NPR aired a fascinating report this morning in its Your Health segment of Morning Edition: “A Struggle For Smarts? How Eastern And Western Cultures Tackle Learning,” reported by Alix Spiegel. Everyone knows the stereotype of the successful Asian student, and there’s plenty of evidence to support it.
Of course it really is just a stereotype: far from all Math Team members, for example, are Asian. And the rest are not by any means all Jewish, despite the other (related) stereotype. In fact, both of our two most successful team members at Weston from 2008 to 2012 are of non-Jewish European ancestry, for instance.
Nevertheless, like many stereotypes, this one has some truth behind it. Go to a math team competition and scan the 150 faces there; a clear majority are always Asian. A lot of the rest are Jewish, though of course that’s much more difficult to discern.
Some non-Asians and non-Jews have a traditionally racist attitude about this observation: they attribute the undeniable facts to some sort of genetic superiority. But more and more untrained observers are realizing that it’s not genetic at all, but a matter of attitude. Jewish culture has long placed an extremely high value on education. Many (most?) Asian cultures do likewise. (There are, of course, a great many Asian cultures, so one can’t really generalize.) Racism is both wrong and harmful; this isn’t about race or ethnicity. It’s about attitude.
In particular, it’s about persistence. This morning’s report provides great stories about the difference between practices in the US and practices in Taiwan, Japan, and elsewhere in Asia. One striking story that Alix Spiegel reported went like this:
“We did a study many years ago with first-grade students,” [Jim Stigler of UCLA] tells me. “We decided to go out and give the students an impossible math problem to work on, and then we would measure how long they worked on it before they gave up.”
The American students “worked on it less than 30 seconds on average and then they basically looked at us and said, ‘We haven’t had this,’” he says.
But the Japanese students worked for the entire hour on the impossible problem. “And finally we had to stop the session because the hour was up. And then we had to debrief them and say, ‘Oh, that was not a possible problem, that was an impossible problem!’”
This anecdote certainly rings a bell. Earlier this year, another teacher and I asked our high-school freshmen what’s the longest amount of time they had ever worked on a single math problem. Typical answers were “2 minutes,” “5 minutes,” and the like. (These were students taking an honors-level math course, by the way.) “Six hours” was an exceptional answer, “two weeks” an even more exceptional one. Some of us now think that persistence might be the #1 problem facing American education today. (Note that MCAS and other standardized tests do nothing to measure persistence, except for the genuine but rather indirect connection between years of preparation and success on the tests.)
The other part of the NPR story that intrigued me was the emphasis on struggle. Three years ago, almost to the day, I wrote an essay about that word. I was disturbed by the way many of my colleagues used it; “struggling” was seen as a synonym for “unsuccessful.” I claimed that that’s not what the word means, and I further hypothesized (with no evidence) that most people would agree with me. So I was excited to hear that Spiegel’s piece used “struggle” in a purely positive way:
For the most part in American culture, intellectual struggle in schoolchildren is seen as an indicator of weakness, while in Eastern cultures it is not only tolerated, it is often used to measure emotional strength.
I too want people to struggle — in the best sense of the word. Go listen to Alix Spiegel’s report. Or read it. Or do both. It won’t be a difficult struggle, I promise you.