Support Provided ByLearn More

The Science of Smart: Seeing Struggle As An Opportunity

The Secret Life of Scientists and EngineersThe Secret Life of Scientists and Engineers

Receive emails about upcoming NOVA programs and related content, as well as featured reporting about current events through a science lens.

This season, we’re thrilled to feature the work of Annie Murphy Paul, a writer who helps people understand how we learn and how we can do it better. Her Brilliant Blog features the latest research in cognitive science, psychology and neuroscience, revealing the simple and surprising techniques that can help us learn to be smarter.

Support Provided ByLearn More
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, Alix Spiegel of NPR reports:

“‘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.”

Stigler knew that in American classrooms, it was usually the best kid in the class who was invited to the board. And so he watched with interest as the Japanese student dutifully came to the board and started drawing, but still couldn’t complete the cube. Every few minutes, the teacher would ask the rest of the class whether the kid had gotten it right, and the class would look up from their work, and shake their heads no. And as the period progressed, Stigler noticed that he — Stigler — was getting more and more anxious.

‘I realized that I was sitting there starting to perspire,’ he says, ‘because I was really empathizing with this kid. I thought, “This kid is going to break into tears!”‘

But the kid didn’t break into tears. Stigler says the child continued to draw his cube with equanimity. ‘And at the end of the class, he did make his cube look right! And the teacher said to the class, “How does that look, class?” And they all looked up and said, ‘He did it!’ And they broke into applause.’ The kid smiled a huge smile and sat down, clearly proud of himself.

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.” (Read more here .)

I love the story that starts off Alix’s report—it captures so vividly the value of celebrating effort. In our culture we are so reluctant to allow kids to struggle, which means that our children never get to experience the well-earned feeling of pride and accomplishment felt by that little boy.