During the 1990s, a book appeared that occasioned considerable discussion about how we educate our youngest pupils and how our ways compare with those of other nations. In The Learning Gap, cross-cultural researchers Harold Stevenson and James Stigler explained what they discovered through observations in primary classrooms in the United States, China, and Japan. As related in their chapter “Effort and Ability,” they found that Americans usually assume that learning outcomes depend mostly on children’s inborn ability, whereas both Chinese and Japanese usually assume that learning outcomes depend mostly on the children’s own efforts.

For those of us professionally involved in understanding schooling cross-culturally, that was old news but welcome nonetheless because Stevenson and Stigler had captured the attention of citizens beyond the academy. My own favorite story had previously been told by another researcher in a Japanese school, who asked teachers whether they knew their pupils’ IQs. The teachers replied that they did not. (All IQs were accessible in a nearby file cabinet.)

Why do teachers in some nations make certain to take account of each child’s IQ, while in other cultures teachers treat such information as irrelevant? The practical answer is that the latter think another factor is the only one that’s relevant: what each child actually accomplishes.

But why do Chinese and Japanese characteristically reach for that sort of answer? Why do Americans believe it’s important to know, up front, how they should proceed with this child and, separately, with that child, in each case by knowing the child’s level of intelligence?

The answer is largely about unexamined assumptions inherited from ancestors.

Curious about the origins of Americans’ assumptions about learning, I unearthed a fascinating 2,500-year-old history of ideas. Here’s that story, condensed:

How we think about children’s learning is grounded in ancient Greek speculations. Aristotle, enormously influential across 2,000 years, taught that a child’s mental growth happens automatically, just like its biological growth. Children need protection, but their growth requires little positive adult input.

During medieval times, churchmen supplied their culture’s view of infants: Born “in sin,” infants are nonetheless ideally pure because they aren’t aware of sin. They are “innocent,” a highly desirable state that dissipates over time. The belief emerged that children are better beings than adults and thus precious – and delicate.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau viewed infants as uncorrupted by civilization; he advocated allowing spontaneous natural development, which needs neither external input nor internal determination. The Literary Romantics admired children’s “organic” flowering. The public was led to believe that, due to inborn “givens, mental development simply happens; everyone should remain passive.

Influential philosopher Herbert Spencer penned Education, which appeared as Americans were crafting their public schools. Also applying a biological model to mental development, he said individuals cannot push themselves beyond their “given” abilities. Spencer added that a growing, active child has no energy left over for mental exertion; to require sustained study from such a delicate being is to invite dreadful physical injuries.

During the 19th century in the U.S., several factors lent these beliefs credibility, cementing into public awareness the notions that intelligence is “given,” unchangeable by anyone’s effort, and that persevering study injures children. With wide public acceptance and the imprimatur of “science,” the aptitude myth became institutionalized as the Scholastic Aptitude Test.

Because many of us accept ancient, mythopoetic beliefs as “the way things work” today, we’re ill-equipped to attain for our children a widely agreed-upon goal: improved classroom outcomes, especially mastery of critical skills. Debates about reforms have focused on two causes: poverty, which stresses the children; and low standards, which blunts classroom teaching. These identify two parts of the explanation.

Here’s the third part: archaic thinking, which leads parents and educators to make some choices that are ineffective and to avoid – or never consider – others that could produce better outcomes. We can change this by resolving to think with a transformational mindset, a mindset that intentionally contradicts the one many of us inherited.

The indispensable foundational element of such a mindset would be that a child’s degree of learning mastery is determined far more by her persistence than by what others somehow determine to be her inborn “givens.”


By Cornelius Grove

Cornelius Grove, an independent scholar, is the author of [The Aptitude Myth: How an Ancient Belief Came to Undermine Children’s Learning Today.*](http://www.amazon.com/The-Aptitude-Myth-Undermine-Childrens/dp/1475804369)*