Jim Stigler was sitting in the back of a 4th grade math class in Japan in 1979. He was studying teaching methods as a graduate student at the University of Michigan. That one classroom experience profoundly shaped his perspective on teaching.
The lesson was on drawing a three-dimensional cube. The teacher perused the students’ efforts before singling out one boy to draw the cube on the board. Unlike an American school where the student with the most ability would be selected, the Japanese teacher sent the boy who struggled the most with the task.
The boy made his drawing and the teacher asked the class if got it right. “No” the class agreed. The teacher told him to try again. He struggled with another attempt and the teacher asked the class for their assessment. It was still not right. Stigler admits that he found himself beginning to perspire as he felt the embarrassment that his experiences in American classrooms had taught him.
The boy neither cowered nor burst into tears, but kept erasing his failure and attempting a new cube. By the end of the class his cube looked right. This time when the teacher asked the class for their opinion, they said, “He did it!” and broke out into applause. The boy returned to his seat with a smile and pride in his success.
Now a professor in psychology at UCLA studying teaching and learning internationally, Stigler identifies a distinction in the way the East and the West view intellectual struggle. “I think that from very early ages we [in America] see struggle as an indicator that you’re just not very smart. Whereas in Asian cultures they tend to see struggle more as an opportunity.”
Eastern culture treats struggle as part of the learning process, not an omen of the lack of inherent ability. Struggle allows a child to learn tenacity and persistence in solving a problem and achieving a goal, according to Stigler. The West tends to stigmatize struggle as a negative experience, often conditioning children to avoid the hard tasks or to concede too early, “I can’t do it.”
Jin Li, a professor at Brown University who has also devoted many years to this subject, has recorded conversations of American mothers with their children and Taiwanese mothers with their children. Li believes these interactions reveal basic assumptions about human nature and academic success that shapes the way the children approach struggle.
When an American child reads her first passage in a book, the mother will likely praise her daughter, “I am so proud of you. You are so smart.” A Taiwanese mother is more likely to respond, “You worked so hard to sound out your words. You didn’t give up even though it was difficult. I am very proud of you.” These contrasting approaches train the child to think about intelligence, struggle and success in very different ways.
Stigler conducted a study on first-graders, giving them a math problem impossible to solve. On average, the American children worked on the problem less than 30 seconds before telling the adults, “We haven’t learned this yet.” The Japanese children wrestled with the problem the entire hour. The researchers had to stop them and explain that the problem was impossible to solve. The children looked at them with disbelief.
Clearly there are exceptions to these habits. One can think of the athlete who is extolled for his exceptional hard work that compensated for his lack of natural ability and gave him success. Most people remember Michael Jordan for his work ethic as much as for his seven NBA titles. Struggle on the field of competition, however, does not always translate to the classroom, where intelligence usually overshadows effort.
Alix Spiegel reported this story on NPR and it now appears on NPR’s blog site under health news. One of the comments offered a corrective to the article. Josh Wilson writes, “As a resident of Japan and lecturer at a Japanese university, I’d like to refute the Japanophile perspective in this article. The US education system is far from perfect, but decent (not great) public schools produce far better learners and thinkers than in Japan.
“First, all of the examples above are from elementary school. None of the positive influence survives through 6 years of secondary education focused entirely on cramming for ever-more ridiculous entrance exams in classes of 40 students. Classes are teacher-fronted, slow, boring, lack engagement and discussion, and students don’t learn to become autonomous learners. Students are so used to being to told what to do that they never learn to think for themselves.
“I teach university sophomores. My students are bright and motivated, and while they may ‘work at a problem’ for a long time (look up ‘gaman’ for more about the cultural trait), their problem-solving skills, critical thinking, creativity, and communicative skills are uniformly bad -by far the worst of any group of students in Asia or beyond.
“I, like most of the foreign parents here, would not send my children through the Japanese school system.”
It would be important to note that Josh is very likely a Westerner and probably an American. His conclusions may be slanted in favor or his own culture. But even Li commented in the report that Asian educators share the same concern. “Our children are not creative. Our children do not have individuality. They’re just robots.”
People parent and teach according to their basic assumptions about human nature. These two cultures offer distinct views on humans. The East emphasizes the collective, the family or the community. The good of the group always take precedence over the good of the individual. The West elevates the individual to priority, frequently ignoring the good of the group for self-actualization or some other self- activity.
Now here’s the thing. Both of these beliefs have Christian roots. God has created each person uniquely and a healthy sense of personhood requires individuality. But God also created humans for loving relationships, to sacrifice the self for the benefit of others. Love does not forfeit individuality in its acts of sacrifice. And the community never loses when the individual responds to God’s individualized direction for his life. Both of these values can act in harmony.
We should always examine cultural values, especially our own, to determine their validity. Rarely is it a case of a simply black and white, wrong or right. We need to test our assumptions to see how they align with the real world. For this reason, it is good when we are challenged by other cultures.
The Creator of the universe and Author of life in every nation has ordered life around himself, where harmony and peace exist in its fullest sense.