Amy Chua is an American born, ethnic Chinese professor at the Yale Law School. She recently wrote a book, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother about her efforts to give her two daughters a traditional, strict Chinese upbringing. She also published an article on January 8 in the Wall Street Journal, Why Chinese Mothers are Superior, summarizing her parenting philosophy:
“A lot of people wonder how Chinese parents raise such stereotypically successful kids. They wonder what these parents do to produce so many math whizzes and music prodigies, what it's like inside the family, and whether they could do it too. Well, I can tell them, because I've done it. Here are some things my daughters, Sophia and Louisa, were never allowed to do: attend a sleepover; have a playdate; be in a school play; complain about not being in a school play; watch TV or play computer games; choose their own extracurricular activities; get any grade less than an A; not be the No. 1 student in every subject except gym and drama; play any instrument other than the piano or violin; not play the piano or violin.”
Professor Chua’s book and WSJ article attracted a lot of attention, with people arguing the pros and cons of the demanding Eastern parenting model with its emphasis on achievement, versus the permissive Western model that many would say emphasizes self-esteem instead of actual accomplishments. Then, on January 17, NY Times columnist David Brooks jumped into the fray with his own take on the controversy in an OpEd with the provocative title: Amy Chua is a Wimp.
Brooks said that he had received many e-mails denouncing Chua’s strict parenting methods. Her article and book play right into America’s fear of national decline, in particular the fear of being economically left behind by the much harder working Chinese. But then he writes about Chua: “I believe she’s coddling her children. She’s protecting them from the most intellectually demanding activities because she doesn’t understand what’s cognitively difficult and what isn’t.”
“Practicing a piece of music for four hours requires focused attention, but it is nowhere near as cognitively demanding as a sleepover with 14-year-old girls. Managing status rivalries, negotiating group dynamics, understanding social norms, navigating the distinction between self and group - these and other social tests impose cognitive demands that blow away any intense tutoring session or a class at Yale.”
“Yet mastering these arduous skills is at the very essence of achievement. Most people work in groups. We do this because groups are much more efficient at solving problems than individuals (swimmers are often motivated to have their best times as part of relay teams, not in individual events). Moreover, the performance of a group does not correlate well with the average I.Q. of the group or even with the I.Q.’s of the smartest members.”
Regardless of whether you are among those that agree with Amy Chua’s parenting methods, or those that feel her methods are a bit draconian, there is little doubt that the overall educational achievement of US students is mediocre relative to their peers in other countries. According to a recent survey of educational performance by the OECD, US students ranked 14th in reading literacy, 25th in math, and 17th in science.
“The hard truth is that other high-performing nations have passed us by during the last two decades . . . In a highly competitive knowledge economy, maintaining the educational status quo means America’s students are effectively losing ground,” said US Secretary of Education Arne Duncan. We clearly need to do better, especially in schools where a high percentage of the students are living below the poverty line.
Brooks' OpEd highlights that the parenting model advocated by Amy Chua may be right for the kind of individual achievements requiring intense personal focus and dedication, such as those of musical prodigies and Nobel Prize winning scientists. But for the vast, vast majority of us, achievement is highly correlated with social intelligence, “the exclusively human capacity to use very large brains to effectively navigate and negotiate complex social relationships and environments.”
Collective intelligence is a relatively new field of research. It aims to understand, among other objectives, the impact of social networks, Web 2.0 platforms and social media capabilities on business and organizations in general. As this article observes, we are learning that individual superstars with exceptional IQs are not as important to the success of a team or organization as the collective intelligence of the group.
“A striking study led by an MIT Sloan School of Management professor shows that teams of people display a collective intelligence that has surprisingly little to do with the intelligence of the team’s individual members. Group intelligence, the researchers discovered, is not strongly tied to either the average intelligence of the members or the team’s smartest member. And this collective intelligence was more than just an arbitrary score: When the group grappled with a complex task, the researchers found it was an excellent predictor of how well the team performed.”
“The new work is part of a growing body of research that focuses on understanding collective behavior and intelligence - an increasingly relevant topic of research in an age where everything from scientific progress to entrepreneurial success hinges on collaboration. Embedded in a century’s worth of Broadway shows, the interactions of online communities, or the path a ball travels between soccer players, researchers are finding hints about how individual people contribute to make a group creative and successful.”
Tom Malone, the MIT professor leading this research, is the founding director of MIT’s Center for Collective Intelligence. The Center’s key research objective is: “How can people and computers be connected so that - collectively - they act more intelligently than any individuals, groups, or computers have ever done before?”
“Intuitively, we still attribute too much to individuals and not enough to groups. Part of that may just be that it’s simpler; it’s simpler to say the success of a company depended on the CEO for good or bad, but in reality the success of a company depends on a whole lot more,” Professor Malone is quoted in the article. “Essentially what’s happening as our society becomes more advanced and more developed is that more things are done by groups of people than by individuals. In a certain sense, our intuitions about how that works haven’t caught up with the reality of modern life.”
If collective intelligence is increasingly important to the functioning of an organization, where do young people learn the social skills needed to be an effective group member, let alone the social leadership skills needed to help the group perform to its maximum potential? Brooks addresses these question in his OpEd:
“Participating in a well-functioning group is really hard. It requires the ability to trust people outside your kinship circle, read intonations and moods, understand how the psychological pieces each person brings to the room can and cannot fit together.”
“This skill set is not taught formally, but it is imparted through arduous experiences. These are exactly the kinds of difficult experiences Chua shelters her children from by making them rush home to hit the homework table.”
“Chua would do better to see the classroom as a cognitive break from the truly arduous tests of childhood. Where do they learn how to manage people? Where do they learn to construct and manipulate metaphors? Where do they learn to perceive details of a scene the way a hunter reads a landscape? Where do they learn how to detect their own shortcomings? Where do they learn how to put themselves in others’ minds and anticipate others’ reactions?”
“These and a million other skills are imparted by the informal maturity process and are not developed if formal learning monopolizes a child’s time.”
In the end, it is a matter of achieving the proper balance between the formal learning, which happens mostly in schools, and the informal learning which happens everywhere else, including sleepovers, team sports and school plays. A good formal education and good schools are absolutely necessary. They build our stores of knowledge, teach us the core materials needed for critical thinking and provide us with institutional certification of expertise. But, they are not sufficient.
In our 21st century, increasingly characterized by collective intelligence and social businesses, the learning acquired navigating the social intricacies of the school cafeteria and sleepovers is likely to be as important, and perhaps even more intellectually demanding than the classroom and practicing the violin.