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Asian Mindsets in Education│Robert Waring





Although I teach at university level in Japan and have done so for 24 years, I lecture constantly all through Asia and have had the pleasure of studying their education systems and talking to thousands of teachers in these places. In my many years of working in North East Asia I've come to notice that some students can be easily motivated, some don't need to be motivated, and some are very hard to motivate not just for learning English, but for any subject. And wherever I go many of these patterns persist.

Throughout North Asia, intelligence is valued. Highly valued. Putting people into categories is a national pastime. High ability vs. low ability. Smart vs. not so smart. Each school and university is ranked from top to bottom (we see this in the university rankings that come out each year), and the university or school you get into basically can determine your whole life's path. Thus the pressure on these kids is immense. And when you add in Tiger Moms and high pressure education systems, it is no wonder that countries like South Korea have the highest level of teen suicide and the lowest level of happiness anywhere on the planet. Why? Because the price of failure is huge.

After taking these tests, they (and their family) will get a label that will forever associate them with their school, university or company and that will mark them for life. For good or bad. It can determine how much they earn, their status and even who they marry. They can lose friends over this. In this context, how would you feel if all your friends went on to the best universities and you didn't? You'd feel a failure. You would label yourself a failure - "I'm not smart, and I'm just not good enough." And you'd carry this feeling with you for the rest of your life. A permanent mark on your life at age 17 or 18, or even earlier.

I often wonder how much these feelings turn people off education, off learning, and how many kids with great potential have been denied a future because they did poorly on one test at age 10. What a terrible burden to put on these kids. But even the kids who do perform well, will also be labelled. They now have the pressure of having to continue to perform at these high levels or be seen as a charlatan, a fake, a "has-been". They can't relax, because feel they have to keep going forward at whatever cost to maintain their status for themselves, or their families. We see this mindset with companies too, who are more concerned about growth and profits than their employees.

But even outside these high pressure systems, in normal life, people tend to label themselves, or society puts them into categories. Smart, not so smart. A good piano player, not so good. Good at sports, or not so good. Good at drawing or not. Good with numbers, or not. Good at English, or not. They may say things like "I'm too old to learn something new", or "I'm no good at statistics" or "there's no way I can do that." They believe that they will probably always be this way.

So where does this way of thinking, this mindset, come from? What I've learnt is - that there are some parents, students, teachers, schools, and even education systems with a fixed mindset. That is, they believe that a person has a certain amount of an ability, whether it be music, dance, math, cooking or even English and the objective of school and tests is to find this out and then filter the students into categories - high to low that will predict whether they go on to be doctors or lawyers or end up at the bottom of the pile. They believe this sorting can be done with tests, especially IQ tests that reveal ones's true abilities, or lack of them. They believe tests help us to know who is, and who is not smart, who will and will not do well in society. They believe tests predict who will reach the top and who won't. Very often this is proved true. If you believe you are at the top or even the bottom of the tree (or even your race or social group, people in your region or your school as known as not as smart as those from the another region or school), well guess what? These kids tend to perform to that expectation. If people think that a certain group will perform badly, or well, they will.

These students with a fixed mindset get hung up about this, by believing that as the amount of this talent or ability is fixed, there is little that can be done about improving themselves. Indeed they seem to shy away from hard work or effort because they know in their hearts that if they have to try, it means that they just aren't smart, or they aren't good at something. Therefore, these students think it's a waste of time even trying and some even give up before trying. These are the hardest ones to motivate. These kids get hung up over test scores. They hate tests because they reveal their what they think are their limitations, their lack of ability. They don't want to push themselves because they may risk failure. So they do things to stay within their limits rather than stretch themselves because they fear failure and being shown up as dumb.

Many people with a fixed mindset believe their abilities are fixed, they think hard work is not necessary, because it won't make much difference. They hate criticism and may cry or get upset when they get a bad test score. They do not want people to point out their lack of ability and so most of their effort goes into trying to LOOK smart, or if they can't be smart, they NEVER want to look stupid. They try not to be at the bottom of the class. They will do their homework, but not because they want to learn, but because they don't want to look dumb, or do it to please mum or dad or even the teacher. For them, education often is not about learning but about pleasing others. Even if they do do well on a test, they believe they just got lucky. Many of those with a fixed mindset who do not naturally do well in education and score lowly on tests, tend to have bad behaviours or cause trouble in class. Sometimes this is because they want to hide their lack of ability, or sometimes it is to bully those they believe are at a lower level than themselves in order to make themselves look better, to somehow move themselves up the scale. Thus we see the huge amount of bullying in North East Asia which sometimes leads to some of the suicides I mentioned.

But not everyone thinks this way. There are others with a different mindset. These people do not believe their abilities are largely fixed, they do not believe in fixed mindsets. They believe that they have unlimited abilities, unlimited talents that can be DEVELOPED. This 'growth mindset' is completely different from a fixed one. They believe that even if I'm not good at something today it doesn't matter, because I can be good at it in the future. They believe test scores only reflect what happened THAT DAY and do not predict future performance. They may say "Maybe I can't become an Einstein, but I can do my best to be like him." They believe the sky is the limit. They believe that tests can never predict your future abilities, nor do they tell us now hard people work, how determined they are, how they never want to give up, or how they approach learning. They do not believe that we should put people in categories, or they have fixed labels like smart, kind, reliable, lazy and so on because these attributes can be changed with effort, good strategies and help from others. They want to push their limits and want to be challenged. They don't mind failure because it is a chance to learn and improve.

They look for challenges and if they aren't being challenged, they aren't satisfied. They believe that if they did poorly at something like a test it is not because of their lack of ability, they would say "Ok I'm not good at this now, but I will be if I keep trying". They don't give up easily. Their comfort zone is one BEYOND their abilities not WITHIN their abilities. If they do fail, they aren't upset at their score, they are upset with themselves, because they didn't try. These students do not need motivating much, or even at all, because they feel supported and are able to grow to become the best that they can be. A key word is YET. They believe "Ok I'm not good at this -YET"

Many parents and teachers also have these mindsets. Research shows that a major factor about whether a school and its students will do well or not, is whether the teachers have a 'growth' or a 'fixed mindset'. Praising our children the RIGHT way is key. We should praise them for the development of the PROCESS of growth, not only for their ability. If you praise someone for being smart, they now have a label that makes them focus on being smart in the future focus and will focus on doing what they can to keep this label - to well on tests - rather than developing their talents for the future. If you praise people only for being smart, their focus from development to their label, has shifted. What we should do is offer genuine praise when it's really deserved, but praise more for effort, hard work, perseverance, not giving up etc. rather than only "well done, you're a hero, you're top of the class". We need to focus on growth not the present abilities. We should praise them by saying "I can see you worked hard on this, I'm proud of you not giving up even though it was hard." So if a child says to you. 'Oh I didn't do well, or I can't do this', then just say, "That's right, not yet!". The yet gives them a space to move into, a space to grow, it focuses them on the process of development not a confirmation of current abilities. There's a school in the US that never gives failing scores. They give the grade 'not yet'.

But a growth mindset is not enough. Students also need resources - good schools, good libraries, good teachers and access to them. This also does not mean everyone should be aspiring to get to the top colleges. What it means is that students should be trying to be the best that they can be at whatever they love doing - cutting hair, constructing buildings, driving a truck, managing a business, or teaching students. We need all of these professions in a complex diverse world.

The key here is to understand that it doesn't matter what school or background you have, where you come from, what is important is your way of thinking, your mindset. If you have a growth mindset you can get past the labels and focus on the only thing that is really important - your own growth. But when choosing a company or choosing a school, choose the one that will help your growth, your education and your character, don't choose one just for its label. Labels and categories hold us back.

In North East Asia we are starting to see some universities, schools and companies adopt a growth mindset. This is a central aim of Seishin's new International Communication course starting in 2016. Recently in Japan, we're seeing kids more focused on personal development rather than test scores. We see kids opting-out of having the same status-driven lifestyles of their parents. They say "I never see my dad. He works 6 days a week often till 10 or 11 and has to play golf with business partners every Sunday. He's almost a stranger to our family, I don't want this life for myself and my kids." We're seeing more 'freeters', people who want to work to get money so they can pursue their interests rather than be slaves to an uncaring company. We're starting to see alternative forms of education be explored and a focus on personal development.

This is healthy.