“…..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 struggles 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.”
Jin Li, Professor of Education and Human Development, Brown University
A recent study that was featured at the National Public Radio (NPR) website titled “Struggle for Smarts? How Eastern and Western Cultures Tackle Learning” looked at research that examined learning differences between Eastern and Western students. The article first discusses Dr. Stigler’s,Professor of Psychology UCLA, research and reflections on the subject. He recalls his early days as a graduate student observing Japanese students. He remembers watching a Japanese teacher call a boy up to the board to draw a three dimensional object. His first thoughts were why would he call the boy who was struggling up to the board to do his work? In our culture, he thought, it
is usually the student who is excelling. The boy struggled and struggled at first. The teacher would periodically ask the class, “Class, does he have it right?” No!, ” they would answer. This continued. Stigler grew more and more concerned for the young boy. He watched the visibly anxious young boy struggle and plod his way through the problem. After sometime, the boy was able to draw the three dimensional figure. Proudly smiling, the boy did it and received the enthusiastic applause of his class.
In another study, Stigler and his colleagues gave American first graders an impossibly difficult math problem. After 30 minutes, the students stopped working, saying they could not do the work because it was beyond them. Their Japanese counterparts were given the same problem. After one hour, the researchers had to tell the students they had to stop because it was an impossible math problem. The students had to be let in on the fact this was a research project and that they would not be able to complete it. He had learned in his research that Asian educators often purposely make their students work a little beyond them so they get use to the challenge and working through it. Challenge and it’s role in developing ‘grit’ is an important component in a students educational and career success as proposed by educational writer Paul Tough.
Dr.Jin Li, who was quoted above, also looks at cultural learning differences in her work. She looks at two different conversations. In one, there is an eight year-old American boy and his mother. The mother is praising the boy’s love of reading. A great student, she tells him that smart people like to read books and they become smart adults who like to read books. In what she is saying, she indicates to the boy that his intelligence is the reason he has succeeded in school. This compares to the Taiwanese mother and her young son’s exchange. With this, the mother is praising her nine-year old son for winning a piano competition. But she connects his strong piano performance to his consistent practicing and the energy he put into it, even when it was very difficult and challenging.
Not saying one way is better than the other or is a preferable, both professors suggest there maybe something to take away from each other’s approach to and culture of learning. A strength of Eastern learning styles is that it places emphasis on the challenge and struggle, and working through it. A strength of Western learning style is that it places emphasis on individual contribution, whether it be intelligence or creativity, when it comes to learning and problem solving. When it comes to math and science, American educators and the American public have voiced concerned about Americans lagging behind Asian countries. When it comes to learning, Stigler discusses how many Asian educators worry about their students being robotic and unimaginative. By being aware of these differences, perhaps educators and parents alike can assign more value to both types of learning styles and appreciate their merits.
For other graphic representations of the differences between Western and Eastern social, psychological and cultural patterns the Infographic Portraits by Yang Liu provide an interesting perspective. Her ingenious East Meets West infographic series, provides perspectives on everything from differences in self-perception to evolution of transportation. The series originally done in Germany by Ms. Liu does not seem to be in print in English yet but there are sites/blogs on the internet (B six 12, Neversocial) that have printed the pictures that generally need no explanation