Discussion Questions for The Smartest Kids


Since the book came out, many people have asked if I could supply discussion questions to help provoke interesting conversations in book clubs and classrooms. Here at last are some ideas.

Please Tweet me (@amandaripley) or email me (amanda@amandaripley.com) with great questions from your own discussions so I can make this list better over time.

Thank you for talking about this work and these hard problems. I wish I could be there, listening silently in the corner. This is my next best option:

1. In the initial pages of the Smartest Kids, I questioned the premise of the book: “Did it really matter if [the U.S.] ranked number one in the world in education outcomes? Or even number ten?”

What do you think? Does it matter how students perform relative to other students around the world? In what ways does it matter or not matter?

2. Is it fair to compare the U.S. to a small country like Finland?

Would it be fairer to compare your state or district to Finland instead of the whole country?

3. In the book, I divided the world’s smartest countries into three categories: the Utopia model (Finland), the Pressure Cooker (South Korea) and the Metamorphosis (Poland).

Which model does your community most resemble now? Which model do you aspire to achieve?

4. Did any of the students or other characters in the book remind you of someone you know? Have you had any experiences living in other countries that confirmed or contradicted the stories of the students in the book?

5. The exchange students I followed noticed many differences—positive and negative—between the U.S. and other countries.  They admired the interactivity of their U.S. classrooms and the abundance of extracurricular opportunities.

At the same time, they noticed that American students were not generally expected to struggle with the kinds of challenging, higher-order work students encounter in some of the world’s highest-performing education systems. They also complained that teenagers had less autonomy in their U.S. communities.

Which of those observations, good and bad, might apply to your community?

6. Over the course of my reporting, I began to appreciate the importance of the signals that schools and communities send to students and parents. These messages convey the true priorities of a community—and matter far more than the official rhetoric of a school.

For example, when principals send recorded messages to parents about upcoming fundraisers or standardized tests, that communication sends a signal about what is important. When principals send messages reminding parents to read to their young children almost every day—and offer specific tips for how to make that reading more productive—it sends a different signal.

Roughly how many emails, text messages or automated calls went out to parents in your local school last year? What percentage was directly related to learning? What percentage was related to fundraising, sports, or other activities?

What other signals do students and parents receive and send about what matters in your community? Do those signals align with your stated goals and the needs of students in the 21st century? Consider creating an informal “audit” of the messages adults send to kids and parents in your community.

7. In the book and in an Atlantic magazine story, I wrote about the unique role that sports play in U.S. high schools. What is the right balance between sports and academics in your community? How do you know if you are achieving that balance?

In your local school, are students allowed to miss class for games? Do they travel out of state for games? How often do students have a substitute teacher because their normal teacher is coaching?

Do local media outlets cover non-athletic student activities and competitions? If not, why not? If you believe sports should be secondary to learning in your community, what can be done to illustrate that hierarchy in visible ways?

8. One way other countries raise the prestige of teaching and learning is to make teacher-training programs more rigorous, selective and hands-on. In Finland, getting into education college is as difficult as getting into MIT in the U.S.

Any idea which education colleges supply teachers to your district? How much time do the teachers-in-training spend in actual classrooms with strong teachers? Does your school district hire teachers from mediocre education schools? If so, why?

9. Another way to boost the prestige of teaching is to show more people what teaching looks like at its best. Does your community offer opportunities for teachers, parents, students, media members and politicians to see great teachers teach—and to talk about what they are doing and why?

10. How else can a community cultivate a culture of rigor and learning? Can U.S. principals, parents and teachers apply some of the best practices, rituals and norms of sports to higher-order learning? What are other creative ways you could shift some of your community traditions to focus on thinking, learning and lifelong curiosity?