NPR: While students in eastern cultures are willing to struggle to learn, students in western cultures are generally not

If you are looking for a single reason why students from eastern cultures are “better” at math and science than western students, here it is:  Students from eastern cultures are willing to struggle with a learning task, while students from western cultures see struggle as a sign of weakness.

So reports Alix Spiegel on National Public Radio this morning.  Spiegel talked with UCLA’s James Stigler and Brown’s Jin Li to assemble this story.  The bottom line?

This is not to imply that the Eastern way of interpreting struggle — or anything else — is better than the Western way, or vice-versa. Each have their strengths and weaknesses, which both sides know. Westerns tend to worry that their kids won’t be able to compete against Asian kids who excel in many areas but especially in math and science. Jin Li says that educators from Asian countries have their own set of worries. “‘Our children are not creative. Our children do not have individuality. They’re just robots. You hear the educators from Asian countries express that concern, a lot,'” she notes.

So, is it possible for one culture to adopt the beliefs of another culture if they see that culture producing better results?

Both Stigler and Li think that changing culture is hard, but that it’s possible to think differently in ways that can help. “Could we change our views of learning and place more emphasis on struggle?” Stigler asks. ” Yeah.”

For example, Stigler says, in the Japanese classrooms that he’s studied, teachers consciously design tasks that are slightly beyond the capabilities of the students they teach, so the students can actually experience struggling with something just outside their reach. Then, once the task is mastered, the teachers actively point out that the student was able to accomplish it through the students hard work and struggle.

“And 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.”

But we can — Stigler says.

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