Give an American child an impossible math problem and he’ll give up in 30 seconds. Give one to a Japanese child, and an hour later you’ll have to tell him to quit.
Jim Stigler, a professor of psychology at UCLA, illustrates the differences in western and eastern cultures with an account of a classroom in Japan. A teacher was showing fourth graders how to draw three-dimensional cubes. When one student had trouble, the teacher sent him to the board to work in front of his peers.
For the rest of the class period, the student struggled while his classmates watched. In the back of the room observing, Stigler squirmed in sympathy for the student at the board.
Except that the student didn’t seem embarrassed or upset. Instead, when he finally figured out how to do the drawing, he was clearly proud – not just of his accomplishment, but of the effort it took to succeed.
East versus West, academically
Unlike American culture, which treats intelligence as something innate, eastern cultures think of intelligence as the result of hard work. By giving the student the chance to show how much he was struggling, the teacher gave him a chance to show how smart he was.
For most of her career, Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck has studied how this difference in attitude affects achievement. Dweck discovered that students who believe they fail because they don’t work hard enough are more resilient and persevere longer than students who believe that their success is dependent on their intelligence.
She called these two different ways of thinking “growth mindsets” and “fixed mindsets.” People with a growth mindset see learning as an opportunity to expand their intelligence, treating challenges like any other exercise. In brain imaging studies, the parts of their brains that deal with sensory input were more active after failure, meaning that they were still looking for the elusive right answer.
Fixed mindset people see failure as a threat to their self-image as intelligent and successful people. Failure evokes a stronger reaction in their limbic systems, the part of the brain that deals with emotions.
Researchers suggest that these two responses are learned rather than hard-wired – just as different cultures have different attitudes about success and failure.
One mindset or cultural way of thinking isn’t necessarily right and the others wrong, but they do lead to different outcomes. In my teaching, I often see the kind of “learned helplessness” that comes from believing that intelligence is immutable. My less successful students sometimes give up right away because their history of failure is extensive. Their academic disappointments reinforce their idea that they aren’t smart enough to do the work, so they don’t even try.
Ironically, my most capable students have the most to lose by failing and they give up even quicker than their less talented peers. Their history of success reinforces their notion that they are smart, and they avoid situations where they might fail and put their reputations and self-esteem at risk.
Getting these two groups of students to buy into the notion that hard work and failure can be beneficial requires different approaches. For the students who are skittish about work because they have failed so often before, I have to coach, encourage and engineer incremental success.
The high flyers, on the other hand, need more adversity, not less.
My honors juniors balked at the very first reading assignment this year. I was startled when they boycotted the homework and complained that it was too hard.
“You need to figure out a way to understand it,” I scolded. “Read it twice. Take notes. Dig deeper.”
And then I gave them an even harder assignment to do. They complained louder.
“We can’t do this!” they said.
“You mean you don’t want to do this,” I replied. “That’s not the same thing.”
They started to work harder
Because these were students who were used to making good grades and had parents who were pushing them, they started to work harder. Slowly their grades improved and by the time we read Hawthorne’s “The Scarlet Letter” – by any measure a challenging work – no one batted an eye.
This summer I remember being shocked to hear several Olympic coaches say that 90 percent of athletes’ success comes from having the right body type for a particular sport – 10 percent comes from how hard they work.
That idea might be equally beneficial to students in the west and the east.
Research suggests that much of what we call intelligence is determined by factors beyond our control, such as our genes and our environment. Believing that will power alone can change those realities can lead to the kind of teen depression and suicide rates of some Asian countries.
But our success isn’t just predicated on our innate ability. Effort matters, too, which is a lesson that American students could stand to hear more often.