Yuan: In Defense of Determination

by Ziqin Yuan | 9/15/15 6:03pm

I recently got a first-hand look at how a lack of determination can hurt a child, and the effects can only get worse as his or her world gets wider, harsher and more competitive. One of my family friends has a preteen son whom I visit regularly. They are a family of first-generation immigrants, and the parents know little English. They try incredibly hard to give their son everything they can, but between the sheer length of time they must spend working just to get by and their limited English, they cannot help him with his education as much as may be ideal. Currently, his reading and writing skills are vastly behind those of his classmates, and worse, he has no sense of determination — of gritting his teeth to solve a problem. When he gets stuck on a word he does not know or a passage he does not understand, he grows frustrated and gives up without even trying.

When visiting him, I used to get frustrated as well. If he had been taught the value of determination when he was younger — if his parents had been able to sit down with him to push him to do his homework or if someone had argued with him when he had been about to quit — I believe he would be better equipped to handle the long list of problems that he is starting to face. He has trouble talking to classmates because his vocabulary is too limited, has trouble connecting to children his age because he’s so far behind academically that he has to learn with much younger children and has difficulty working through any problems because he only knows how to ignore them and let them build up rather than how to work hard in the short term to resolve them.

A recent British program, “Are Our Kids Tough Enough? Chinese School,” brought five Chinese teachers to a top British school to teach a group of students for four weeks with the “Chinese method,” which uses 12-hour days and a stricter curriculum. At the end of the program, the students in the Chinese School test group and the students in the regular classes were tested on four subjects — science, mathematics, grammar and Mandarin. The results showed that the students at the Chinese School scored significantly higher on average than those who attended regular classes. The students at the Chinese School, for example, scored roughly 10 percent higher on average in science and mathematics.

This improvement was in spite of the differences in culture and upbringing of the British students and the students the Chinese teachers were used to. The students had been raised in British households, but four weeks in the Chinese School were enough to show a significant improvement. I argue that the key difference in the teaching methods of the Chinese and the British was the former’s emphasis on determination. The Chinese teachers taught large mixed classes, regardless of ability, in lecture format, delivering a lot of information quickly to all students. The British teachers taught very similarly to how American teachers do, focusing more on individualism and grouping students according to their ability. Though their classes were of mixed ability, the Chinese teachers reiterated the idea that if you put in enough effort, even if you think you are bad at something, you will achieve good results. They focused on drilling and repetition because, though not everybody is naturally talented at everything, by working hard and overcoming any disadvantages you might think you have — in other words, with enough determination — you can do well. Because these teachers focused on determination instead of natural talent as the main predictor of success, their students were able to score much better.

The Chinese system has many flaws, the main one being that it tends to kill individualism in favor of rote memorization. Yet we must not ignore all the instances where it works, especially in its emphasis on the importance of hard work and determination.

The American education system is very similar to the British education system. Generally, both are rooted in individualism and a focus on cultivating a student’s natural talents. They often, however, seem to discount the importance of gritting your teeth and working hard, talented or not. If American educators do not take note of these shortcomings, the American education system will increasingly be left behind as other countries start to catch up.