Archive: The causes and effects of intelligence

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I like learning. And I like teaching. But until I taught, I never thought about what it meant to learn, and how differently we do it.

We learn differently as people, and we learn differently based on how we’ve always learned. I’ve sat through explanations that were crystal clear in the eye of the explainer, but which made me feel like such a fool. I’ve probably given a fair few too. Hazards of the profession.

But the cultural thing, that gave me a fresh surprise of late. I don’t think I’d ever really questioned the principle that you never put someone on the spot unless they are capable of doing the task, unless they know the right answer, could be a model to others. But then I read this.

A Japanese classroom

The scene of Kousuke’s triumph (possibly) – by Bobo12345 via Wikimedia Commons

The writer describes an American researcher’s shock, in a Japanese maths classroom of the late ’70s, at seeing the only kid who couldn’t get his 3D cubes straight called to the board, his mounting anxiety as the boy continued to fail, his certainty that any minute, the boy would dissolve into tears. And his astonishment when, at the end of the period, the boy got it right, concentration dissolving into a smile as the class dissolved into applause. Kousuke had got it!

For all my alleged cultural smarts, this was something I had completely failed to pick up on. But once I thought on it, I realised that this is something that I’ve encountered in Japan, just without recognizing it. And every time I’m called on to do it, I just freeze. You see, sometimes in my drumming group, I’m asked to do something, badly, in front of everyone. And every time, I, like Stigler in the article, feel so nervous I can’t possibly concentrate on what I’m supposed to be doing. My palms sweat, it’s hard to grip the drumsticks… it feels like an ordeal, and I’m glad when it’s over.

Like Stigler, I feel a little bit like I’m being bullied. Like I’ve been singled out for the dunce’s cap. And I feel this despite knowing that these are not people who would do that. They’re not sadistic. They’re just trying to help me learn.

When I was growing up in the UK, it was inevitably the brightest who were called up to the board. And while it should feel like praise, it felt no less awkward than Stigler did sitting in the back of the classroom perspiring on Kousuke’s behalf. Why could that be?

The answer may lie in another idea in the article, this time courtesy of Professor Jin Li. Li has spent a decade recording the conversations of American and Taiwanese parents about their school life, and has come to the conclusion that where parents in America tend to attribute success to smartness, Taiwanese parents speak of practice, persistence and struggle.

I’m ever-wary of grand generalisations, with their tendency to gloss over individual differences and slide neatly into stereotypes. East vs West is a neat catchphrase, and has been exploited too many times by people with nefarious agendas to have any real meaning. And I’m certainly not about to suggest that Japanese classrooms are perfect.

But here’s what I do think it’s important to take from this. If smartness is a cause, is inherent, it’s fixed. You either got it or you don’t. Smartness as the result of effort is something each and every individual can control. Being singled out, in these two situations, then becomes a very different proposition: show us how smart (or not) you are so everyone can hate you and/ or laugh at you vs stick at this and you’ll get better at it. Studies have been done on just these two mindsets, and found no correlation between mindset and school success until students encounter a challenge or setback. And it’s there – the change of school, the move to university, the task you just can’t get your head around, Kousuke’s 3D cubes – where it pays to try harder, try another way, get help, and not to say “I’m just not cut out for this”.

So next time I’m put on the spot, I’ll be channeling Kousuke*, in search of my untapped potential.

* Kousuke’s real name probably isn’t Kousuke. Sorry.

From here on November 29th 2012.

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