Responding to "Struggle For Smarts? ..." below.
Underlying the contrast between Eastern and Western modes
of responding to "intellectual struggles" is the commonplace Western confusion
between *intelligence* and *brightness* ... the latter being commonly measured
by (culturally biased) "IQ scores."
Intelligence is a matter of what information is owned, and
how effectively it is used. It evolves through developmental maturation
coupled with inner and outer experiences. It also is relative to particular
arenas of information and thought.
Brightness is a matter of "smartness" ... how easily or
rapidly one expands functional personal intelligence. There are some who believe
that brightness, too, is relative ... perhaps in the form of
It is conceivable that many professional mathematicians
... who have gained remarkably exceptional intelligence in their respective
arenas of specialization ... actually were not unusually bright. In contrast,
humans who are very bright might accrue little intelligence [or might accrue
much intelligence, about the wrong things, or about things of little use or
value to themselves or to others].
It presently appears that anyone who is bright enough to
effectively communicate in the English language [?? IQ rating = 80+??] also is
bright enough to effectively function as a professional mathematician ... if
duly educated through a curriculum that adequately accommodates such
persons' potentials. [It now is certain that the "average" person
uses less than 5% of inborn personal capacity for functional
intelligence. Effective education in any particular arena of intelligence
can greatly increase that percentage in that arena ... thereby
enabling even the not-so-bright learner to "excel" in that
Some Eastern cultures seem to have recognized that
the continual expansion of functional personal intelligence (in any arena) is
mostly a matter of attitude and emotionless persistence. The Western focus
on comparative brightness is highly judgmental, strongly bears on the learner's
self-image, and inhibits the learning of school mathematics ...
whenever it makes no personal common sense to students. Also,
mythical beliefs about students' inadequate
aptitudes are widely used for excusing non-learning and
It is unlikely that Western cultures will soon
outgrow their shackles to students' brightness. However, self-concepts
about comparative brightness do not seem to deter children's pursuits
of video games. So, it is conceivable that
trends toward independent learning (e.g. via computers) eventually will result
in greater focus on the learning-challenges ... while lessening the degree
to which efforts for learning and instruction are inhibited by comparative
judgments about students' brightness.
Information about explorations of such an issue could
be very helpful to the Tulsa-OK Mathematical Literacy Project. Please
provide, as possible. Thanks.
Sent: Tuesday, November 20, 2012 1:02 PM
Subject: How Eastern And Western Cultures Tackle
NOTE: You can hear the story at
Struggle For Smarts? How Eastern And Western Cultures Tackle
By Alix Spiegel
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
"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
"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."
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
"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
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
It's a small difference in approach that Stigler believes has
some very big implications.
Stigler is not the first psychologist to notice
the difference in how East and West approach the experience of intellectual
Jin Li is a professor at Brown University who, like Stigler, compares
the learning beliefs of Asian and U.S. children. She says that to understand why
these two cultures view struggle so differently, it's good to step back and
examine how they think about where academic excellence comes from.
For the past decade or so, Li has been recording conversations between
American mothers and their children, and Taiwanese mothers and their children.
Li then analyzes those conversations to see how the mothers talk to the children
She shared with me one conversation that she had recorded
between an American mother and her 8-year-old son.
The mother and the son
are discussing books. The son, though young, is a great student who loves to
learn. He tells his mother that he and his friends talk about books even during
recess, and she responds with this:
Mother: Do you know that's what smart people do, smart grown-ups?
Child: I know ... talk about books.
Mother: Yeah. So that's a pretty smart thing to do to talk about a
Child: Hmmm mmmm.
It's a small exchange - a moment. But Li says, this drop of
conversation contains a world of cultural assumptions and
Essentially, the American mother is communicating to her son
that the cause of his success in school is his intelligence. He's smart - which,
Li says, is a common American view.
"The idea of intelligence is believed
in the West as a cause," Li explains. "She is telling him that there is
something in him, in his mind, that enables him to do what he does."
in many Asian cultures, Li says, academic excellence isn't linked with
intelligence in the same way. "It resides in what they do, but not who they are,
what they're born with," she says.
She shares another conversation, this
time between a Taiwanese mother and her 9-year-old son. They are talking about
the piano - the boy won first place in a competition, and the mother is
explaining to him why.
"You practiced and practiced with lots of energy,"
she tells him. "It got really hard, but you made a great effort. You insisted on
"So the focus is on the process of persisting
through it despite the challenges, not giving up, and that's what leads to
success," Li says.
All of this matters because the way you conceptualize
the act of struggling with something profoundly affects your actual
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.
And Stigler feels in the real world it is easy to
see the consequences of these different interpretations of struggle.
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."
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.
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."
Not East Versus West
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 has its 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. 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.
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 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.
the meantime, he and the other psychologists doing this work say there are more
differences to map - differences that allow both cultures to more clearly see
who they are.
PHOTO SIDEBAR: Chinese schoolchildren during lessons at a
classroom in Hefei, east China's Anhui province, in 2010. STR/AFP/Getty
Jerry P. Becker
Dept. of Curriculum & Instruction
625 Wham Drive
Mail Code 4610
Phone: (618) 453-4241