November 13, 2012

I read a fascinating article yesterday published by NPR News.  The article was written by Alix Spiegel and dealt with teaching methods in Eastern countries relative to teaching methods in Western countries.    In 1979, when Jim Stigler was still a graduate student at the University of Michigan, he went to Japan to research teaching methods and found himself sitting in the back row of a crowded fourth-grade math class.  The teacher had noticed one young man having great difficulty in drawing a three-dimensional cube.   Try as he would, he was never able to get the proper dimensions resulting in a cube that looked misshapen and just plain incorrect.  The teacher asked the young man to go to the board and begin working to draw the cube correctly.  The youngster had no reluctance in doing so realizing that none of the students would ridicule him for his efforts.  He did not break into tears at the prospect of working in front of his classmates.  In the United States, generally, the best students are asked to put their work out for all to see, not a student struggling with concepts.  He tried—he failed.  He tried—he failed.  By the end of the class period, he had drawn the cube correctly.   His classmates all yelled—“He did it.”  They were overjoyed at his success and gave him a rousing ovation.   The kid smiled a huge smile and sat down definitely proud of his accomplishment.    Stigler is now a professor of psychology at UCLA and studies teaching methods around the world.   It was this small experience that gave him the desire to know more about how students learn and how they are taught in classrooms outside the USA.

 “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. Everyone is expected to struggle in the process of learning, and so struggle becomes a chance to show that you, the student, have what it takes emotionally to resolve problems by sheer persistence through that struggle.

“They’ve taught them that suffering can be a good thing,” Stigler says. “I mean it sounds bad, but I think that’s what they’ve taught them.”

For the most part, in Western countries, intellectual struggle in school children is seen as an indicator of weakness, while in Eastern cultures it is not only tolerated, it is often used to measure emotional strength.    In Western cultures, academic excellence is not linked with intelligence in the same way.  It resides in what they do, but not who they are nor what they are born with.  Eastern cultures stress trying over and over with patience.  They are told that great effort can produce great success—eventually.  They are definitely encouraged to persevere and don’t stop until you succeed.  The focus is on the process despite the challenges, not giving up, and staying intense.  All of this matters because the way you conceptualize the act of struggle with the learning process profoundly affects your actual behavior.    Obviously, if struggle indicates weakness — a lack of intelligence — it makes you feel bad, and so you are less likely to put up with it.   But if struggle indicates strength — an ability to face down the challenges that inevitably occur when you are trying to learn — you’re more willing to accept it.

  “We did a study many years ago with first-grade students,” he tells me. “We decided to go out and give the students an impossible math problem to work on, and then we would measure how long they worked on it before they gave up.”

The American students “worked on it less than 30 seconds on average and then they basically looked at us and said, ‘We haven’t had this,’ ” he says.

But the Japanese students worked for the entire hour on the impossible problem. “And finally we had to stop the session because the hour was up. And then we had to debrief them and say, ‘Oh that was not a possible problem; that was an impossible problem!’ and they looked at us like, ‘What kind of animals are we?’ ” Stigler recalls.

“Think about that [kind of behavior] spread over a lifetime,” he says. “That’s a big difference.”

Each system has its strengths and weaknesses.  It was fascinating to Stigler that parents and teachers in Eastern cultures feel at times their children and students are methodical but not very creative.  This they give to Western cultures and schools.      Their kids can do the math and science, but they have difficulty in conceptualizing.    The real question becomes, can one culture learn from another?  Can we teach in the Western world patience, struggle can be a good thing while maintaining our creative “bent”?  Can teachers in Eastern cultures teach creativity while maintaining the idea that struggle is sometimes a good thing?  Stigler says—absolutely!   

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