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The causes and effects of intelligence - Scarlet Letters

Nov. 29th, 2012 09:23 pm The causes and effects of intelligence

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.

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.

Posted via LiveJournal app for iPhone.

Current Location: Japan, Hon-gyōtoku, Tajiri

2 comments - Leave a commentPrevious Entry Share Next Entry


Date:November 29th, 2012 06:19 pm (UTC)
hmmm, what both those studies, which were a good read, and also there is a lecturer doing the EFL conference rounds with this story and some perspectives on learning, have missed is that in each context the focus is on formalised learning and a relationship to the cultural/societal expectation.

in fact most learning actually happens in an unprovoked, unguided utterly spontaneous way and generally occurs as a result of following an emotional curiosity. why does this matter. well, do you think that as time progressed kousuke would have continued to fail to be able to draw the cube for the rest of his life? probably not.

so the question really comes down to. did kousuke actually want to draw the cube? almost certainly he was at best indifferent and probably just bored in maths and wishing he could go play with his tomogachi , he was forced to by the circumstance and then made to endeavour to succeed at something he probably didn't much care about. this explains a lot about why, as is also said in the article asian students lack creativity.
Date:December 16th, 2012 11:23 am (UTC)
I agree that motivation is always a huge factor in determining what is truly learned, used and meaningfully connected to other parts of a person's life. I don't agree that formalised learning can never inspire that motivation to learn.

I also don't think that motivation and attitudes to setbacks are the same thing, and studies have shown that some of the brightest students can have the brittlest of egos, which certainly chimes with my own experience. Again, I do think that as a teacher, we can influence student's perceptions immensely depending on the standards of expectation we set in our classrooms.

I believe that these standards of expectation go a long way toward explaining the notion that Asian students lack creativity, which is often echoed as fact both in Asia and overseas. I've found, both in Vietnam and in Japan, that once students realise that creativity is actually sanctioned in your classroom, the only issue is reigning them back in. It would be difficult indeed to look at the foment of the Japanese arts and literature and argue that Asians fundamentally lack creativity.

Where there does seem to be an issue is in the sciences. There has been a great deal of hand-wringing here over the relatively low number of Nobel science laureates, especially surprising given their position as a leader in technology. But Asian students are hardly alone in the expectation that science and maths classes are not for questions - my high school Physics teacher would greet questions with the retort "why is the sky blue". I dropped Physics like a stone first chance I got.

Edited at 2012-12-17 11:35 am (UTC)