Jim Stigler credits his experience in Japan, while still a graduate student, with the realization that shaped his entire research career. While watching an elementary school student struggle to draw a three-dimensional representation of a cube on the blackboard, he was reminded of how embarrassing it would have been to be singled out as a struggling student in a classroom back home in the United States. Yet in Japan, there was no stigma attached to academic struggle at all. Instead, the student toiled with the cube until he got it right — and then he was rewarded for his effort by the applause of his classmates who witnessed his numerous attempts and willingness to try again and again.
Stigler said watching that kid was what first turned his mind to how differently Western and Eastern cultures view academic struggles. It has been many years since that experience in Japan in 1979, yet Stigler, now a tenured professor at University of California – Los Angeles, still recalls the lessons it taught him as he continues his research into approaches to education around the world.
"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 the East, there is not stigma associated with a struggle. It is an expected and accepted part of the process of learning. As a matter of fact, struggling in public wins students regard from their peers. Admitting that something is difficult and yet accomplishing it anyway proves that you are emotionally ready for adulthood.
Jin Li, a professor at Brown University, also studies the differences between East and West when it comes to learning. To get a clearer idea of those differences, for the past decade Li has been collecting snippets of conversation between American and Taiwanese mothers and their kids. By comparing them, she hopes to pin point the cultural biases underlying each approach.
So far, her analysis has shown that in conversations as well as in actions, American mothers are communicating to their children that their success in school comes from their intelligence. Taiwanese mothers, on the other hand, tend to praise effort — not outcome. It isn't that outcome is unimportant; rather, when parsing credit for a success, most of it goes to the struggle in achieving it rather than native talent or intelligence.
All of this matters because the way you conceptualize the act of struggling with something profoundly affects your actual behavior. Obviously if struggle indicates weakness — a lack of intelligence — it makes you feel bad, and so you're less likely to put up with it. But if struggle indicates strength — an ability to face down the challenges that inevitably occur when you are trying to learn something — you're more willing to accept it.