Jim Stigler · npr · the value of struggle

Eastern education: a site of struggle

Readers of the blog will know that I keep my eye on the USA’s National Public Radio (npr) website for what people are talking about in the world of education.

Last week, npr ran a piece on the work of Jim Stigler, a psychology prof at UCLA. As a graduate student back in the 70s, Stigler had visited Japan, sitting in on classes to observe teaching methods.

One particular event stuck in Stigler’s mind. He was watching a Year 3 maths class and one pupil was having real difficulty drawing a three-dimensional shape. Rather than ignore the boy or intervene directly,  the teacher, much to Stigler’s surprise, asked the pupil to go and draw the shape on the board, thus drawing explicit attention to the child’s hitherto lack of success.

To Stigler this seemed totally at odds with western practice in which the norm is to ask the best pupil in the class to demonstrate success.

However, in this case, the pupil came to board, tried to draw the shape and failed. Every so often, the teacher would stop the rest of the class, who were continuing with their work, to ask if the boy had got it right yet and each time they would shake their heads to indicate that he hadn’t.

For Stigler, as I imagine for many westerners, this situation was immensely stressful and he reports that he broke out into a sweat of emotional empathy and fully expected the child to burst into tears.

On the contrary, far from giving up or crying, the pupil stuck at the task until he had managed to draw the desired shape. At which point, the teacher stopped the class again, asked them to confirm the boy’s success. The class looked up, agreed that he had completed the task and applauded him.

The incident gave Stigler much pause for thought and he has concluded that one of the principal differences between eastern and western cultures is that easterners view struggle as an opportunity, rather than as a sign of low ability. Struggle is seen as a valuable element in the process of learning something.

In fact, whereas many westerners will point to a child’s success in an enterprise and declare that the child’s success happened because the child is smart or intelligent, easterners are much more likely to remind the child that their success is predicated on the amount of effort they put in.

None of this is new but it’s a reminder that perhaps it isn’t necessarily a good thing for teachers to jump in the moment they see a pupil not having immediate success.