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Why Learning Is Not About The Struggle, But The Approach

Have you ever struggled with a math problem, or getting through a stream of consciousness novel?  If your answer is “no”, then you can probably stop reading now. But, if you’re answer is “yes,” then know this: struggling is not a bad thing – it’s how you deal with the struggle that makes the biggest difference.

During his graduate studies in Japan, UCLA Professor of Psychology Jim Stigler first observed that students who struggled in the classroom didn’t hide it, and didn’t feel ashamed. Teachers and students alike viewed struggling as a natural learning process.  Professor Stigler saw that persistency was what counted. It didn’t matter so much that a student “didn’t get it,” what mattered more was that a student didn’t give up.

“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.” So said Professor Stigler in an NPR interview on November 13th.

Brown University Professor Jin Li has also conducted field research on learning beliefs between Asian and U.S. students and noted one distinct difference: Western students are brought up to believe that intelligence is a “cause” (it’s more about intrinsic ability than behavior), whereas Asian students are taught that success is a result of what they do, not who they are.

This difference puts struggling in the classroom in a new light; it’s not about the capacity to learn, but about one’s inner mettle to tackle (and continue tackling) a challenge that matters the most. Professor Stigler: “Could we change our views of learning and place more emphasis on struggle? I just think that especially in schools, we don’t create enough of those experiences, and then we don’t point them out clearly enough.”

To listen or read the interview in its entirety, go here.

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