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In international tests, Chinese children consistently outperform Americans. American Lenora Chu enrolled her young son in the Chinese public school system in Shanghai. In her book about the experience, “Little Soldiers,” she explores how culture influences this academic achievement gap. It comes down to Chinese people displaying a psychological concept known as a “growth mindset” at school … while Americans only display this mindset in sports.
For the most part, American children aren’t great at math.
But Chinese children tend to be excellent.
Testing half a million students worldwide, the Program for International Student Assessment is one of the most widely cited measurements of global education, and it’s consistently found Chinese students at the top of the academic pile … and Americans much nearer the bottom. Some experts argue that the PISA assessment, like any standardized tests, primarily measures a student’s ability to take the test, not their knowledge, but hardly anyone disputes that the American education has some work to do when it comes to math.
In Lenora Chu’s new book “Little Soldiers: An American Boy, a Chinese School, and the Global Race to Achieve,” she begins to unearth the cultural differences that lead to this gap – and it’s not just about what happens at school.
Chu, a Chinese-American journalist raised by Chinese parents in Texas, moved to Shanghai with her American husband and toddler son in 2009. To immerse their son in the culture, she and her husband chose to enroll him in the Chinese public school system starting in preschool.
The differences she notices in her child’s focus and discipline are dramatic, but she also notices cultural differences that influence how Chinese schools are run, and the reason its students test so well. Along with factors such as highly trained teachers and an emphasis on rote memorization before pursuing deeper understanding, the difference comes down to a belief that has begun slowly making its way across the US: Achievement is the result of hard work, not innate ability.
Chu explains this approach comes from “an intrinsic belief that anything is possible with hard work, with chiku, or ‘eating bitter.’ If there’s a goal worth accomplishing, day-to-day life might be absolutely and miserably unpleasant for a spell,” she writes. She continues:
“It’s a concept that parents tell their children, teachers ingrain in their students, and China’s leaders use to motivate their populace toward the goal of modernizing China. The concept reverberates in the classroom; studies show that for kids who score poorly, Chinese teachers believe a lack of effort – rather than of smarts – is to blame. ‘There is little difference in the intelligence of my students,’ Teacher Mao, a Chinese language teacher at a Shanghai high school, told me, his voice unwavering in his conviction. ‘Hard work is the most important thing.'”
Chu cites the research of Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck, author of “Mindset,” who is responsible for coining the terms “growth mindset” and “fixed mindset.” Chinese students are trained to have a growth mindset: If they aren’t doing well, they’ll work harder, and they’ll be successful. American children tend to be trained to have a fixed mindset about academics: Their abilities are largely predetermined and static. If they aren’t doing well, it’s because they’re not good at it. Oh well.
UCLA psychology professor James Stigler, said the American approach is problematic. Chu writes:
“‘In America we try to sell this idea that learning is fun and easy, but real learning is actually very difficult,” said Stigler. ‘It takes suffering and angst, and if you’re not willing to go through that you’re not going to learn deeply. The downside is these students often give up when something gets hard or when it’s no longer fun.'”
Stigler told Chu that because Chinese children are socialized “to put up with suffering and discomfort and all the things that are a really important part of learning,” a Chinese teacher presenting students with a difficult problem can encourage them to work through it – and they will.
However, there’s one place Americans display the growth mindset in spades: sports.
“It’s all about getting better, getting better, working harder,” Stigler told Chu. “In sports, we’re okay with competition and struggle.”
Plus, Chu writes, Americans are OK with being ranked on the football field or soccer pitch. Stigler told her that coming in ninth in an athletic competition doesn’t cause a crisis of conscience for Americans – it just means they need to train harder, better, differently. “But in academics,” he said, “you don’t want to embarrass somebody by ranking them Number Thirty because ‘It’s not their fault.’ In American academics, ‘you either have it or you don’t.'”
A growth mindset isn’t all that foreign to American children – it just isn’t applied in school.
“Little Soldiers” can be pre-ordered via Amazon. For the record, it’s excellent and absolutely fascinating.