Struggle Means Learning: Difference in Eastern and Western Cultures

| November 15, 2012 | 59 Comments
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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 was trying to teach the class how to draw three-dimensional cubes on paper,” Stigler explains, “and one kid was just totally having trouble with it. His cube looked all cockeyed, so the teacher said to him, ‘Why don’t you go put yours on the board?’ So right there I thought, ‘That’s interesting! He took the one who can’t do it and told him to go and put it on the board.’ ”

Stigler knew that in American classrooms, it was usually the best kid in the class who was invited to the board. And so he watched with interest as the Japanese student dutifully came to the board and started drawing, but still couldn’t complete the cube. Every few minutes, the teacher would ask the rest of the class whether the kid had gotten it right, and the class would look up from their work, and shake their heads no. And as the period progressed, Stigler noticed that he — Stigler — was getting more and more anxious.

In Japanese classrooms, 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.

“I realized that I was sitting there starting to perspire,” he says, “because I was really empathizing with this kid. I thought, ‘This kid is going to break into tears!’ ”

But the kid didn’t break into tears. Stigler says the child continued to draw his cube with equanimity. “And at the end of the class, he did make his cube look right! And the teacher said to the class, ‘How does that look, class?’ And they all looked up and said, ‘He did it!’ And they broke into applause.” The kid smiled a huge smile and sat down, clearly proud of himself.

Stigler is now a professor of psychology at UCLA who studies teaching and learning around the world, and he says it was this small experience that first got him thinking about how differently East and West approach the experience of intellectual struggle.

“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 struggling becomes a chance to show that you, the student, have what it takes emotionally to resolve the problem by persisting 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.”

Granting that there is a lot of cultural diversity within East and West and it’s possible to point to counterexamples in each, Stigler still sums up the difference this way: For the most part in American culture, intellectual struggle in schoolchildren is seen as an indicator of weakness, while in Eastern cultures it is not only tolerated but is often used to measure emotional strength.

It’s a small difference in approach that Stigler believes has some very big implications.

‘Struggle’

Stigler is not the first psychologist to notice the difference in how East and West approach the experience of intellectual struggle.

Jin Li is a professor at Brown University who, like Stigler, compares the learning beliefs of Asian and U.S. children. She says that to understand why these two cultures view struggle so differently, it’s good to step back and examine how they think about where academic excellence comes from.

For the past decade or so, Li has been recording conversations between American mothers and their children, and Taiwanese mothers and their children. Li then analyzes those conversations to see how the mothers talk to the children about school.

She shared with me one conversation that she had recorded between an American mother and her 8-year-old son.

The mother and the son are discussing books. The son, though young, is a great student who loves to learn. He tells his mother that he and his friends talk about books even during recess, and she responds with this:

Mother: Do you know that’s what smart people do, smart grown-ups?

Child: I know … talk about books.

Mother: Yeah. So that’s a pretty smart thing to do to talk about a book.

Child: Hmmm mmmm.

It’s a small exchange — a moment. But Li says, this drop of conversation contains a world of cultural assumptions and beliefs.

Essentially, the American mother is communicating to her son that the cause of his success in school is his intelligence. He’s smart — which, Li says, is a common American view.

“The idea of intelligence is believed in the West as a cause,” Li explains. “She is telling him that there is something in him, in his mind, that enables him to do what he does.”

But in many Asian cultures, Li says, academic excellence isn’t linked with intelligence in the same way. “It resides in what they do, but not who they are, what they’re born with,” she says.

She shares another conversation, this time between a Taiwanese mother and her 9-year-old son. They are talking about the piano — the boy won first place in a competition, and the mother is explaining to him why.

“You practiced and practiced with lots of energy,” she tells him. “It got really hard, but you made a great effort. You insisted on practicing yourself.”

“So the focus is on the process of persisting through it despite the challenges, not giving up, and that’s what leads to success,” Li says.

If struggle indicates strength — an ability to face down the challenges that inevitably occur when you are trying to learn something — you’re more willing to accept it.

All of this matters because the way you conceptualize the act of struggling with something profoundly affects your actual behavior.

Obviously if struggle indicates weakness — a lack of intelligence — it makes you feel bad, and so you’re 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 something — you’re more willing to accept it.

And Stigler feels in the real world it is easy to see the consequences of these different interpretations of struggle.

“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.”

Not East Versus West

This is not to imply that the Eastern way of interpreting struggle — or anything else — is better than the Western way, or vice versa. Each have their strengths and weaknesses, which both sides know. Westerns tend to worry that their kids won’t be able to compete against Asian kids who excel in many areas but especially in math and science. Li says that educators from Asian countries have their own set of worries.

” ‘Our children are not creative. Our children do not have individuality. They’re just robots.’ You hear the educators from Asian countries express that concern, a lot,” she notes.

So, is it possible for one culture to adopt the beliefs of another culture if they see that culture producing better results?

Both Stigler and Li think that changing culture is hard, but that it’s possible to think differently in ways that can help. “Could we change our views of learning and place more emphasis on struggle?” Stigler asks. “Yeah.”

For example, Stigler says, 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 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.”

But we can, Stigler says.

In the meantime, he and the other psychologists doing this work say there are more differences to map — differences that allow both cultures to more clearly see who they are.

This post originally appeared on NPR.

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  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1207611233 Melanie Link Taylor

    Very enjoyable article. I’ve had the opportunity to collaborate in many different classes, and the teachers have various approaches to the struggling student. The best achievement results do come with the ‘keep at it til you have it’ approach; acknowledging the student does have the ability to learn.

  • Steve

    I really enjoyed this posting. It reminds me of an article I read in my graduate studies on getting kids to “grapple” with text. It also reminded me of a principal who asks teachers why they only call on kids with their hands raised after asking a question. He believes the students who don’t know the answer need called on most! One last comment is that I often see well-intentioned teachers trying to create an environment of Socratic Questioning who end up with very frustrated kids because it is a fine line between struggling through a tough question and just getting pointlessly frustrated. Thanks for stretching my thinking tonight. If you don’t mind, I’d like to invite you to my blog as I’d love to hear your thoughtful comments to some educational issues with which I am currently grappling!
    Steve
    http://www.cuttingeducator.com

  • geri caruso

    This is a a very helpful insight. I think this is why some really smart kids just give up when the going gets tough. They are so used to “just getting it” that they really haven’t experienced the rewards of struggeling.

  • Sheena

    Great article. It explains what I often see in the U.S. classroom. Teachers want to make sure students are not struggling; this nurturing humanistic model creates a low stress classroom that inspires creativity. However, students are worried and surprised when they are asked to do something new and challenging. They are more used to the watch-practice methods in the learning videos. If a student struggles and comes up with the answer, they will learn for life. Interesting article, I never thought of it as an East-West culture difference – maybe because I went to school in the East and now teach in the West :)

    I found an interesting video study of math teaching across 7 countries, and the Japan model you describe is explained there. Also how we can blend the best of both worlds. See

    http://timssvideo.com/sites/default/files/A%20World%20of%20Difference.pdf

    http://timssvideo.com/

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  • Aminhotep

    Yoda wasnt completely right. Its not about “do and not do”. Its all about “try”.

  • Alessandra

    I really enjoyed reading this article and I think it explained well a major distinction between Eastern and Western teaching styles. I taught English to pre-K and elementary-aged students in Korea and was surprised at first by the level of difficulty of the tasks and expectations that my students were presented with, especially the younger ones. What surprised me even more, however, was that they often rose to the challenge and were able to learn skills that 3 and 4-year-olds in Western education systems would not necessarily be expected to learn. However, I also think that an interesting point was raised about the trade-offs of both the success and struggle-based approaches to pedagogy. Hopefully educators in both camps might be able to collaborate so that an educational methodology that presents a sort of “happy medium” can be developed!

  • Tricia Parker

    One of my favorite quotes on this topic is from Dr. Sylvia Rimm: “The surest path to high self-esteem is to be successful at something one perceived
    would be difficult. Each time we steal a student’s struggle, we steal the opportunity for them to build self-confidence. They must do hard things to feel good about themselves.”

  • Chris

    Very interesting addition to our understanding of how encouraging hard work is better for kids than telling them they’re “smart.” I would like to hear more about the dichotomy of teaching students to struggle in schools in the “East” and the lack of “creativity.” The process of creating — bringing something unique into being — often involves great struggle and perseverance. It would seem that the ability to struggle could be just as directly applied to that as to math problems.

  • McKay

    This is so amazing. I’m a highschool senior now and I’ve worried about how good I would be since going to kindergarten. I don’t think it started from cultural impact (I think I just personally have extra anxiety), but through the years, I’ve feared struggling; I feared that i wouldn’t be able to learn what is right above my level. This mindset damaged me last year, as I had an advanced course in my worst subject, AP English. I jumped up from regular because i wanted a challenge, but seeing all the brilliant, rhetorical minds in that class, I shrunk away and stayed quiet. Interestingly enough, there were people in there who struggled like me, and though they weren’t as intense about gaining the skills, they raised there hands and admitted to the teacher when they didn’t understand something. The teacher was really supportive of that, and the class was very discussion-based; tests were a nuisance. This year will be even more challenging, but I know what better mindset to carry into class now. The struggle is real, and opportunistic!

  • Mike Chau

    America is really good at taking what is best from other cultures and making it apart of our society. Hopefully we can gather the best parts of Asia’s education system and learning culture and incorporate it in ours.

  • Wendy Matson Bergonse

    This is great because it reinforces the concept that to make kids internally motivated, we need to praise their efforts, not the results and not by saying, “You’re so smart” or “good job” on everything they do. Because if we do the latter, they will only tackle things they know they can do in order to win our praise.

  • Tim

    I would guess that there is less variation in IQ among people in such homogeneous cultures as Japan, Korea, and Taiwan. The differentiator really is the hard work and struggle. In the much more diverse U.S. the variation in IQ is actually quite high. Hard work is important but IQ is the main driver of differences in success. It’s pleasant to think that if we shift our conversations we can improve children’s performance. The sad fact is that birth weight and IQ predict 70% of life outcomes – hard work, struggle and practice can only take one so far.

    • Amberlita

      I’m not sure what I find more shocking, this comment itself or the fact that it has gone unchallenged on the KQED website for three days. Tim, do you actually believe that one’s culture or ethnicity is a determining factor in their intelligence?

    • Silke Schulz

      This biological essentialist argument has long been disproved. Not only has Carol Dweck successfully argued in favor of the Eastern methodology mentioned above, but there is also physiological evidence that people can become smarter through “struggle.” To imply that the IQ range in the U.S. is broader because of our diversity versus more homogenous cultures not only lacks a factual foundation but is also racist.

      • Ka Tia

        Hi Silke, do you have a scientific reference for the physiological evidence you mention? Cheers

        • Silke Schulz

          No, not specifically. Again I’d have to refer you to Dweck’s book. Perhaps I am misinterpreting her statements, or perhaps I should more specifically state that she states there is physiological evidence: “But new research shows that the brain is more like a muscle – it changes and gets stronger when you use it. And scientists have been able to show just how the brain grows and get stronger when you learn” (Dweck 2006:219).

          • Ka Tia

            No probs :) which book is it?

          • Silke Schulz

            Mindset

  • Debbie Pozzobon

    I don’t agree that the American way should summarise/categorise what the West is or is not. There are other parts of the Western world that have a more combinative 9or different) approach to learning – like Europe and Africa. However, I agree with the tone and content of the article. My son “struggled” at school, and is now a more persevering adult because of those life lessons learned.

  • Silke Schulz

    Carol Dweck wrote a book called “Mindset” about how the “struggle” with difficult learning tasks actually causes the brain to create more connections and ultimately makes a person smarter. In fact, she actively advocates for what you mention as the Eastern method – promoting learning challenges as opportunities for mental, emotional, and intellectual growth, and complimenting perseverance and overcoming learning challenges over complimenting children’s intelligence and “smarts.” The book’s a keeper for anyone who is an educator (along with “Drive” by Daniel Pink).

  • Steve Shipway

    I’ve always told my kids “If you find it easy, then you’re not learning anything new”. The difficult bit for teachers must be making it hard enough for them to learn something new, but not so hard that they give up and feel failure.

    There is also the downside about the asian way of teaching, which is shown in the high child suicide rates. A little pressure is good, but too much can break.

  • Pam grundy

    Well I think that if Asian children can do it than we can

  • Doreen Morrison

    U.S. teachers and parents are far too quick to step in and help when a student/child begins to struggle. Result? Lazy quitters!

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  • alishah

    I think the fact I had to struggle through school was a good thing. When I encounter something I want to learn now as a adult I know I can struggle through and figure out how to do it. I know people who flew through school without any effort and when they want to learn something, if it doesn’t come naturally to them, they shrug their shoulders and quit.

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  • notta_lackey

    Wow!!! You just can’t get that 2 +2=4, so you struggle, and then wow, you just tell them that it’s 4.26 and explain why. Thank you, Common Core for bridging two cultures.

  • Jananne

    This supports Carol Dweck’s Growth Mindsets. It is all about encouraging the challenge and recognizing that struggle, as a natural by-product of growth, leads to achievement and the increased ability to deal with and embrace new challenges and struggles. In America, the natural instinct is to protect children from experiencing the struggle which ultimately leads to children who shun challenges.

  • KeKe

    Any good American teacher has always done this: “In Japanese classrooms, 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.” Americans do not need a whole new educational approach– they need their hands untied by government so they have the freedom to teach how they wish– more hands learning & free play! Teachers need autonomy so they can make decisions about how they want to reach the students in their classes– not Common Core, standardized tests,
    and such nonsense!

  • lina

    So true,
    I am Asian, I have been at that situation. Challenge, Hardwork peserverance and knowledge mean success to Asian

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  • Sheila-May tolentino

    culture has great impact to education. as of now one of eastern countries struggling about the effect of pressure to the students, the suicide rates, they use education as survival tool for life but sometimes different perspective in educational system can be a tool for murder because of too much stress experiences by the students.

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  • Rajeev Iyer

    Perhaps the best way to solve this crux of East vs West would be to get the child to find out different ways of solving the same problem. I say this because I tried this experiment with my son with a problem. While my wife and I tried a very round about manner to solve the problem, he found a very simple way. We must give the independence to find the solution instead of teaching it one way. This perhaps sums up what I intend to say:

    The following concerns a question in a physics degree exam at the
    University of Copenhagen:

    “Describe how to determine the height of a skyscraper with a barometer.”

    One student replied:

    “You tie a long piece of string to the neck of the barometer, then lower the barometer from the roof of the skyscraper to the ground. The length of the string plus the length of the barometer will equal the height of the building.”

    This highly original answer so incensed the examiner that the student was failed immediately. The student appealed on the grounds that his answer was indisputably correct, and the university appointed an independent arbiter to decide the case.

    The arbiter judged that the answer was indeed correct, but did not display any noticeable knowledge of physics. To resolve the problem it was decided to call the student in and allow him six minutes in which to provide a verbal answer that showed at least a minimal familiarity with the basic principles of physics.

    For five minutes the student sat in silence, forehead creased in thought. The arbiter reminded him that time was running out, to which the student replied that he had several extremely relevant answers, but couldn’t make up his mind which to use. On being advised to hurry up the student replied as follows:

    “Firstly, you could take the barometer up to the roof of the skyscraper, drop it over the edge, and measure the time it takes to reach the ground. The height of the building can then be worked out from the formula H = 0.5g x t squared. But bad luck on the barometer.”

    “Or if the sun is shining you could measure the height of the barometer, then set it on end and measure the length of its shadow. Then you measure the length of the skyscraper’s shadow, and thereafter it is a simple matter of proportional arithmetic to work out the height of the skyscraper.”

    “But if you wanted to be highly scientific about it, you could tie a short piece of string to the barometer and swing it like a pendulum, first at ground level and then on the roof of the skyscraper. The height is worked
    out by the difference in the gravitational restoring force T =2 pi sqr root (l /g).”

    “Or if the skyscraper has an outside emergency staircase, it would be easier to walk up it and mark off the height of the skyscraper in barometer lengths, then add them up.”

    “If you merely wanted to be boring and orthodox about it, of course, you could use the barometer to measure the air pressure on the roof of the skyscraper and on the ground, and convert the difference in millibars into feet to give the height of the building.”

    “But since we are constantly being exhorted to exercise independence of mind and apply scientific methods, undoubtedly the best way would be to knock on the janitor’s door and say to him ‘If you would like a nice new barometer, I will give you this one if you tell me the height of this skyscraper’.”

    The student was Niels Bohr, the only Dane to win the Nobel Prize for physics.

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  • AJ Caughey

    I’m currently studying Chinese language abroad at Peking University in Beijing, and this all rings true. We constantly are given in-class tasks and homework that has words and grammar structures we don’t know; our teachers tell us that the best students are the hardest workers and that diligence is all it takes to do the homework successfully. In-class examples usually exceed our comprehension levels, and we’ll work together as a class to figure it out. My oral Chinese teacher always says “see, that was hard – there were many words you didn’t know. But we still understand what this says in general. Don’t panic if something is hard for you to read.”

    At the University of California – Berkeley, our Chinese text book only uses words that it has previously introduced: there are no deliberately hard or obscure words that would confuse the text. In that sense, the difficulty level is lower, since we don’t have to spend extra time looking up words we have never seen before (which is an especially annoying process in Chinese). The upside is we thoroughly master that set of words. Both sides have their advantages. It just depends what kind of Chinese you want to learn.

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  • VickiMcD

    After all my years in an American classroom, I believe that this idea of “struggle means learning” is the one key element that is missing from most of our educational settings. Finding acceptance for struggle as a beneficial experience would be difficult, however. In my interactions, most parents viewed a “struggling” child as a terrible thing; and to have a child work on a math problem for an hour would have been unthinkable, and would have elicited a phone call to the teacher. This article is spot on: our schools are heavily influenced by our society and by our culture. We can learn a lot through open minds and diversity.

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  • Santiago

    The Japanese citizens have two major advantages, and both positive to say the least. First, centuries of tried an tried again dynasties. Second, an in my opinion the one that you observed closely, a homogeneous society. These are two examples of the essential’s element’s which are not frowned upon but embraced and as such succeed. In the United States of America this was also a proven model of conservative education. But in present day America we are challenged with a vast social economic diversity/disparity and let us not forget as well as cultures which clash almost on a daily basis of what is best for their child. So I totally agree with you. I think we need to stay focused on the question and conclude that the education Americans recieve should noe a partison issue. Regretfully, I donot believe it will change anytime soon.

  • samuelmiller62

    I agree with this article because struggle is a part of life if you have a struggle and keep at it until you get through it and you will keep doing it through out your life and make it through other struggles with out even acknowledge or knowing it was a struggle because your it has become a normal routine to keep at it, while on the other hand giving up though struggles in life will make you become more weak and dependent on expecting help of some sort and staying comfortable with quitting or receiving help through life

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