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Why Shanghai schooled the US: Americans think they're too smart to work hard

Unlike their Asian peers, American students tend to measure success by innate ability instead of hard work. But China's (and Asia's) powerhouse performance on a recently released standardized test put American students – and their work ethic – to shame.

By / December 14, 2010

New York

Are you smart? I mean, really smart? Like, so smart that you don’t really have to work?

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Then you’re kidding yourself. And your belief in your own intelligence is holding you back.

That’s the real story behind the latest piece of bad news in American education, which continues to stack up poorly next to other nations. On a standardized test administered to 15-year-olds in over 60 countries, the US came in 17th in reading, 23rd in science, and 31st in math.

West loses edge to Asia in education: Top five OECD findings

Meanwhile, Asian countries clustered near the top. Students in Shanghai, China, nearly ran the table, scoring first in the world in all three tested subject areas – science, math, and reading. But Japan, South Korea, Singapore, and Hong Kong all outperformed America, as well, on all three tests.

Hard work vs. intelligence

Why? Politicians and pundits fingered the usual suspects: our schools. Whereas Asian countries demand rigor and hard work from their students, the theory goes, our own schools have gone soft. Witness the larger number of school days in most Asian countries, the stricter academic requirements, the greater volume of homework, and so on.

There’s something to that. Asian students do work harder, by every measure we can find. But there’s more to it than that. Put simply, Asians believe that hard work is the prime determinant of their success. By contrast, Americans and other Westerners typically ascribe academic performance to innate ability.

And that’s a fool’s game. For the more we believe in “smarts,” the less likely we are to persist in a task. If you’re “good at” a subject like math, to borrow another favorite American phrase, then you don’t really have to try; and if you’re not good at it, there’s no use in trying to get better.

Are you smarter than a 12th-grader? A reading comprehension quiz.

Consider a 2001 experiment by Canadian researchers, who administered creativity tests to Japanese and Canadian college students. Regardless of how the students performed, the researchers told some of them that they had done well and others that they did poorly. The researchers then gave the students a similar test and told them to spend as much time on it as they wished.


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