On the importance of struggling

We often tend to regard students struggling to understand something as just not very smart. Teachers will deliberately not single them out and not interrogate them so as not to draw the other students’ attention on them, as they see such interrogations as a sort of public humiliation. In some instances, singling out struggling students would even qualify as an act of torture. We’ve all seen films with 1950s sadistic teachers who interrogate struggling students for long painful moments. These monsters are nothing but classroom executioners!

Struggling students make us feel sorry and powerless. They’ve often made themselves almost invisible and the only students we notice are those who never struggle. Their quick effortless answers prove they’re not used to struggling. Naturally, they’ll never want to break a sweat for anything and will continue to do what they’re already good at. The struggling ones will often accept the idea that because they’re struggling while others never are, it must be because they’re not meant to do what they’re struggling to do.

As parents we believe we should teach our children to be confident by always telling them they are doing great and are fantastic. We think there’s no such thing as too much praise because if they have enough affection and can build enough self-confidence from an early age on, then they’ll have the strength to do anything. We believe we can build a shield against failure…

But we can’t. And we’re wrong. So wrong. The teachers are wrong too. Teachers who give struggling pupils “lavish praise” could make them even less likely to succeed, research into classroom tactics has suggested.

Struggling is an opportunity to build confidence because to make your way with effort and win a battle is so much more rewarding than to have it easy.

Jim Stigler, a professor of psychology at UCLA, concluded that struggle was even an educational necessity. He studied the differences between Western teaching methods and Eastern teaching methods and found the Eastern way is the right way.

I think that from very early ages we 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.” Because in Eastern cultures 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.

In 1979, Jim Stigler went to Japan to research teaching methods and found himself sitting in the back row of a crowded fourth-grade math class. Here’s what he witnessed:

“The teacher was trying to teach the class how to draw three-dimensional cubes on paper 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.

The Programme for International Assessment (Pisa) results show that Asian countries outperform the rest of the world, with Shanghai, Singapore, Hong Kong, Taiwan, South Korea, Macau and Japan amongst the top performing countries and economies. Students in Shanghai perform so well in maths that the OECD report compared their scoring to the equivalent of nearly three years of schooling above most OECD countries.

We thought we could find consolation in the idea that these top-performing children were probably a lot less happy than our low-achieving children, or more prone to suicide, or just not as confident as their more spoiled Western counterparts…

But are they?

If struggling is a badge of honour and you get a lot of praise for your effort, then you will learn to like the effort. If it’s not only ok but even praiseworthy to struggle and continue anyway, then there’s nothing you won’t start.

Here’s something to ponder about: lavishing praise on our kids when they have not done much to deserve it may in fact prevent them from learning how to struggle.