At a time when studies show North American students falling behind on math and science skills, Time magazine journalist Amanda Ripley looked into the education systems in countries that are winning the race to help their children learn.

The result is her book The Smartest Kids in the World, a look at school systems in Finland, Poland and South Korea where children are having success academically.

Ripley found that successful schools didn’t have the biggest spending on technology or school testing, but did put emphasis on teaching fundamentals, particularly math.

"Math is really predictive of future earnings. Whether or not you use math, the better you do at math, the more likely you are to finish college and get a good job," Ripley told CBC’s The Lang O’Leary Exchange. 

"This is partly because more jobs require math than we used to expect, but also because math is really like a language  of logic.  It’s a very disciplined study that builds on itself and that can be helpful in many different fields."

What the children in the best schools learned, was not rote repetition of math skills, but the kind of thinking that helps them solve problems later in life, she said.

"The goal should always be to teach kids to think critically, to solve problems they’ve never seen before, to persist, to pay attention to detail," Ripley added.

The United States currently ranks seventh in overall global competitiveness — but 57th in the quality of math and science education.

A Conference Board of Canada study earlier this year ranked Canada sixth among OECD countries for high-level math skills and behind only Finland on low-level math skills.

Ripley looked at countries with successful school systems through the eyes of three American high-school exchange students and used their experiences to compare foreign schools to U.S. schools. These included Kim, 15, who moved from Oklahoma to Finland; Eric, 18, who exchanges a high-achieving Minnesota suburb for a booming city in South Korea; and Tom, 17, who leaves a historic Pennsylvania village for Poland.

Ripley said she found the quality of the teaching was a key in producing successful thinkers.

Parental attitudes and habits are also effective in boosting a child’s level of learning. She said reading to children every day and ask them questions about what they’re reading is the best start parents can give to younger children.

"As they get older, the parents who talk to their children about their  day and about the news of the day end up with critical thinkers," she said.