Do Asian Kids Embrace Struggle in Learning and American Kids Give Up?

China students

Here’s an interesting article from NPR.  It discusses research from Asian and Western culture on how our kids approach learning. 

Jim Stigler, a professor of psychology at UCLA, has studied the differences in how East and West approach the experience of intellectual struggle.  He observed how in Japanese classrooms teachers consciously design tasks that are slightly beyond the capabilities of the students they teach and actively point out that students accomplish tasks through hard work and struggle.  In the US, the focus is more on intelligence as an acquired skill.

To paraphrase Stigler quoted in "Struggle for Smarts?  How Eastern and Western Cultures Tackle Learning":

"We did a study many years ago with first-grade students," he tells me. "We decided to go out and give the students an impossible math problem to work on, and then we would measure how long they worked on it before they gave up."

The American students "worked on it less than 30 seconds on average and then they basically looked at us and said, 'We haven't had this,' " he says.

But the Japanese students worked for the entire hour on the impossible problem. "And finally we had to stop the session because the hour was up. And then we had to debrief them and say, 'Oh, that was not a possible problem; that was an impossible problem!' and they looked at us like, 'What kind of animals are we?' " Stigler recalls.

"Think about that [kind of behavior] spread over a lifetime," he says. "That's a big difference."

Stigler 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.

Jin Li, a professor at Brown University, who also studies and compares the learning beliefs of Asian and US children, points out it’s good to examine how they think about where academic excellence comes from.  Looking at conversations between American mothers and their children and Taiwanese mothers and their children, Li points to conversations where American mothers speak to intelligence being the cause of success at school and Taiwanese mothers point to the process of persistence through challenge that leads to success.

What do you think?  In your personal experiences, are the learning processes of East and West that markedly different?

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