, and it was a mind-blowing experience—one that made me realize that the world was a big and complicated place. I knew thousands of Americans studied abroad each year all over the world. So I figured these students might have insights that could help make sense of things that adult reporters and researchers could not understand.

So I contacted Marlene Baker, the head of external relations for 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 world by building relationships across oceans and continents.

Shortly after that, I asked Marlene and her colleagues if they would reach out to students who were headed abroad to some of the countries with exceptional education systems. I explained that I would not need to use the students’ last names in the book, to protect their privacy, and we set about getting permission from the parents of interested student volunteers. In the end, one of the three students I followed most closely for the book (Kim) was an AFS participant from Oklahoma. She spent one 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 of them – not just dozens. 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 that just over 200 AFS returnees generously answered—sharing thoughts and memories about their school and home lives abroad and back home.

As you can see, I owe a huge debt of gratitude to AFS, its partners and student participants all over the world. Without their cooperation, I would not have had these opportunities to glimpse inside the schools and lives of these remarkable exchange students.

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, two countries. That kind of experience seems more valuable than ever, given how inter-connected the world has become. Combined with studying languages from a very young age (say 1 or 2 years old) and sharing stories across borders (in all kinds of ways), student exchange strikes me as a vital part of any modern education.

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 (which you too can see here: http://www.corestandards.org/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 (which have yet to be completed in most places) 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 (pro and con) distract us from the broader importance of helping all 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. But he was very uncomfortable with my questions about this; he did not want to think too much about the background of his students, 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 like this 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. It will be interesting to see if Finland is able to maintain its longstanding cultural value for equity as its schools become more diverse.

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, and the American “moon bounce” where kids are protected from failure and systematically underestimated (especially in math and science), is another extreme. If I had to choose between these two extremes (which I don’t, thank God), 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 and they are left to discover (largely 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?
Oh, if I could, I would never finish a book. I would just keep working on it—forever. So yes, there are many 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 thing 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 “done,” thank goodness.

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.