Tuesday, November 13, 2012


Several friends recently posted a story from NPR that, in conjunction with a recent blog post, provoked some thoughts about the ability to see beyond our culture, the ability to see beyond what we expect, and the ability to see altogether.

The story is here:  http://www.npr.org/blogs/health/2012/11/12/164793058/struggle-for-smarts-how-eastern-and-western-cultures-tackle-learning

In the article, Jim Stigler, currently a psychologist but then a graduate student, watched with bated horror as a teacher called a child struggling with the topic of the day to the front of the room to allow him to struggle publicly.  Stigler's take on the situation changed by the end of the class, however, when the child ultimately mastered the material and received the approbation of his class.  Stigler concluded, "From very early ages, we see struggle as an indicator that you're just not very smart. It's a sign of low ability. People who are smart don't struggle. They just naturally get it. It's our folk theory. Whereas, in Asian cultures, they tend to see struggle more as an opportunity."

Stigler's view of Eastern education as expressed in this feature runs completely counter to Howard Gardner's take on it as expressed in a 1989 essay, "Learning, Chinese Style," which appeared in Psychology Today.  In this essay, Gardner related an incident in which his eighteen-month-old son would repeatedly attempt to put a hotel key into a receptacle with little success.  Time and again, the hotel staff would "help" him return the key.  Gardner, whom I generally view as an extremely insightful thinker, characterized this incident as one that helped "to illuminate Chinese attitudes toward creativity."

Gardner asked his Chinese colleagues for their thoughts on the behavior.  He summarized their responses, indicating that the general concern of the Chinese teachers was that the child would become frustrated in the task that was set and, therefore, should be helped to attain the "goal" (Gardner chooses this word to indicate a lack of flexibility in the point of a task).

Gardner then detailed his wife and his response to the issue:
We listened to such explanations sympathetically and explained that, first of all, we did not much care whether Benjamin succeeded in inserting the key into the slot. ... [T]he critical point was that, in the process, we were trying to teach Benjamin that one can solve a problem effectively by oneself.  Such self-reliance is a principal value of child-rearing in middle-class America.
 In this case, I take issue with both analyses of both situations.   The first case sees a point primarily with struggle instead of with group disclosure.  Now, Asian societies certainly have their share of secrecy.  I am not in any way saying that they don't.  However, in the educational system, there is far more disclosure.  Test scores are posted openly.  Children are ranked as early as middle school, and such ranks are publicly posted.  The students in each school know who is the "strong" student and who is the "weak link."  Furthermore, until recently, helping one another has not been seen to be an issue.  There is a "we'll get through this together" attitude.  That is not to say that there is no self-reliance.  Again, these students are ranked rather heartlessly.  But, by and large, this competitiveness and ranking in Asian society does not keep students from helping one another complete tasks.  Some view this "help" as copying, but it is not always that drastic.

In Gardner's response, he seems to conclude, by the help proffered to a toddler, that the Chinese do not value self-reliance.  Chinese children are generally afforded far more responsibilities and freedoms than Western children.  They may need to wear school uniforms and spout certain ideologies, but they are out in their societies alone at far younger ages and for far longer periods than their Western counterparts.  If we considered these facets of the Chinese education system and Chinese society, we might conclude that Americans handicap their children by not teaching them how to function in society on their own.  How might the Chinese view homeschooling in which many American parents teach their children at home for fear that they may hear ideas different from their parents'?  What might the other culture think about the strength of our society by comparison?

It seems to me that both situations have more to say about group dynamics than they do about implicit struggle.  In both the first and the last, the idea is that one should weep with those who weep and rejoice with those who rejoice.  In the second situation, a young child is proffered help on a task too difficult for him.  In the first instance, a child who can do it but is struggling is afforded the opportunity to work it out and have the class rejoice with him.  The message is clear in both cases:  we are in this together.

Although both Gardner and Stigler seem to skip this aspect of these interactions, it by no means signifies that such a theory is absent in Western education.  The more I study, the more I see, the more I realize that people are people and our perceptions are colored by what we expect to see.  Stigler may have heard of the heartless, rigorous, factory-like Eastern education system, and that is what he expected to see.  When he saw an emotional interaction, he didn't see it as an example of heart or emotion but of struggle, perhaps because he had already concluded that the system was without human kindness.  On the other hand, he may have been carrying American attitudes that it is what it is and our emotions can be separated from our intellect.  Believe it or not, compared to the Asian classrooms I have been in, Western classrooms are quite cold and empty of emotional comfort.

Similarly, Gardner headed to communist China.  Most Westerners believe communists are completely without drive or initiative.  What he saw was a country that tried to pigeonhole responses.  Was he really seeing a pigeonholing or was he seeing concern for a young child's emotional well being?

We see what we expect to see.  And when we are confronted with two sets of results, we lend more credence to those that reinforce the opinion that we already hold, a tendency known as confirmation bias.  In her book, Being Wrong, Kathryn Schulz explains the way confirmation bias, our previous expectations, and inductive vs. deductive reasoning work together to undermine our ability to reason accurately:
We don't gather the maximum possible evidence in order to reach a conclusion; we reach the maximum possible conclusion based on the barest minimum of evidence.  Now it turns out that inductive reasoning upends the second half as well.  We don't assess evidence neutrally; we assess it in light of whatever theories we've already formed on the basis of whatever other, earlier evidence we have encountered.
Sometimes, this logic works for us.  Other times, it blinds us to what is really happening.  Looking back to Gardner's point on frustration vs. self-reliance, we need to consider that while overcoming frustration can, in fact, lead to confidence and self-reliance, facing an insurmountable task often leads to despair, failure, and a refusal to try.  Every person faces situations slightly differently.  Each person has a different threshold for frustration tolerance, and, at any given moment, how much frustration a person is facing is in flux.  Ross W. Greene has built a very successful series of interventions built explicitly on the idea that we should not leave all people to face frustration without guidance--that doing so will leave a portion of the population at risk for explosive behavior.  In his book, The Explosive Child, he claims:
The children about whom this book is written do not choose to be explosive--any more than a child would choose to have a learning disability--but they are delayed in the process of developing the skills essential for flexibility and frustration tolerance.  ... There's a big difference between viewing explosive behavior as the result of the failure to progress developmentally and viewing it as learned, planned, intentional, goal-oriented, and purposeful.  That's because your interpretation of a child's explosive behavior will be closely linked to how you try to change this behavior.  In other words, your explanation guides your intervention. (emphasis in the original)
 My point in bringing up this passage is twofold.  First, I strongly believe both the interpretation of Stigler and of Gardner have more to do with their own internal beliefs about Chinese culture and the Chinese educational system than they do with the interactions they witnessed.  I am also certain that my own interpretation is strongly influenced by my experiences teaching in the US and in Korea.  I don't know that there's any way to completely dissociate it.  But because these analyses so emphatically affect what we think and do (Schulz says what we think affects how we evaluate what we see and Greene says that that evaluation guides how we choose to respond), I encourage all of us teachers to look twice before we decide what's happening, to consider alternatives before committing to a single course of action, to listen more and speak less, and to err on the side of mercy.

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