Struggle as a means to success

I heard this story on NPR earlier this week and had to share: it’s an interesting take on what the path to academic success can look like from a non-American cultural perspective. I loved this idea: that in some other cultures–in Japan, in this story–students’ academic struggles can be viewed extremely differently in the classroom, and with vastly different results.

[The researcher, Jim Stigler] 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.

“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.

It was fascinating to me to imagine what this would have looked like in an American classroom. Clearly, the kid who already knew how to draw the cube would go to the board and draw it, end of story. But what would the take-home lesson the day have been? For the capable cube-drawer, this might have been validating: it might have been the chance for the budding artist to shine in a way that she never had before.  But it also might have been yawn-inducing for the kid who usually got all the questions right. “Yep, I can draw a cube. What’s the big deal?” The experience that Stigler witnessed, though, was a transformative educational experience: the boy was struggling and he was thrust into a stressful but supported situation that he had to navigate. He had to learn to draw that cube, right then and there, and his teacher and his classmates were there to help. The moment was stressful to be sure, but its conclusion was rewarding: he got applause for a transformation from inability to capability. That’s an extraordinary opportunity for a student and for a teacher.

This made me wonder: does the American cultural tendency away from these sorts of stressful situations make us lose the chance for such transformational moments? Without a doubt, great teachers all over the United States manage to engineer transformative educational experiences in their classrooms. But are we missing out on more chances for these transformations?

I know that the best teachers I’ve had have been the ones who’ve challenged me and who’d made me unafraid to make mistakes. I wonder if these very-visible moments of trial and error really could help students become more resilient and more persistent in their school work and in their lives.

Read the article and listen to the story here. 

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