Are you more creative or more persistent in learning and solving difficult problems? How media portrays culture is different between the East and the West when it comes to how people learn new skills and develop their abilities. An excellent November 12, 2012 online audio file and article by Alix Spiegel from National Public Radio, “Struggle For Smarts? How Eastern And Western Cultures Tackle Learning,” shows readers how the “struggle for smarts” in East Asian cultures differs from the process of learning from Western cultures. Listen to the Story.
Is struggle in your culture seen as a sign of lower ability? Or is struggle in your culture seen as an indicator of opportunity achieved through persistence? Do you have the strength to persist long enough to overcome the problem? Why does Eastern culture see the struggle to learn so differently than Western culture? You have the old adage that the Chinese alphabet character for ‘crisis’ is the same alphabet character word that reads ‘opportunity.’ Does struggle affect your behavior as strength–facing down challenge? Or do you view struggle as a sign of weakness in a subject?
Did your teacher tell you to take the subjects in school you were best at, or major in the subject you are weakest at until you master the subject, for example such as math, technology, and engineering or science in order to have an outcome that may lead to more opportunities to find financial independence in jobs the market demands than if you only elected the subjects in which you excelled, such as history, languages, art, or journalism?
Did you take the path of only subjects in which you excelled or liked because you were told to follow your interests? Or did you take subjects that made you struggle to pass so you could have the best chance of obtaining an income that paid at least enough to survive?
For example, the media reports often not so much on local geniuses or even how average students make it ‘big’ in the real world, but instead seems to focus on reporting how street drug or prescription drug problems are growing in American college dormitories, especially among young women who have the money to pay for the drugs.
Western media, here in the USA report that college students living in dormitories may have drug problems, either with prescription or street drugs. Many of these students are females with enough money to purchase drugs for a variety of reasons, most of them more psychological than financial. See, Daughter of Jon Bon Jovi among two Hamilton College students arrested after alleged heroin overdose, by WKTV News. In the Western cultures, any given college’s first concern is always for the safety of its students.
The struggle for ‘smarts’
In East Asian cultures, media reports about students usually focus on the struggle for smarts, that is the battle to learn, sometimes against all odds, to acquire skills. In the NPR article by Alix Spiegel, the focus in on what happened in a fourth-grade math class. For example, the articles opens with the following paragraphs: “In 1979, when Jim Stigler was still a graduate student at the University of Michigan, he went to Japan to research teaching methods and found himself sitting in the back row of a crowded fourth-grade math class.
“The teacher was trying to teach the class how to draw three-dimensional cubes on paper,” Stigler explains, “and one kid was just totally having trouble with it. His cube looked all cockeyed, so the teacher said to him, ‘Why don’t you go put yours on the board?’ So right there I thought, ‘That’s interesting! He took the one who can’t do it and told him to go and put it on the board.’ “
American classrooms usually send their best students to to board to put up their work
Asian classrooms may send their most struggling students to the board to encourage persistence in solving a problem until it’s solved correctly. Western nations usually send their best students to the board to write up their answers. Sometimes you have teachers in the U.S.A. talking to the brightest students and neglecting the students slowest to learn. Compare that with some Asian countries that send their least-performing students to the board to spend the entire classroom time slowly solving the problem by many different tries, until the problem is solved.
The teacher may ask the students, “Is this student solving it correctly?” The student learns by persistence of doing it over and over during the class time. And the weakest student may be given the most time and attention to struggle until he or she learns to solve the problem or puzzle. Students also give feedback when the student gets on the right track to solving the problem, such as a math question or a working with a cube drawing at the board.
Stigler, in the NPR article, compared the Japanese student with the American student. The main difference was that the class contributed their comments on whether or not the Japanese student was getting the drawing/answer closer to being right or not. But the teacher let the Japanese student continue putting up the student’s version of the drawing.
Students in Japan were allowed to continue their work with equal time given to other students by trying different solutions to the problem, such as drawing a cube correctly
Because the teacher in the Japanese classroom let the student continue his work with equal time that he’d give any other student, with a right or wrong answer, the student kept trying different solutions to the problem. By the end of the class, the student had drawn the cube correctly on his own.
When the teacher asked the children how the drawing looked, they all replied “he did it.” And that was followed by applause. The kid who tried so hard smiled and returned to his seat, proud that he solved the problem after all, and on his own without anyone giving him the answer.
Teaching people how to learn
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, according to the NPR article.
The big difference is that in the USA, struggle to solve a problem is not perceived by society as work or energy that leads to finally a solution being arrived at and the problem or issue being solved. No, instead, in the USA, struggle is perceived as not being so smart, as being so lacking in quickness of thought or wit that the student naturally doesn’t “get it.” And so, the student may be counseled to aim for lower or lesser goals.
How struggle is viewed differently in the East compared to the West
The difference between Japan and the USA, the article reports, is that struggle in the West is viewed as lower ability to solve a particular problem, say for example, verbal, spatial, or mathematical reasoning. Not so in Japan and in other East Asian cultures where struggle is seen as an opportunity. In Eastern cultures, struggle is seen as the learning process or at least a part of the process of learning.
When a student struggles in Asian culture, the student learns and gets the chance to show what it takes to solve a problem through persistence. In China and Japan, persistence to learn could be seen as perseverance or struggle. Everyone is expected to learn by striving and struggling. The struggle itself is a way of showing that a student has the emotional maturity to persist and work through the struggle. Students in Asia are taught that in a way suffering may have a good outcome.
Also you won’t find too many media articles emphasizing the higher rate of breakdowns, suicide, or mental problems, stress, and physical burnout from Asian students who work too long and try too hard. But you’ll find lots of media articles on Western students taking street or prescription drugs in their dorm and overdosing, perhaps from stress.
Culture diversity and competition
With so much cultural diversity in Asia between East, Central and West Asia, intellectual struggle is seen as the path to learning which leads to success. In the West, such as the USA and Europe, for kids in elementary school, intellectual struggle is seen as weakness in intelligence. Compared to Eastern cultures, struggle with learning a subject is tolerated and often used to measure emotional maturity and emotional strength. Intelligence often is seen as strength not only of persistence, of sticking to the goal until the student passes the course or learns the subject.
The question is whether a culture, for example, in the West permits a student to give up too soon, perhaps based on one test of smarts that may not be measured accurately. On the other hand, in some cultures passing a test is what allows someone to go to a university in his or her own country, usually at less cost than going to a foreign university, say in the USA which costs more money. On the other hand, some employers pay for foreign students to study here, paying the higher tuition rates.
Learning beliefs differ from East to West
The NPR article also mentions Jin Li, a professor at Brown University who, like Stigler, compares the learning beliefs of Asian and U.S. children. She says that to understand why these two cultures view struggle so differently, it’s good to step back and examine how they think about from where academic excellence comes.
For the past decade or so, Li has been recording conversations between American mothers and their children, and Taiwanese mothers and their children. Li then analyzes those conversations to see how the mothers talk to the children about school.
On what is success based?
The difference between Western and Eastern culture when it comes to learning is that in the West, parents may give kids the impression that success in the classroom is based on what a student gets on an I.Q. test or other test of how smart he or she is at solving various spatial, mathematical, or verbal reasoning problems. Intelligence is not a cause of success.
In the East, intelligence is in what a student actually does, not what smarts they’ve inherited that shows up on a test of reasoning such as an I.Q. test. You are judged successful by what you do. That’s the message given to elementary school kids in Eastern cultures.
Eastern culture focuses on learning by persistence and practice
What you do is more important than with what smarts you were born. If you succeed, it’s because you practiced enough, you persisted even though you’re challenged by competition. The idea is to make an effort and didn’t give up. That’s more important than even being creative at times. The more you struggle to solve a problem, the more the effort changes your behavior.
Struggle indicates strength — an ability to face down the challenges that inevitably occur when you are trying to learn something. Struggle doesn’t indicate you don’t have a high enough I.Q. or ‘smarts’ to learn a subject or solve a problem, particularly in elementary school. Students in Eastern cultures are willing to accept struggle quicker than someone else’s label that they’re just not born with enough brains to solve a problem that the majority of the other kids in their elementary school class understand how to solve.
It’s all about consequences of how you see struggle in your own culture
Students tend to give up too quickly when it comes to solving math problems in Western cultures such as the USA. In a study mentioned in the NPR article, the American students worked on the math problem less than 30 seconds on average. Instead of persisting to solve the problem step by step, most of the students told their instructor, “We haven’t had this.”
Compare this attitude to the Japanese students who worked for the entire hour on the impossible problem. The hour was up, but they still didn’t finish working on it. They didn’t give up. The instructor finally told the students that it was impossible to solve the problem in the first place. The big picture is when you look at persistence of students in any given culture during many decades, it makes a difference if the students are dealt with honestly by their instructors and not given problems to solve known to be impossible to solve.
Different cultures all have their own strengths and weaknesses
Westerners worry about competition. Easterners worry that they’re not creative enough or individualistic enough. Easterners worry about being too much like robots. The issue is it’s hard to change your culture if you’re not even aware of how your culture is different from others.
It’s almost as if you have a choice between creativity and individuality versus being able to solve math and science problems that require thinking more like the next person in your class, that is to emphasize struggling rather than creating with originality that emphasizes individual thinking.
Japanese teachers design tasks that are slightly beyond the capabilities of the students
Students in those classrooms studied are set up to experience struggling with something just outside their reach. Finally, when the students come up with the correct answer, they teachers emphasize to them that they accomplish the correct answer by working hard and struggling.
In some Western classrooms, some students are encouraged to be imaginative, innovative, creative, entrepreneurial in aptitude and focus on developing original ideas, for example, designing faster technology for practical purposes or creating new forms of art and music. Dissertations sometimes are graded for originality and research rather than repeating studies already done.
Mapping differences between cultures when it comes to classroom learning
What psychologists such as those in the NPR article are doing is mapping differences between cultures. That way the various cultures can look at how they differ on the map in learning and solving problems. After all, with seven or more intelligences, learning can combine creativity, ingenuity, imagination, innovation, foresight, insight, and hindsight with individuality…and at the same time include learning by persistence of struggle almost as much as there’s persistence of time. The point is as much as cultures differ, so do media reporting the differences.
As far as the USA, the question is do we as a society emphasize individuality and creativity or persistence and struggle when it comes to learning new subjects and competing with all those students in the next college seat from countries where persistence and struggle are emphasized? Learning shouldn’t be given up too soon if a problem isn’t quickly solved. As far as the media, the answer may be “stick with it.” You may learn something new to remember.
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One World Academy – Intelligence and Creativity