A Different Approach to the Classroom

Growing up in the modern West, most of us have been conditioned to think that the best students are those who don’t struggle. Successful people are those who easily achieve straight A’s, who can get their homework done as quickly as possible, and who rarely have to deal with unpleasant realities such as frustration, struggle, confusion or failure. The notion that struggle is a sign of low-ability is such a part of the very air we breathe that it is rarely questioned and permeates the culture of the classroom.

In a recent TSM article I discussed how these American assumptions about struggle are very different to the mindset prevalent throughout many Asian cultures:

“Recently I’ve begun reading some of the research on cross-cultural psychology in various academic journals, with the aim of exploring how the concept of struggle is approached in different societies. In the process of these studies I learned something very interesting: what people in one culture think of as failing, people in other cultures think of as learning.

“Let me ask you a question. Is a good student one who struggles at school or one who doesn’t? Previously, I might have been tempted to answer that smart students are the ones who can get their work done quickly and easily with a minimum of struggle. Like many of us, I’ve tended to default to the typical American view of learning. In our quick-fix, fast-food culture, it’s easy to just assume that the best students are those who can get their work done without any frustration and struggle. But I’ve had my thinking challenged by looking at learning in Asian cultures, where the sign of a good student is one who can struggle for a long time with the same problem, task or difficulty. These different orientations towards struggle make a huge difference in the culture of the classroom…

“[Research has shown] that American classrooms were tending to change the content in order to make its presentation more interesting to the students, while in Japan the focus was on changing the students to make them more attentive and focused. ‘Japanese tend to stress developing adaptive dispositions; Americans try to make the learning context more attractive.’

“One of the purposes of Americans trying to make the learning context more attractive is to minimize the difficulty and struggle facing students…. By contrast, the Japanese model of developing adaptive dispositions nurtures students into seeing that a subject—mathematics for example—is inherently interesting for its own sake. …The emphasis on developing internal rather than external sources of motivation fits within the Japanese framework of a good student being one that can develop internal virtues through struggle and self-discipline.

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“Since the sign of a successful student in America is someone who can get his or her work done with a minimum of struggle, classrooms are tailored to make learning as fun as possible. But in Asia the sign of a good student is precisely the opposite: it is the students who show they can persevere through struggle that are believed to be destined for great things later in life.”

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