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.

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

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.

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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.

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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.

The Canadians worked harder on the second test if they were told they had succeeded on the first one. They were “good at it,” and that gave them the confidence to continue. Failing students were not “good at it,” meanwhile, so they put in less work. But the Japanese worked longer on the second test if they had failed the first one! They interpreted their initial setback as a function of weak effort, not of ability, so they re-applied themselves to the task instead of blowing it off.

Too much praise?

Or consider a now-famous 1998 experiment by psychologists Claudia Mueller and Carol Dweck, who told American children they had done well on a test and then praised some for being smart, others for working hard. They then gave both sets of kids the chance to work on another test – either easy or hard.

About 66 percent of the children who were praised for their intelligence chose the easy problems, while 90 percent of the kids praised for hard work selected the more difficult ones. In subsequent exercises, the "smart" kids performed worse, and the “hard working” kids did better. The smart kids were also more likely to attribute their wrong answers to a lack of ability, while the kids praised for hard work blamed their own lack of effort when they failed.

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The moral of these stories seems clear: If you want kids to succeed, don’t talk about their intelligence. That will only hold them back.

And it does. I’ve been a teacher for nearly 30 years, and I’ve seen students try to hide how much schoolwork they do. I mean, if they have to work that hard, how smart can they be?

Americans like to say that their country is a land of opportunity; that anyone can make it, if they just try hard enough. But our educational system tells another story altogether. By emphasizing who is smart – and who is not – we teach our kids that their inborn capabilities are more important than their sweat and toil.

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So why should we be surprised when the kids don’t try? Sure, our schools should ask more of our students. But we also need to ask why they don’t, and what role our flawed ideas about intelligence play in the answer. To paraphrase Shakespeare: the fault, dear Americans, lies not just in our schools. It’s in ourselves.

Jonathan Zimmerman teaches education and history at New York University. He is the author, most recently, of “Small Wonder: The Little Red Schoolhouse in History and Memory.”

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