Monday, December 31, 2012

At school in Tokyo

Twenty some years ago, when psychologist Jim Stigler was a graduate student, he went to Japan to research schools and learning. One day he observed a fourth-grade math class.

The teacher was showing the children how to draw a three-dimensional cube on paper. One student was having a hard time grasping the technique. Try as hard as he could, his cube was still askew. The teacher asked him to come up to the chalkboard to show his work.

Stigler suddenly felt nervous for the young boy. Stigler recalled that in a typical American classroom, teachers often called the best students to come draw to  the board as a way to show struggling students the correct way to multiply, diagram sentences, or draw a cube. Coming to the board was an occasion to showcase the talented students and embarrass the slower learners. Stigler felt quite awkward, not wanting to watch the teacher and students embarrass the boy for his slow learning. 

Stigler watched as the boy came forward, and start to slowly draw. His cube still looked off kilter. After a few minutes, the teacher asked the class if the boy had drawn it correctly, and the class shook their heads no. This went on and on. As the class resumed their work, the boy worked alone at the chalkboard.

As Stigler sat watching, he felt more and more anxious for the boy in front of the class. He imagined how embarrassed the boy probably felt, struggling in front of his peers over how to draw chalk lines showing perspective. Stigler expected the boy to break into tears at any moment. But he did not. He simply kept trying.  

To Stigler's relief, the boy finally drew a cube that looked right. When he finished, the teacher asked the class, "How does that look?" The students looked up from their work and said he did it well. Then the whole class clapped for the boy, whereupon he smiled proudly and sat down.

For Jim Stigler, who is now a professor at UCLA, watching the event was an eye-opener. He saw the juxtaposition of two cultures: on the one hand, he recalled how he felt, as a typical American, watching a child struggling with school work, and on the other hand he saw how a Japanese class felt watching a boy struggle with school work.

In a typically American setting, students see struggling with school work as a sign that they are not very smart. We think that smart children don't have to struggle; doing well in school comes to them naturally. We think that learning multiplication tables, drawing graphs, and writing essays comes easily to smart children. We think that children who struggle are simply not as smart.

In that Japanese school, however, students saw struggling with schoolwork as an opportunity to learn. There is no stigma or lower assessment of ability attached to that young boy based on how much he struggled to learn. In such a setting, everyone assumed that struggling to learn was a normal part of the learning process. Everyone was expected to struggle.

When that one boy was applauded for struggling to learn, the teacher gave the lesson that anyone struggling to learn deserves to be applauded. The lesson was that struggling is a chance to show that you have what it takes emotionally to overcome the problem by having the strength to persist through that struggle. Simply put, struggling is a given and struggling can be good.

--from Morning Edition on National Public Radio, as reported by the Rev. Dr. Blaine Edele, Union Memorial Church, New York  

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