Stigler is a current UCLA professor of psychology. He writes, "I think that from very early ages we [in America] see struggle as an indicator that you're just not very smart... 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."
Hmm... how often do we put struggling students on the spot and encourage them to continue working in front of the class until their successful, even an hour later? Or do we more often choose a successful student to demonstrate how a task is done?
One more study by Stigler... he gave an impossible math task to a group of first graders and gave them an hour to solve it. American students worked an average of 30 seconds before giving up. Japanese students worked for the entire hour. They had to be debriefed and told the task was impossible. What does that say about our students' ability to push through difficult tasks?
I can totally relate to that little experiment. I see it in my class every day; so many students want an immediate answer and grow easily frustrated when sustained mental effort is required. I gave my students a simple word search last week to practice plural nouns, but many of them resorted to copying off a neighbor or raising their hands for my help within minutes. That wasn't a difficult task, merely one that required persistence and effort. I did it on purpose to help teach them some stamina. My students are third graders!
I'm not saying our students should struggle all the time, and certainly not for hours on end, but I wonder if we could do more to encourage more sustained effort? Stigler says Japanese 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." Don't many of us do that? I hope so....
There is a positive though. Compared to Asian countries our students are more creative and have more individuality. Those are traits I would never want to give up, but couldn't we do both?
I know this isn't my typical post, but it's something I do feel passionately about. I feel like we aren't necessarily growing thinkers in our classrooms as well as we could be. Does our society still value a little struggle?