This post was co-written by Michael Lomio, Williams College class of 2014.

A recent article examined how American and Chinese children respond to criticism (Heyman, Lee, & Fu 2013). The findings may help explain the persistent academic gap between children in the two countries.

Heyman et al. (2013) conducted two studies with children aged seven and ten from the United States and China. Their goal was to test the selective skepticism hypothesis,

According to the selective skepticism hypothesis, children show greater skepticism towards negative evaluations than positive ones. 

The children were presented with scenarios in which students were evaluated. The evaluations were either positive or negative, and they were portrayed as being given by a teacher or a peer. The children were then asked if the student should believe the evaluation. Here is an example of a positive evaluation by a teacher:

Luke wrote an essay about a class field trip. His teacher, Mr. Adams, read Luke’s essay before reading anyone else’s and told Luke that his essay is very good. Should Luke believe that his essay is very good?

Children of both age groups and countries thought the positive evaluations were more credible than the negative ones. The magnitude of this result, however, was significantly stronger in the US than China. In other words, Chinese kids exhibited selective skepticism, and kids from the United States did so even more. (A second study attempted to rule out the possibility that kids from the US are just more used to positive feedback.)

It seems logical that students who accept feedback are more likely to learn from it.  Rejecting feedback, on the other hand, may impair learning. This is speculation, but it is consistent with other work. Research on expertise suggests that criticism may play a key role in developing higher level skills (Ericsson, Prietula, & Cokely 2007). For example, deliberate practice involves constantly stretching in order to leave your comfort zone and focusing on areas where you are weakest. By definition, this is going to lead to more errors that draw (hopefully constructive) criticism from teachers and coaches. If cultural norms predispose Americans to discount negative appraisals, skill development may suffer. 

Difficulty accepting criticism may also relate to conceptual learning in mathematics.  A recent article (that I wrote about here) highlighted the importance of conceptual over procedural learning (Richland, Stigler, & Holyoak 2012). To establish conceptual knowledge, it is imperative that children struggle during the learning process.  A classroom video study showed that teachers in Hong Kong and Japan allowed students to engage in productive struggle for prolonged periods. US teachers, by contrast, quickly reduced conceptual problems to easier procedural questions. This is partly because when teachers asked US students to struggle (i.e., to fail before succeeding), the students pushed back. 

Willingness to struggle and the ability to accept constructive criticism seem closely related. They both pose a hurdle that must be overcome before one feels like a success. They can both lead to negative feelings and/or low self-esteem. One way to deal with these feelings is to reject the criticism or (and this is mostly unintentional) pressure the teacher to make the question easier.

There is another way. When viewed as a learning experience, rather than an attack, criticism and struggle can actually be a welcome part of education, even for the children. It is not kids’ fault that they don’t welcome struggle--neither do their role models. Adults should show respect for struggle. They should treat ‘failure’ as a step on the road to success. They should learn to say “great effort, now try to do better.” That’s the kind of feedback kids around the world can get behind.

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Ericsson, A. K., Prietula, J. M., & Cokely, T. E. (2007). The Making of an Expert. Harvard Business Review. 1-8.

Heyman, D. G., Fu, G., & Lee, K. (2013) Selective Skepticism: American and Chinese Children’s Reasoning About Evaluative Academic Feedback. Developmental Psychology, 49, 543-553.

Richland E. L., Stigler, W. J., & Holyoak, J. K. (2012) Teaching the Conceptual Structure of Mathematics. Educational Psychologist, 47, 189-203.

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