‘World’s Smartest Kids’ Review: Testing School


As summer draws to a close and families squirm about how to get their kids back to school safely, we’ve got a pre-pandemic educational documentary that’s clear. “The World’s Smartest Kids” aims to present a study of teaching methods around the world, but the documentary (on Discovery+) involves some rigor. A short lesson in motion.

inspired by Amanda Ripley’s book of the same nameThe documentary introduces four American teenagers who plan to study abroad for a year. We were told that their chosen destinations – the Netherlands, Finland, Switzerland, and South Korea – far outstripped the United States in education. This calculation comes from PISA, an international assessment of learning. However, director Tracy Droz Tragos wastes no time on the content of this mysterious quiz – the first of many interesting jumps.

As students dive into high schools overseas, the film pairs their stories with the talking-headed speculations of rapper Ripley about alien systems. Classroom autonomy in Finland empowers students. Switzerland offers enriching pre-vocational opportunities. And South Korea’s value to education inspires a motivation for excellence. Ripley’s ideas are interesting, but conveyed in rapid succession and in broad and essential terms, giving the impression of a series of flashcards handed out for memorization.

Sometimes, Ripley’s ideas differ from students’ experiences. When Jaxon struggles with the Dutch curriculum, choosing to drop out of school and return early to the United States, the documentary refuses to explore the cultural barriers to his ambitions. Later, Brittany, who is studying in Finland, marvels that the country pays its students to go to university – a very important gesture towards the economy of success that hangs in the air without analysis.

Listening to students is “the key to understanding how we do it and what’s possible,” says Ripley early in “The World’s Smartest Kids.” The documentary doesn’t follow that advice, and its smartest points fall into error.

The World’s Smartest Kids
Not rated. Duration: 1 hour 45 minutes. Watch it on Discovery+.


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