Why do Asians Excel in School?

Asians are extraordinarily successful in school. They are successful in America and in Australia, both immigrant nations, and in their home countries.

While writing this I came across an article by Nicholas Kristof, a columnist in the New York Times. Kristof asked in a 2006 column: Why is Xuan-Trang Ho so perfect?

Trang came to the United States in 1994 as an 11-year-old Vietnamese girl who spoke no English. Her parents, neither having more than a high school education, settled in Nebraska and found jobs as manual laborers.

The youngest of eight children, Trang learned English well enough that when she graduated from high school, she was valedictorian. Now she is a senior at Nebraska Wesleyan with a 3.99 average, a member of the USA Today All-USA College Academic Team and a new Rhodes Scholar.

Increasingly in America, and Australia, stellar academic achievement has an Asian face. In 2005, Asian-Americans averaged a combined math-verbal SAT of 1091, compared with 1068 for Whites, 982 for American Indians, 922 for Hispanics and 864 for blacks. Forty-four percent of Asian-American students take calculus in high school, compared with 28 percent of all students.

It is much the same in Australia. One Australian professor complained that Asian immigrants are taking over Australia by outperforming native-born Australians in school! I do not share his racist view that educated Asian-Australian leadership of Australia would be a bad thing.

Why are Asians so successful in school and university even when, as in the case of Trang, their parents are poor manual workers who spoke little or no English when they arrived in America?

Kristof canvasses the idea that Asians have higher IQs than other ethnic groups and rightly dismisses that notion. He concludes that there are ‘two and a half reasons’ for Asian success:

1. “First, as Trang suggests, is the filial piety nurtured by Confucianism for 2,500 years. Asian-American families may not always be warm and fuzzy, but they tend to be intact and focused on their children's getting ahead.” In other words Asian families tend to be what the French call familles educogenes, families that pursue educational goals for their children.

2. “Second” Kristof says, “Confucianism encourages a reverence for education. In a Confucian culture, it is intuitive that the way to achieve glory and success is by working hard and getting A's.”

2.5 Kristof then advances the ‘half reason’: “American kids typically say in polls that the students who succeed in school are the ’brains.’ Asian kids typically say that the A students are those who work hard.”

Kristof’s ‘half reason’ is actually the most important reason. Hard work is the key to success in school whether the motivation to work hard comes from Christianity, Judaism, Islam or Buddhism.

As Trang says anyone can do well on tests …. if they work hard. Hers is a very valuable insight that contradicts the IQ myth that has been so prevalent among western psychologists for so long.

Motivation is the Secret of Success

I had a colleague at university, Dr. Phil Mead. Phil did some interesting research that showed that the children of non-English speaking immigrants to Australia performed better in school, on average, than their native-born Australian peers.

It was not just some immigrant children that performed well in school; immigrant children from all non-English speaking countries (except Malta) did better on average that the children of English-speaking families born in Australia.

The only way Phil Mead could explain the unexpected success of immigrant students from non-English speaking countries was their high level of motivation, which he observed when he interviewed them and their parents.

Their teachers, whom he also interviewed, did not expect these immigrant children to do well in school. After all they came from families that spoke little or no English and their parents were typically manual workers. According to all prevailing sociological observations at the time, these children should have performed poorly in school. But they did not perform poorly; on average they performed better than native English-speaking Australians, many of them performed exceptionally well.

Phil’s explanation was that these children were highly motivated and that their high level of motivation overcame their sociological disadvantages. Phil believed that immigrants are those people willing to take a risk and leave all that is familiar behind them in order to seek their fortune in a strange land. They are more ambitious than the peers they leave behind. It takes a high level of motivation and courage to leave the home country behind and venture into the unknown.

Mead hypothesized that these immigrants, who spoke little English and would have been unable to help their children directly with their studies nevertheless passed on something far more valuable to their children than learning: they passed on the will to succeed.

Motivation, is more important for success in school than IQ. This is something that hardly anyone knew at the time Phil Mead did his research. Since then Daniel Golman has written his ground-breaking book Emotional Intelligence, which says much the same thing. Goleman explores recent findings in neuroscience. Goleman says: “At best, IQ contributes about 20 percent to the factors that determine life success -‘The vast majority of one’s ultimate niche in society is determined by non-IQ factors’” [1]

The formula for success in school is a simple one:

The will to succeed > Hard work > Success in school

U C Berkeley has always been recognized for the pursuit of academic excellence. In the fall of 2009, the number of Asian freshmen at The University of California at Berkeley rose to a record high of about 46 percent: this in a state where Asians make up only 12% of the population.

Because Asian students work hard and are ambitious they are over-represented in California’s vaunted state university system, just as they are in Australian universities.

There are proportionally four times as many Asian freshmen at UC Berkeley than there are Asians in California.

Asians are not more successful in school because they are more talented or have higher IQs than other ethnic groups. They have no exceptional talents; they are not the master race.

Asians excel because they have the will to achieve: they work hard. Brainwave entrainment can help you; also see my book IQ Unlimited on Amazon Kindle for study strategies. Asians are not uniquely gifted, they are highly motivated. You are just as gifted, if you really want to succeed in school you will.

As Henry Ford said: "Whether you think you can or you think you can't, you're right."

1. Daniel Goleman, (1995), Emotional Intelligence, New York: Bantam Books, p. 36

Copyright © Michael F. Petty. 2012 All rights reserved.

Author's Bio: 

Dr. MICHAEL PETTY Ph.D. is an authority on accelerated learning, IQ, Neuro Science and brainwave entrainment. He has a BA from Durham UK, an MA from Calgary and a PhD from the University of Wisconsin at Madison. He was a Canada Council Doctoral Fellow and his 1980 research on change in IQ scores, published in the British Journal Educational Research is still cited in Psychological texts. His latest book is Michael Petty, IQ Unlimited, Amazon Kindle. Visit Dr Petty’s website at www.NeuroLearnings.com