Amanda Ripley's "The Smartest Kids in the World and how they got that way" - what do I think of it?

I recently read Amanda Ripley's "The Smartest Kids in the World and How They Got That Way" and was glad someone did this work. Yes, I knew that advocates for gifted children or advocates for teachers' unions would get their hackles up over many of the points that Ripley made. They might say that clearly she doesn't "understand" the needs of gifted children, blah-blah-blah. Clearly she doesn't understand how "unfair" it would be to keep "normal" people (i.e., those who weren't the best students themselves) out of teaching with her observation that schools must have the smartest and best trained teachers from the population if their students are to do well, become smart (i.e., live and learn up to their potential).

Ripley’s book is about high schools in the United States, Finland, South Korea, and Poland.

But, what Ripley wrote resonated with me, as I know it actually will with many who do understand the needs of the gifted, whom I will specifically discuss at the end of this. Here are a few reasons:

• Ripley advocates changing university teacher training programs from one of the lowest thresholds for admittance to a threshold no lower than the top third of their high school graduating classes.
• She advocates continuing supervision, mentoring and education for the teachers once they are hired to teach.
• She advocates letting the teachers decide how to teach, what to use to support those lessons, and how to decide if their students are learning what they’ve been taught. Remember, the teacher continues to be part of a team system that offers support, input, feedback and encouragement to him or her.
• She points out that the smartest kids in the world know how to use what they have learned. They know how to apply it and interpret when to apply a concept, thought, idea or skill. Real life. Thinking skills. Reasons why we just learned something.

I used to teach elementary school. I joke that I was among the last of the generations of women who thought their only career options were nurse or teacher. I chose teacher because, in my experience at that time, I knew I’d be on my own, make my own decisions, and not be bossed around by say, a doctor (the way nurses were). Remember, I grew up during a time when girls were supposed to understand that the constant use of the male pronouns was understood to mean both male and female. Well, we didn’t actually understand that, but I digress.

So, two things have changed mightily since that time. First, smart women have tons of career options, so far fewer of them choose teaching. (Keep in mind that the low pay has been unappealing to men for a long time, and as most men always had the option of any career they wanted, few ever aspired to become teachers compared to women). Second, today’s teachers are micro-managed, told exactly what to teach and how to assess for whether or not their students learned. I assume there have continued to be good teachers who worked around the system, and I applaud them, of course.

So, what about gifted children and their needs?

When their teachers are smart, creative, and allowed to make decisions based upon the needs of the students in their classes, all students truly do benefit. Ripley is opposed to ability grouping. In many ways, so am I. Almost any topic or concept can be taught at many levels. It’s how you individualize the same topic. It’s how you enable students to work together, choose with whom to work on certain topics – and on different days! It’s the deep understanding, mastery and love of the topics that a smart, well-trained teacher brings to the students. It’s the nerve, creativity, and the “why can’t we do this?” attitude that smart, well-trained teachers bring to their schools when they are empowered to do what needs to be done.

Most people focus on the quality of our high schools and I personally think that it’s the elementary and middle school levels that need the most change. Just putting it out there.

So, yes. I liked the book, I liked the investigation into this topic that Ripley did when preparing for the book, and I recommend it.