A Springboard to Accomplishment November 13th, 2012
When we are being honest we will admit that our culture isn’t perfect. This is true of every culture on the planet. We all have our strengths, but we also have our weaknesses. And unless we are willing to cop to those weaknesses, they will continue to plague us. I started thinking about this yesterday after listening to this piece on Morning Edition about Eastern vs. Western perspectives on struggle.
The piece begins with a poignant description of a fourth grade classroom in Japan. As the children are being taught to draw three-dimensional cubes on two-dimensional paper it is the child who is having the most trouble with the lesson who is selected to do his work on the board. Reporter Alix Spiegel aptly notes that in the U.S. this would be considered cruel and unusual. We would never want to publicly humiliate a child by announcing his failure to grasp the material.
In the Japanese classroom, though, the reaction is vastly different. As the child fails to get it right and repeatedly keeps trying, the other students patiently wait (apparently without any kind of teasing or mockery – that alone impressed me a great deal) until he finally mastered the cube, at which point his fellow students broke out into applause. In Eastern cultures this kind of struggle is part and parcel of the learning process; something to be embraced and conquered rather than a source of shame or inadequacy.
My children are growing up smack dab in the middle of America. We’re doing our best to expose our kids to a variety of cultures, and to help them understand at a core level that there are lots of different approaches to life. The fact remains, though, that in this part of the country long-standing cultural norms are strong and not often diluted by influences from other cultures. We will have to work hard to infiltrate those norms with awareness of different paths. This may be easy enough when another culture’s way of doing something is more fun or interesting. But getting kids to sign up for more struggle is going to be a tough sell.
Already IEP is reluctant to keep after something that he finds tricky. When a sweater sleeve gets turned wrong-side out he comes to me to right it. When he gets to the final few bites of oatmeal in the bottom of the bowl he asks for help in scooping them out. And far too often (work- and school-day mornings do not lend themselves to embracing struggle…) I oblige him. There are times, though, when I decline. When he can’t find a puzzle piece and wants me to help him look. When he turns a backwards shirt around on his own because I’m in the shower. When he cuts his food with the side of his fork because I’m busy feeding his brother. And in these situations, when he figures it out for himself, his pride and satisfaction are palpable.
I try in these moments to point out to him how capable he is, and how good it feels to do something successfully even though it was hard. I think I need to step back even further, though. Explaining to a four-year-old in abstract terms that “Isn’t it nice to have a genuine sense of accomplishment?” won’t get us to a place where he fully embraces struggle as a part of learning. We are all steeped in the belief that it is superior to find things easy in the first place, rather than to conquer things that are hard. Overcoming that belief will require us all to experience firsthand the value of the struggle.
Struggle is uncomfortable for most of us. We don’t see it as the springboard to accomplishment. But perhaps with time - and some struggle itself – we can.