Dr. Gereboff's Head Notes
Struggling in Order To Learn
When I was an Education Fellow at Hebrew University, I took an intensive Hebrew language class called ulpan in order to qualify for regular university classes taught in Hebrew. After the first day of class, I went directly to the ulpan coordinator’s office and said “I think you placed me in the wrong class. I didn’t understand most of what was said in class today.” She responded, “You’re in the right class. You Americans all think that you need to understand everything all the time in class. If you did that you wouldn’t be learning much would you? You will probably understand 20% of what is being said right now and in a few months about 40% and by the end of the year 90%.“
With that insight, I returned to class the next day and allowed myself to not understand much of what was said by the instructor. From that day on, it became a game for me to try to understand more and more. The coordinator was right. With time, patience, and perseverance, my comprehension continued to grow, and I ultimately passed the Hebrew entrance exam for the University.
I think about this story often when I see a student select a book that is easy to read rather than one that might challenge...or a child who gives up after a few minutes when a game or subject is difficult. Similarly, the college student who selects a class that might be an “easy A” as opposed to one that might be difficult but that would offer interesting new insight exhibits this same aversion to struggle...to persist.
Was that Hebrew language coordinator correct about Americans having an aversion to struggle? A few years ago, an excellent report on NPR explored this question. http://www.npr.org/blogs/health/2012/11/12/164793058/struggle-for-smarts-how-eastern-and-western-cultures-tackle-learning
It considered the idea of “struggle” in education contrasting American and Asian classrooms. The author, Dr. Stigler, a professor of psychology at UCLA, was surprised by the practice in Japanese schools of teachers asking children who have difficulty solving a problem to come to the board to solve it there. The student’s classmates waited patiently and celebrated his success.
Stigler noted that in the United States, we call to the board the child who knows the answer. We see struggle as an indicator of “you’re not smart” (a phenomenon also noted by Carol Dweck in Mindsets), whereas struggle is understood as opportunity and part of the learning process in Asian societies.
We do tend to err in of smoothing the path to learning rather than in celebrating the struggle to learn. The news isn’t all bleak - the article also states that the East can learn much from us about teaching creativity and the West can learn from the East about “struggle”. Let’s encourage our children and students to persevere even when they feel challenged. It is one of the surest ways to success!
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