The high school experience, across country lines

BY Allie Morris  September 24, 2013 at 1:03 PM EST

Now a junior at a Chicago university, Eric spent a year between high school and college studying in South Korea.

Not all high schools are created equal, especially when comparing them across the globe. In a new book “The Smartest Kids in the World,” journalist Amanda Ripley tracks three American students studying in high schools abroad.

Kim, a sophomore from Oklahoma, opts for schooling in Finland. Eighteen-year-old Eric leaves Minnesota to study for a year in South Korea. Tom spends a gap year in Poland, away from his hometown in Pennsylvania.

Watch Jeffrey Brown’s conversation with Amanda Ripley about what makes for educational success for kids around the world and how the U.S. can model the best techniques that are working abroad. Or you can read the full transcript of their conversation.

Three years after the students returned from their studies abroad, PBS NewsHour caught up with them to see how spending time in a high school abroad impacted their views on education.

PBS NewsHour: What were some of the biggest differences, positive or negative, that you noticed between American high school and high school abroad?

Eric: The biggest positive difference that I took away was that in Korea people have a very palatable sense of how education affects their lives and how it affects their future. People understand that how you do in school, what you do, has repercussions for how successful I am and my opportunities going forward.

But, at the same time that sort of mentality ties into a huge pressure system, where students are really encouraged to just do well on tests so that they have high numbers, go to a good school, and do perhaps, something that makes a lot of money, something prestigious, not necessarily something that they are interested in.

Kim: The teachers were much more involved. It was mainly lecture based in Finland, whereas in the U.S. it could be lecture sometimes, but usually filling out multiple choice sheets or copying definitions five times each, very specific work from the book on your own. Whereas in Finland it was very open. There weren’t a lot of assignments during the semester until the end when you did exams in the form of essays.

Tom: In Polish high school the students took their education much more seriously than American high schoolers do. They considered it unpleasant for the most part, but an extremely necessary duty. People didn’t really have identities besides being good students. There wasn’t really a gauge of success outside of doing well in school, unlike high schoolers here where you can not be the best student, but if you are a really great athlete you can be recruited to a school … But there was none of that in Poland it was entirely academic.

PBS NewsHour: How did your time studying abroad impact how you approach education now?

Eric: I loved seeing the things that people in Korea learned. There was a mechanics class where a teacher would go through how an engine worked, and if you have to repair a certain part of an engine, how would you do that.

Seeing different priorities in education, that made me think more about what are my own priorities. Not what are the ones that have been forced on me by necessarily my environment, culture and society, but what really interests me? And that led to some deep introspection … I would say it was my year in Korea that led me to become a philosophy and mathematics major.

Kim: It taught me how to study. In my American high school I never really needed to, there wasn’t a lot of pressure or anything … In Finland, first, the classes were a little more difficult, and second, it was in Finnish so I had no idea what was going on two-thirds of the time. So, it really taught me a certain level of dedication that made me feel like I could do more when I got back.

Tom: As far as academics, it made me see the level of commitment that other people are expected to give to their school work. In my high school back home, we didn’t really have to do much and if I did have to do much, I would feel kind of indignant about it, and say why is school taking over my life. But, that [studying in Poland] kind of made it good for college where I am totally willing to spend a day doing homework and realize that that’s how it works around the world.

PBS NewsHour: Taking into account your experience abroad, how could high school education in the U.S. be improved?

Eric: I think that students here need to be self motivated and have an interest. Students need to find their interest in something to do. The strongest motivation is not I think economic, cultural or familial. I think it’s self motivated interest. People are fascinated by something so they continue pursuing it of their own accord. I think programs that would help students find what they are passionate a little bit more individualized programs in the American education system, I think would greatly help.

Kim: Greater student involvement. I felt like the culture around school was very different. There really wasn’t the apathy that I saw in American high schools and so if there could be a way to get students more invested in their own educations, I feel like the education system would improve.

Teenagers are very — we can be very enthusiastic when we become passionate about something, So I feel like you need to get students saying I deserve a great education and I have the right to it, I think that would help move things along a little bit.

Tom: It’s a very complicated issue … The main thing that I noticed was that the prestige and the importance and the general paradigm toward education, where it wasn’t a joke. People go to school and they take it seriously and they don’t necessarily like it, but it’s kind of their duty. It’s just a very prestigious and serious part of people’s lives and I think that we should shift our paradigm, which you know, that’s kind of an impossible thing to do, but something I think kind of happens unconsciously.

Photo above: Kim, now a senior at a virtual high school in Oklahoma, spent a year studying in a Finnish high school. She is applying to colleges in both the United States and the United Kingdom.