Struggling to learn

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Chinese schoolchildren during lessons at a classroom in Hefei, east China’s Anhui province, in 2010. (STR/AFP/Getty Images)

In advisory today we listened to a short audio from NPR on the notion of struggling in western culture as a sign of not being smart versus in the east where struggling to solve problems shows you have what it takes to persist and succeed. In the west smartness is seen as something you bring to the work you do, something in your genes and DNA, whereas in the east smartness is placed on how tenacious, determined, and tireless you are in pursuing the right answer. The students were particularly attentive to the story.

I asked them at its end if it were true. Did they feel that what was “smart” was something they brought to class and it was distant from the notion of struggling to find success? I think they, in fact, had never thought about academic success in any other way. DT said you seemed smarter if you hardly had to study for a test. Smart kids were the ones who spent less time doing homework, he continued. SB added that sometimes the smart ones were the ones who didn’t do homework at all and still did well on tests and quizzes. AV shook his head slowly and meaningfully in recognition of how he himself thinks about the quality of his own learning. AV tends to give up early when work is hard. He hadn’t really thought about the fact that struggling could bring success even though lots of teachers and parents consistently tell him it would help. He is culturally bound to the idea that it is all about his genetics. He feels it is a sign of weakness to struggle.

I asked if they felt their parents helped to soften struggling for them. Did their parents try to protect them, with all the best of intentions, against struggling too much? Most claimed their parents urged them to work harder though I’m not sure they could really answer this question, since most of them do not fully know what struggling really means. I see some of their parents coddling them a bit too much, afraid to let them fail, trip up, make mistakes. I see this impacting their resilience to push through work that is hard. There was a study that was done, referred to in the report we listened to today, which gave first graders an impossible math problem to solve.  The American students gave up after 30 seconds. The Japanese students worked for an hour and the testers had to stop the test because the Japanese students would have gone on much longer trying to solve it.

We have a student from China in our advisory who spoke about how everybody’s grades in China are publicly posted for all to see. There is never an attempt to shield a particular student from the reactions of their peers to the work they have done. This is supposed to motivate the students with the lower grades to work harder. He likes the American system though, he shared, because he feels it is more creative and flexible.

There are clearly upsides and downsides to each of these approaches to struggling which is clearly discussed in the report. But I truly believe it was the first time that some of my students understood there was another way of comprehending what “smart” is. I think they were most impressed by the fact that it is a cultural understanding, not a biological one. I’m not sure the notion of sweating a bit more in the work that they do as a strategy for success will register deeply (though I wish it would), but I did think I saw a sparkle in AV’s eyes during the discussion. Maybe I was just projecting what was going on in my own mind. AV and I have talked about this before, but maybe what I thought I saw connecting was just wishful thinking. However, I thought I caught his eye twice in our conversation today, caught his eye looking like he got it.

Here’s to struggle and its sometimes painful manifestations. Here’s to AV and the success that is fully within his grasp.

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