Thursday, November 15, 2018

DOC NYC Spotlight: The Smartest Kids in the World

I’m excited to have been able to screen a few selections from DOC NYC, America’s largest documentary festival, which presents its eighth year in New York City from November 8th-15th.

The Smartest Kids in the World
Directed by Tracy Droz Tragos
Festival Screenings

It’s an unfortunate statistic that, despite being a world leader in so many areas, the education system in the United States ranks far behind so many other nations. There are strong debates between conservatives and liberals about the validity of different forms of schooling, and no shortage of controversy over the appointment of Besty DeVos as the Secretary of Education since her past deals extensively with private and charter schools rather than public schools. There are many theories about what can and should change in American education, and it is so true that those most affected by policy are least consulted: the students.

Journalist and author Amanda Ripley, who spent the beginning of her career writing about topics like crime and terrorist attacks before finally settling on education, explains that the conversation about education in the United States has been extremely stagnant over the years. Through her book that shares the name of this film, Ripley follows four teenagers who travel to Finland, the Netherlands, South Korea, and Switzerland to study there and experience the way that education works in those places, and to understand why other countries are doing so well when America is not.

It’s always refreshing to see kids who are actually interested in learning, recognizing that their situations aren’t designed to their advantage. Those featured in this film can see that students are the ones who should most be asked about how to change a system that’s not working for them. The culture of sports in particular is addressed as something that is visually prioritized in schools and is often used as an excuse for students to miss class but doesn’t practically serve as a driving force in most people’s lives following college. Focusing on actual learning with an equal blend of both learning and creativity is the surest way to success, something that the countries featured in this film illustrate with their results.

What’s most interesting about this film is that it empowers its four teenage subjects to tell their own stories, explaining the conclusions they’ve reached about what is important in education. Comparing the different approaches taken by each of the countries they visit is enormously enlightening, especially because it doesn’t pretend that any of them are perfect, each with their own flaws and shortcomings that need to be analyzed. Watching the students return home and reflect on what being in school in America means to them is powerful, and this documentary makes a strong case for just a few ways to rethink what education should be.


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