Trouble

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THE TROUBLE WITH TALENT: ARE WE BORN SMART OR DO WE GET SMART? ________________

KATHY SEAL
Kathy Seal is a journalist and author who has written about education and psychology since 1985 for such publications as The New York Times, Family Circle, and Parents. Seal attended Barnard College, where she graduated magna cum laude. She is the author of two books: Riches and Fame and I the Pleasures of Sense (1971) and Motivated Minds: Raising Children to Love Learning (2001). "The Trouble with Talent" appeared in the July, 1993 issue o/Lear's magazine.

'Jim Stigler was in an awkward position. Fascinated by the fact that Asian students routinely do better than American kids at elementary math, the UCLA psychologist wanted to test whether persistence might be the key factor. So he designed and administered an experiment in which he gave the same insolvable math problem to separate small groups of Japanese and American children. 2 Sure enough, most American kids attacked the problem, struggled briefly—then gave up. The Japanese kids, however, worked on and on and on. Eventually, Stigler stopped the experiment when it began to feel inhumane: If the Japanese kids were uninterrupted, they seemed willing to plow on indefinitely. 3 "The Japanese kids assumed that if they kept working, they'd eventually get it," Stigler recalls. "The Americans thought, 'Either you get it or you don't.'" 4 Stigler's work, detailed in his 1992 book The Learning Gap (Summit, Books/Simon & Schuster), shatters our stereotypical notion that Asian education relies on rote and drill. In fact, Japanese and Chinese elementary schoolteachers believe that their chief task is to stimulate thinking. They tell their students that anyone who thinks long enough about a problem can move toward its solution. 5 Stigler concludes that the Asian belief in hard work as the key to success is one reason why Asians outperform us academically. Americans are persuaded that success in school requires inborn talent. "If you believe that achievement is mostly caused by ability," Stigler says, "at some fundamental level you don't believe in education. You believe education is sorting kids, and that kids in some categories can't learn. The Japanese believe everybody can master the curriculum if you give them the time." 6 Stigler and his coauthor, Harold W. Stevenson of the University of Michigan, are among a growing number of educational psychologists who argue that the American fixation on innate ability causes us to waste the po-

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THE TROUBLE WITH TALENT

tential of many of our children. He says that this national focus on the importance of natural talent is producing kids who give up easily and artful dodgers who would rather look smart than actually learn something. 'Cross-cultural achievement tests show how wide the gap is: In a series of studies spanning a ten-year period, Stigler and Stevenson compared math test scores at more than 75 elementary schools in Sendai, Japan; T'aipei, Taiwan; Beijing, China; Minneapolis; and Chicago. In each study, the scores of fifth graders in the best-performing American school were lower than the scores of their counterparts in the worst-performing Asian school. In other studies, Stigler and Stevenson found significant gaps in reading tests as well. 8 Respect for hard work pervades Asian culture. Many folk tales make the point that diligence can achieve any goal—for example, the poet Li Po's story of the woman who grinds a piece of iron into a needle, and Mao Tsetung's recounting of an old man who removes a mountain with just a hoe. The accent on academic effort in Asian countries demonstrates how expectations for children are both higher and more democratic there than in America. "If learning is gradual and proceeds step by step," says Stigler, "anyone can gain knowledge." 9 To illustrate this emphasis, Stigler videotaped a Japanese teacher at work. The first image on screen is that of a young woman standing in front of a...
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