In international tests, Chinese children consistently
American Lenora Chu enrolled her young son in the
Chinese public school system in Shanghai.
In her book about the experience, “Little Soldiers,”
she explores how culture influences this academic achievement
It comes down to Chinese people displaying a
psychological concept known as a ”growth mindset” at
school … while Americans only display this mindset in
For the most part, American children aren’t great at math.
But Chinese children tend to be excellent.
Testing half a million students worldwide, the Program for International Student
Assessment is one of the most widely cited measurements of
global education, and it’s consistently found Chinese
students at the top of the academic pile … and Americans
much nearer the bottom.
Some experts argue that the PISA assessment, like any
standardized tests, primarily measures a student’s ability
to take the test, not their knowledge, but hardly anyone disputes
that the American education has some work to do when it comes to
In Lenora Chu’s new book
“Little Soldiers: An American Boy, a Chinese School, and the
Global Race to Achieve,” she begins to unearth the cultural
differences that lead to this gap — and it’s not just about what
happens at school.
Chu, a Chinese-American journalist raised by Chinese parents in
Texas, moved to Shanghai with her American husband and
toddler son in 2009. To immerse their son in the culture, she and
her husband chose to enroll him in the Chinese public school
system starting in preschool.
The differences she notices in her child’s focus and discipline
are dramatic, but she also notices cultural differences that
influence how Chinese schools are run, and the reason its
students test so well. Along with factors such as highly trained
teachers and an emphasis on rote memorization before pursuing
deeper understanding, the difference comes down to a belief
that has begun slowly making its way across the US:
Achievement is the result of hard work, not innate ability.
Chu explains this approach comes from ”an intrinsic belief
that anything is possible with hard work, with chiku, or
‘eating bitter.’ If there’s a goal worth accomplishing,
day-to-day life might be absolutely and miserably unpleasant for
a spell,” she writes. She continues:
“It’s a concept that parents tell their children, teachers
ingrain in their students, and China’s leaders use to motivate
their populace toward the goal of modernizing China. The concept
reverberates in the classroom; studies show that for kids
who score poorly, Chinese teachers believe a lack of effort —
rather than of smarts — is to blame. ‘There is little difference
in the intelligence of my students,’ Teacher Mao, a Chinese
language teacher at a Shanghai high school, told me, his voice
unwavering in his conviction. ‘Hard work is the most important
Chu cites the research of Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck,
author of “Mindset,”
who is responsible for coining the terms
“growth mindset” and “fixed mindset.” Chinese students
are trained to have a growth mindset: If they aren’t doing well,
they’ll work harder, and they’ll be successful. American children
tend to be trained to have a fixed mindset about academics: Their
abilities are largely predetermined and static. If they aren’t
doing well, it’s because they’re not good at it. Oh well.
UCLA psychology professor James Stigler, said the American
approach is problematic. Chu writes:
“‘In America we try to sell this idea that learning is fun and
easy, but real learning is actually very difficult,” said
Stigler. ‘It takes suffering and angst, and if you’re not willing
to go through that you’re not going to learn deeply. The downside
is these students often give up when something gets hard or when
it’s no longer fun.’”
Stigler told Chu that because Chinese children are
socialized “to put up with suffering and discomfort and all the
things that are a really important part of learning,” a Chinese
teacher presenting students with a difficult problem can
encourage them to work through it — and they will.
However, there’s one place Americans display the growth mindset
in spades: sports.
“It’s all about getting better, getting better, working harder,”
Stigler told Chu. “In sports, we’re okay with competition and
Plus, Chu writes, Americans are OK with being ranked on the
football field or soccer pitch. Stigler told her that coming in
ninth in an athletic competition doesn’t cause a crisis of
conscience for Americans — it just means they need to train
harder, better, differently. “But in academics,” he said, “you
don’t want to embarrass somebody by ranking them Number Thirty
because ‘It’s not their fault.’ In American academics, ‘you
either have it or you don’t.’”
A growth mindset isn’t all that foreign to American children
— it just isn’t applied in school.
Soldiers” can be pre-ordered via Amazon. For the record, it’s
excellent and absolutely fascinating.