Education: West vs. East

From NPR, on a difference between East and West when it comes to “struggle”:

Stigler is now a professor of psychology at UCLA who studies teaching and learning around the world, and he says it was this small experience that first got him thinking about how differently East and West approach the experience of intellectual struggle.

“I think that from very early ages we [in America] see struggle as an indicator that you’re just not very smart,” Stigler says. “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.”

In Eastern cultures, Stigler says, it’s just assumed that struggle is a predictable part of the learning process. Everyone is expected to struggle in the process of learning, and so struggling becomes a chance to show that you, the student, have what it takes emotionally to resolve the problem by persisting through that struggle.

“They’ve taught them that suffering can be a good thing,” Stigler says. “I mean it sounds bad, but I think that’s what they’ve taught them.”

Granting that there is a lot of cultural diversity within East and West and it’s possible to point to counterexamples in each, Stigler still sums up the difference this way: For the most part in American culture, intellectual struggle in schoolchildren is seen as an indicator of weakness, while in Eastern cultures it is not only tolerated but is often used to measure emotional strength.

It’s a small difference in approach that Stigler believes has some very big implications.

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  • Jag

    My daughter is in a state Math and Science boarding high school for the academically gifted, and they are very clear (as they were in her last school) that the “A” students are the ones who sign up for tutoring because they feel they aren’t “getting it.” No struggle = no “A”

  • There’s an axiom accepted at least by some here: “Don’t work hard; work smart.” I’ve heard it from Christians. I relate that to the thought here.

    This thought is completely foreign to me. Over and over again we see struggle in scripture, even in Jesus’ life. And in real life. Faith involves struggle, if it’s real. But I’m saying this from just one perspective, and on one point.

  • On the intellectual side, I see this as just as foreign. To be sure, some have a wonderful gift that way in some respects, but with that gift they struggle. I think of Einstein.

  • PastorM

    Working out our salvation with fear and trembling sounds like struggle to me, not to mention actually following Jesus.

  • Jag – you’re lucky your daughter is in a school where struggle is valued.

    Over and over again, I see that we are a culture of instant gratification, and this impacts both our intellectual and spiritual development. I’m astonished by students who think that they can write a substantial, well thought out paper by pulling an all-nighter. That might work at the college level, but it won’t work forever, nor for anything of substantial weight and merit. Writing, like learning is a process – a wrestling of sorts with one’s mind, soul and the paper. “You mean it’s supposed to sometimes be hard? It’s supposed to take some time? Success isn’t instantaneous? Genius sometimes plants its seeds in initial failure? And sometimes the process is the only tangible reward?”Imagine that…..

  • Joe Canner

    No doubt American kids could stand to learn a thing or two about struggle, but it’s worth noting that the article also points out some problems with the Asian model. In their own words: “Our children are not creative. Our children do not have individuality. They’re just robots.” Like a lot of things, balance is key.

  • Joe Canner

    PastorM #4: I immediately thought of several theological parallels as well when I first heard this story. Those who don’t struggle with their faith seem to have difficulty understanding those who do, and are also at increased risk of a spiritual crisis when their faith is challenged.

  • Steve Robinson

    As a former pastor, business owner with lots of employees and now an educator (and half Chinese: An A- is a Chinese F)… yeah, the majority of my students don’t struggle. The solution to not “Getting it” is us dumbing down the material or grading easier or just taking a “D” because well, “D” stands for “Diploma” in our state.

  • I heard this report on NPR the other day and thought it was interesting. There is something really important about this. Whether we see struggle as something of value or something that is negative has many implications for families and for the church.