The Smartest Teachers
in the World

Authors Amanda Ripley and Elizabeth Green talk about the secrets of world-class learning

Green (left) and Ripley in Washington, DC

What is school like in the smartest countries in the world? Last year, I wrote a book that tried to answer that question from a kid’s point of view. Now fellow journalist Elizabeth Green has a new book out—from the teacher’s point of view.

Building a Better Teacher explains how teachers can get better in any country — and what it will take to finally treat the profession as an intellectual master craft instead of a charity. When people ask me what U.S. education reform should look like in the next decade, I tell them about Elizabeth’s book.

Despite the overlap in our work, I had never met Elizabeth in person. I wanted to know how her reporting had changed the way she thinks about education — and, for that matter, writing. So we met for the first time at a coffee shop in Washington, DC, the other day. We ended up talking for four hours. In this excerpt, we trade notes on hate mail, unicycles at recess and the very real possibilities for reimagining teaching in America.

Amanda: Let’s talk first about the reaction to the book. Most people don’t realize that writing about teaching is like writing about gun control. It’s incredibly controversial.

Elizabeth: You’re stepping on landmines that you would never think exist. There are reading wars, math wars, class-size battles. There are so many different sides of the debate you’d need a detailed map to articulate them all.

Amanda: Was there something you thought would be controversial that hasn’t been?

Elizabeth: Yeah, I was concerned about how teachers would react to a book that argues we need to improve teaching. But in that sense it’s been utterly reasonable. Teachers really do want to be better—and so they’re excited to have a conversation for once about what they do every day with kids.

How about you? Any landmines?

Amanda: I have been called some awful names. I have gotten hate mail. And the funny thing is, I’ve written about abortion and terrorism, and I don’t get the same level of vitriol from those stories.

Elizabeth: What is the worst name?

Amanda: I had a teacher in Connecticut call me a cunt. So that was a low moment [laughs].

Elizabeth: I wish I could be surprised but I have the same emails to match your emails.

Amanda: One of the great things about your book is that it doesn’t fit neatly into either of the extremes of this polarized debate about education.

Elizabeth: The big shift for me as a reporter was when I started to encounter this research about teaching. This research was really different. It said, what’s going on inside a teacher’s mind? And in order to illuminate that, the researchers made these records of teaching—not just a video every day for a year but also records of students’ work plus the teachers’ journals plus interviews.

They had this huge forensic operation to get inside the space that is teaching—what the teacher is doing and how that’s affecting what the students are thinking and doing. And seeing those artifacts changed my understanding of teaching.

I have close friends and family members who are teachers, but my appreciation for the work was skin deep. I thought about the physical challenge — like, you have to get up so early, and you have to blow kids’ noses. But it’s actually really cognitively challenging. I thought, I have to help other people have that a-ha moment

Amanda: Revealing how fascinating teaching is—that it’s really about learning, the brain, human behavior and psychology—I think that could help the whole culture start to value education in a way that goes beyond lip service.

Elizabeth: Let’s talk about higher-order learning. You traveled to other countries, too, so I thought we could talk about what it looked like. I took a one-minute video of one of the first glimpses I had of a Japanese elementary school. Maybe we could watch that together and talk about it.

Amanda: Yeah, let’s watch it.

Elizabeth: To me what was really notable was how much freedom the students had. They were walking on stilts that were as high a little boy’s shoulder. The girls are on unicycles. And this pervaded the culture of the country. Kids were wandering the streets of Tokyo.

Amanda: I love this video on multiple levels. This is similar to Finland where recess is ubiquitous. But what is going on here is bigger than just kids being allowed to play. It’s about our implicit assumptions about how capable kids are. Are they capable of being self sufficient? Are they capable of dealing with stilts and unicycles? Are they capable of struggling with a math problem they don’t know the answer to?

Kids hanging out after school—alone. A common sight in Helsinki, Finland. (Ripley)

That kind of mind shift changes everything. Once you believe kids are quite capable and actually more capable than adults when it comes to learning, then that opens up a whole cascading realm of possibilities. I think these countries have found the intersection between a cultural value for self-sufficiency and rigorous intellectual work, which is catalytic. That is where the magic happens. So in Finland you see 9-year-old kids walking alone all the time. They wear these reflective little things on their book bags because it’s so dark there.

Elizabeth: Like a cyclist?

Amanda: Yeah, and all the kids have them because they walk to school alone in the dark.

Elizabeth: The idea of walking on stilts or struggling with a difficult problem is such a good example because that Japanese recess was like an entrée to Japanese lessons. In both cases, it seemed like the teacher was invisible. But really what was happening is the teacher was making assumptions about the tasks that kids were capable of and structuring an experience for them that would be really engaging.

Amanda: Why do you think so few education stories reveal this intellectual challenge? It’s so rare—and that actually perpetuates our problem.

Elizabeth: Yes. After the reporting that led to this book I felt like I should issue an apology for previous stories I had written [laughs]. There’s this trope among people who write about education that we all wish we could go to classrooms more often. Everyone talks about this: “I don’t have any time to go to classrooms. All I cover is politicians.” I think that what’s really hard for people writing about education—and for parents, principals, policy makers—is that when you do go and look at a classroom, it’s really unclear what to watch.

Amanda: Maybe our general cluelessness as a country about teaching pervades our writing about teaching.

Elizabeth: And our film. We have the Hollywood teachers who waltz in on their charisma. Dead Poets Society is not depicting the study of the curriculum, just the moments of glory. And so it looks like it’s just a personality. But it’s really a lot of hard work.

Amanda: I wonder if teaching and writing are similar in this way. People think in both cases you’ve either got it or you don’t. Sort of like “voodoo,” as you write in the book.

Elizabeth: I think they’re two equally complex skills, and I’ve thought a lot about the similarities. In writing and reporting, there’s a lot you do alone. There’s only the end product that anybody sees. So it’s a radical act for us to be meeting together and talking to each other [laughs].

It’s not unlike what is true for teachers. Nobody has ever observed me doing an interview and given me feedback on how to do a better interview.

Amanda: Me neither, and I’m equal parts terrified of that happening and really intrigued—because I know I could do better.

Elizabeth: I had a lot of writers actually ask me about your book —how do I think you came to structure it, how did you choose the characters, how were you able to get all these details. A lot of writers privately wonder about this and don’t actually have the language to discuss it.

Amanda: Interesting. The same is true with doctors. I remember Atul Gawande wrote a great piece in the New Yorker about how, as a surgeon, he’d stopped getting coached. He was a surgeon. He was the man! So he did this uncomfortable thing and hired an even more experienced, retired surgeon to come watch him do surgery. And he got better.

Elizabeth: In my book I write about how teachers can be so empowered when people put a name to a thing. In Japan, they have words for the moment when you are listening to students start to think through a problem in a way that you can turn into a useful turning point and a lesson. I think there must be things like that in an interview.

Amanda: Yeah, I think that’s right.

Elizabeth: There’s this term called uptake that I write about. When you’re managing a discussion, teachers listen for key turning points, and they “uptake” that idea—repeat it again for everyone to hear and then use that to move forward. One teacher-educator made nine different categories of uptake—all the different ways you could do these moves—and I feel like a lot of them apply to interviews.

Amanda: We have more words to describe wine than we do to describe learning, right? The value of words is that you don’t have to reinvent the wheel if somebody has already helped give shape and names to these things.

Elizabeth: One of the really powerful things about your book is that you write about successful countries but you also reverse engineer how they got there. So I’m curious about how you think we could apply the turning points that happen in other countries to the US.

Amanda: Every country has different obsessions. In the US, partly because of federalism, we have no central government that can really create coherence. The Feds just keep pushing the one button they have—which is accountability. This idea that if we can just put more pressure on schools, they will produce.

Every country has tests. In fact, kids in Finland complain about the amount of testing they have in high school. These are all teacher-designed tests, not bubble tests.

We tend to invest in quantity over quality in the US—not just in testing but in homework, in class size, so many things. Unfortunately it chips away at the credibility of the whole institution. If you’re in third grade, and you spend all this time preparing for and taking a stupid test—and you’re not even sure the questions make sense in some cases—then you start to say, “Aha, this is bogus. This institution says education is important but then doesn’t actually hold up its end of the bargain.” So it has this deleterious effect on kids’ motivation.

A mural outside a high school in Busan, South Korea (Ripley)

Elizabeth: I found it so interesting to go to Japan and ask, “Where is your accountability system? What’s your evaluation system?” And they sort of looked at me with a baffled look—not because they don’t have one but because it’s not called by that name. It’s a more mature system of helping people learn to do something and making sure that everyone can do it. I’m curious if you saw the same thing in other countries.

Amanda: More countries are trying to introduce evaluation, which comes from a legitimate need to have more feedback for teachers. We’re not the only ones that have teachers in isolation. Spain is in some ways worse than we are. When you have not done the serious work of selecting and training teachers thoughtfully, you end up having to do all the work on the back end—which is unfair to teachers.

The few countries that have invested upfront, like Finland, they’ve said, “We’re not going to drop you into some classroom with no tactics and no practice. We’re going to take it seriously.” And so not only does that mean that teachers are more prepared but it also sends a message to everyone in the country that this is for real. That is like gold. If you don’t do that, you end up doing all these highly inefficient, polarizing things—like top-down accountability reforms.

Elizabeth: Absolutely agree with that. And these countries have a way for teachers to organize their day so that they have some time when they’re teaching, some time when they’re planning and some time when they’re observing their fellow teachers. These are just the basic building blocks without which you can’t get that higher-order learning.

Amanda: So you’re saying it’s not just about making education colleges more serious; it’s about also putting in place the structures to make that work, to convert it into learning.

Now before we finish, we have to talk about the dreaded C word. We both agree that the Common Core State Standards are a step in the right direction. Which means we will both get more hate mail just by my saying that.

Elizabeth: Why don’t we just say a few other words?

Amanda: Charter schools.

Elizabeth: Bill Gates.

Amanda: Oh yes. Pearson! So for normal people these sound like very benign words but in the education bubble they are fighting words.

The last question that I wanted to ask you was about the Japanese lesson study—watching each other teach. They have these public ones that sometimes, for famous teachers, thousands of people will come. That to me was so exciting, and I guess I wonder, is it naïve to ask if we couldn’t do that here?

Elizabeth: I’ve had a lot of joking conversations with teachers about what we could do. We could have America’s Next Top Teachers.

In Japan they actually got inspiration from reality TV and did a spin on Iron Chef. So they had two teachers and instead of the same ingredients to cook with they were given the same topic to teach. And then they taught it in a different way, but the point was actually not competitive. It was like they wanted to have a live experiment.

Amanda: Let’s do it. I think this is totally doable. The amount of money we spend on stupid things in education…Why not a reality teaching show? The idea of getting people to watch a teacher teach in a really masterful way and then talk about what she did would be one way to help Americans understand just how cool this could be.

Elizabeth: We’ll do that together.