What American Students Can Learn From China

Beginning an essay about the benefits of a Chinese education with a story about a young boy being forced-fed fried egg is a risky choice. Making the “hero” of this story a teacher who  repeats phrases like “Teacher is right” while making 6-year-olds march in lockstep suggests you are the type of person who thinks Nurse Ratched was just misunderstood. But Lenora Chu’s Wall Street Journal essay detailing the benefits of a Chinese education isn’t a paean to blind obedience, nor a condemnation of individuality. It’s an invitation for Americans to rethink how we understand learning, intelligence, and perhaps even Malcolm Gladwell.

Chu argues that Chinese students score far higher than Americans on international tests both because of the rigid Confucian-inspired discipline, but also because students are constantly pushed beyond their comfort zones. Specifically, students are taught that achievement and effort, not innate intelligence, are what matters.

Which brings me to Malcolm Gladwell and his 10,000-hours rule. This rule is actually a reference to deliberate practice, a term coined by Swedish psychologist Anders Ericsson. Despite what Gladwell would have you believe, Ericsson never claimed that you could master anything after 10,000 hours of practice; instead, Ericsson argued that you could master almost anything through 10,000 hours of deliberate practice, or forcing yourself to work at the edge of your abilities. In other words, he argued that you aren’t going to become a faster runner if you spend 10,000 hours jogging at a comfortable pace. And you won’t become a better math student if you spend 10,000 hours on multiplication. You need to struggle.

And this is an important distinction because America tends to celebrate ease — especially when discussing female achievement. While we might praise a linebacker’s tenacity, we often claim that female gymnasts “make it look easy,” without acknowledging the countless hours that resulted in this “ease.” This might not be such a big deal in sports, but it’s a huge deal in education because it teaches students — and particularly female students — that to be smart is to be above challenge.

And I know from whence I speak because even though my day job was in finance for much of the past decade, I have always tutored on the side. Although tutoring began as a way to make money in grad school, I continued long after I needed the extra cash because helping teenagers and young adults was far more rewarding than anything I could accomplish on a trading floor. And I also saw a connection between the lack of women on these trading floors and the lack of confidence many female students displayed when faced with challenging math problems. Every girl I have worked with has been bright and capable of handling difficult quantitative work, but most have been taught that you are either good at math or you’re not. And to be good at math means to “make it look easy.”

To illustrate this point, allow me to recount a brief conversation I recently overheard at a Brooklyn Heights coffee shop (I swear, I’m not making this up):

Female student (looking at the male student’s computer screen, clearly flirting): Man, that looks hard. Like, I’m so happy I don’t have to take any more math. I just thought Calc was so hard.

Male student (also flirting): Yeah, it’s not so bad. I mean, like, I’m an engineering major, so, like, I have a lot of math, an even though I’m getting a “C” in this class right now, I’m not, like, worried or anything. It’s cool.

Female student: For me, it was just so hard. Yeah, I mean, like, I got an “A” and everything, but it was just so hard.

Just to recap, the guy is getting a “C,” but remains confident in his abilities, while the girl who got an “A” thinks she’s “bad at math.” I wanted to yell across the table that they had just enacted the conclusion of about 50 social science studies, but I realized that would be weird.

While Chu celebrates this focus on effort, she doesn’t paint an entirely positive portrait of the Chinese educational system. Many of the practices she describes don’t just sound harsh; they sound like they were lifted from a dystopian novel: an asthmatic students is forced to run without an inhaler because individual needs must not disrupt group cohesion, imaginative drawings of raindrops are ridiculed as “wrong,” and promising students are forced to memorize propaganda while being groomed to become party functionaries. If given the choice between lower PISA scores and these scenarios, I’d gladly chose the former.

So no one is arguing that we should replace America’s education system with the Chinese version (no more than China should replace their system with ours), but this doesn’t mean American students, and particularly female students, couldn’t benefit from considering what would happen if we stopped idealizing genius and start celebrating struggle.