Asian culture: Struggling shows strength

A Marxist slogan popular in my college days — Dare to struggle, dare to win! — applies to education, according to an NPR story. Struggling in school is seen as a problem in the U.S., but not in Asia.

“I think that from very early ages we [in America] see struggle as an indicator that you’re just not very smart,” Stigler says. “It’s a sign of low ability — people who are smart don’t struggle, they just naturally get it, that’s our folk theory. Whereas in Asian cultures they tend to see struggle more as an opportunity.”

In Eastern cultures, Stigler says, it’s just assumed that struggle is a predictable part of the learning process. . . . struggling becomes a chance to show that you, the student, have what it takes emotionally to resolve the problem by persisting through that struggle.

In a study, Stigler asked first-grade students to solve an impossible math problem to see how long they’d struggle with it. In the U.S., the average was less than 30 seconds.  The Japanese students worked for an hour, until researchers told them to stop.

U.S. teachers should teach students to struggle, Stigler believes.

 . . .  in the Japanese classrooms that he’s studied, teachers consciously design tasks that are slightly beyond the capabilities of the students they teach, so the students can actually experience struggling with something just outside their reach. Then, once the task is mastered, the teachers actively point out that the student was able to accomplish it through the students hard work and struggle.

“And I just think that especially in schools, we don’t create enough of those experiences, and then we don’t point them out clearly enough.”

Getting parents to change their beliefs about learning will be difficult. Americans try to build their children’s confidence by telling them they’re smart or talented. “As soon as they encounter a something that’s difficult for them to do, that confidence evaporates,” says psychologist Carol Dweck. Praising the struggle –  “Boy, you worked on that a long time and you really learned how to do it” — gives children the confidence to cope with difficulties.

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Comments

  1. “In a study, Stigler asked first-grade students to solve an impossible math problem to see how long they’d struggle with it. In the U.S., the average was less than 30 seconds. The Japanese students worked for an hour, until researchers told them to stop.
    U.S. teachers should teach students to struggle, Stigler believes.”

    Or…the Japanese students are much more _compliant_ than the US students. The US students excelled at comparing their skill set to the impossible (!) problem.

    Is complying with adult demands to such an extreme healthy? We don’t teach our children to obey every order. Many schools have difficulty enforcing dress codes.

    Note that it would be impossible for most teachers to set a class problem which was “slightly beyond” the students’ capabilities. It would be IMPOSSIBLE, due to mainstreaming, and the insistence on placing students into classes by age.

    • Roger Sweeny says:

      What? You say you can’t “differentiate instruction” for 3, 4, 5, 6 different levels of students’ present capabilities? It’s a good thing the vast majority of teachers actually can.

      Oh, wait …

  2. Apply too much rigor at my school and students will just give up. They’ve been coddled immensely, and the electronic age has taught them to expect answers now. Unfortunately for them, most things in life that are worthwhile involve struggling to get them.

  3. palisadesk says:

    Note that it would be impossible for most teachers to set a class problem which was “slightly beyond” the students’ capabilities. It would be IMPOSSIBLE, due to mainstreaming, and the insistence on placing students into classes by age.

    Japan also has aggressive mainstreaming and placing of students into classes by age. Unlike the U.S., Japan does not retain students in grade for poor performance (a large number of U.S. elementary students repeat a grade at least once).

    So the “impossibility” of setting challenging class problems in the U.S. is not explained by mainstreaming or age-grade placements; Stigler is likely correct in asserting that cultural attitudes play a large role.

    • So, it’s possible to set a single problem which is “slightly beyond the capabilities” of a severely hetogeneous class?

      It would be wonderful if classes of US students were as polite and compliant as classes of Japanese students. Oh, and the post-school cram school wouldn’t hurt either. Throw in families which place education at the peak of desired activities, too.

      I just see another ed fad coming down the pike. Now, whether or not students understand the problems or instruction won’t matter, because we want students to struggle! learn resilience! It has the potential to be quite destructive when combined with the philosophy that students must construct their own meaning, with the teacher the guide on the side.

    • Roger Sweeny says:

      palisadesk,

      I strongly suspect that though the sources for this article say that they “set a problem which was ‘slightly beyond’ the students’ capabilities,” they really weren’t. They were setting a problem for the particular level that they were most concerned with. That means that some students will struggle more than others and some just won’t ever get it. Lots of people fail in Japan, too.