Why Struggle and Frustration Are Good (Study Myths Part 4)

I am grateful to TSM for inviting me to contribute the next article in their series on study myths.

This ongoing series has aimed to debunk some of the myths about memory and learning that pervade so many people’s understanding of the study process. While this series has been focused on students preparing to pass their psychology licensure exam, the research has applications for anyone trying to master material or develop new skills.

In Part One of this series Graham Taylor explored the myth that harder equals better. Contrary to how many people think about learning, the key to successful studying is not to simply study longer and harder, but to learn the appropriate techniques for effective study. Once applied, these techniques enable effective study to actually become easier.

In Part Two of this series Dr. Taylor debunked the myth that memory is a gift and not a skill. Using some of the latest evidences from psychology and neuroscience, he showed that the ability to successfully remember information is a skill that anyone can develop through deliberate training. This goes completely counter to the popular notion that some people are simply cursed with “a bad memory.”

Part 3 of the Study Myths series looked at a myth that has become so systemic throughout the English-speaking school systems that it is rarely questioned even by professional educators. This is the myth that if you have truly learned material then you won’t forget it, and if you do forget something then that just proves you never truly learned it to begin with. Channeling research on spaced learning, Dr. Taylor showed that decreased retention and even forgetfulness is actually a positive part of the learning process.

It is an honor to be invited to contribute this next installment in the series and to expose one more myth about learning and memory, namely the myth that struggle, frustration and confusion are enemies of learning. The thesis of this post may seem counter-intuitive in our short-term, pragmatic, results-oriented Western culture, but I intend to show that struggle, frustration and even failure are an integral part of the learning process.

The Myth that Struggle Means You’re Not Smart

From our earliest school days, most of us were conditioned to think that the purpose of learning is not to fail but to easily achieve straight A’s and to be able to get our homework done as quickly as possible. Accordingly, we think that one indicator of whether someone is a smart student is whether he or she can learn concepts and finish homework with a minimum of struggle. By contrast, we tend to think that poor or merely average students experience struggle, confusion and frustration with school work.

Does this way of thinking sound familiar? I’m sure it does, because this is how most of us in the contemporary West have been unconsciously trained to think about learning. The notion that struggle is a sign of low-ability is such a part of the very air we breathe that it is rarely questioned. The only problem with this popular way of thinking is that it is completely false. An alternative way of thinking about frustration and struggle emerges when we attend to the experience of students in non-Western cultures, particularly Asia.

Struggling Towards Success in a Japanese Classroom

Jim Stigler, a Professor of Psychology at UCLA, once told about the time he found himself in the back row of a fourth-grade math class in Japan. “The teacher was trying to teach the class how to draw three-dimensional cubes on paper,” Stigler explained on a 2012 National Public Radio program. He continued:

“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.’”

Alix Spiegel, the host of NPR’s Morning Edition, picked up the narrative and commented on Stigler’s surprise:

“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 anxious.”

“’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.”

This incident reveals the world of difference in how Asians and Westerns approach the issue of struggle. “In Eastern cultures,” Stigler comments, “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 struggle.”

In addressing the National Commission on Mathematics and Science Teaching For the 21st Century, Dr. Stigler made the further observation that Japanese teachers intentionally set children with problems that are too hard for them, and which they know will confuse the students, since educators believe that students grow through struggle. A popular teacher’s manual in Japan says “Students will learn to understand the process more fully, says the manual, if they are allowed to make this mistake and then examine the consequences.”

Frustration and High-Achievers

Years after Stigler’s experience in the Japanese classroom, he had the opportunity to direct the 1995 TIMSS video study to document and analyze the different teaching methods between Japan, the United States and Germany. After analyzing hundreds of hours of footage of various eighth-grade classrooms, Stigler found that in general American teachers routinely try to minimize frustration and confusion, while Japanese teachers approached frustration and confusion as positive learning opportunities. In 1999, Stigler teamed up with James Hiebert from the University of Delaware to report on these findings in their book The Teaching Gap: Best Ideas from the World’s Teachers for Improving Education in the Classroom.  In their book, Stigler and Hiebert reported that the video footage from U.S. classrooms pointed to a clear and distinct pattern of teachers working hard to minimize struggle, confusion and frustration:

“Confusion and frustration, in this traditional American view, should be minimized… Teachers act as if confusion and frustration are signs that they have not done their job. When they notice confusion, they quickly assist students by providing whatever information it takes to get the students back on track. Teachers in the United States try hard to reduce confusion by presenting full information about how to solve problems.”

In contrast to this American approach, Japanese teachers believe that the best students are not those who can get their work done without any struggle, but those who can get their work done through struggle. The video footage of eighth grade classrooms in Japan underscores this point. Here’s what Stigler and Hiebert wrote in The Teaching Gap about their findings:

“…Japanese teachers believe students learn best by first struggling to solve mathematics problems, then participating in discussions about how to solve them, and then hearing about the pros and cons of different methods and the relationships between them. Frustration and confusion are taken to be a natural part of the process, because each person must struggle with a situation or problem first in order to make sense of the information he or she hears later. Constructing connections between methods and problems is thought to require time to explore and invent, to make mistakes, to reflect, and to receive the needed information at an appropriate time. …They also encourage students to keep struggling in the face of difficulty.”

The 1995 TIMSS video looked only at the United States, Germany and Japan. A further video study in 1999 expanded the analysis to a number of additional countries to see if common features emerged between those nations where students were high-achievers in math and science vs. those countries like the United States where students lagged behind. In an afterword to a later edition of The Teaching Gap, Stigler and Hiebert explained that there was a great deal of variation in the teaching styles of the high-achieving nations. However, one common denominator among the high-achieving countries was a positive orientation towards struggle: “their varied approaches all accomplished the engagement of students in active struggle with core mathematics concepts and procedures. It was this feature of teaching that we found common to the high achievers and missing in the United States.”

The Virtue of Struggle

When I came across the above information, I wanted to know if what was true for eighth-grade classrooms was also true for other areas of American and Asian culture respectively. For years I’ve been fascinated by the large variation in how people from different cultures view the world and themselves (see the post on my personal blog ‘Neuroplasticity and East-West Brain Differences.’) Recently I’ve begun reading some of the research on cross-cultural psychology in various academic journals, with the aim of exploring how the concept of struggle is approached in different societies. In the process of these studies I learned something very interesting: what people in one culture think of as failing, people in other cultures think of as learning.

Let me ask you a question. Is a good student one who struggles at school or one who doesn’t? Previously, I might have been tempted to answer that smart students are the ones who can get their work done quickly and easily with a minimum of struggle. Like many of us, I’ve tended to default to the typical American view of learning. In our quick-fix, fast-food culture, it’s easy to just assume that the best students are those who can get their work done without any frustration and struggle. But I’ve had my thinking challenged by looking at learning in Asian cultures, where the sign of a good student is one who can struggle for a long time with the same problem, task or difficulty.

These different orientations towards struggle make a huge difference in the culture of the classroom. In 1991, Robert D. Hess from Stanford teamed up with Hiroshi Azuma from Shirayuri College Japan to publish their research on the different learning environments between Japan and the United States. Their article. ‘Cultural Support for Schooling: Contrasts Between Japan and the United States,’ showed that American classrooms were tending to change the content in order to make its presentation more interesting to the students, while in Japan the focus was on changing the students to make them more attentive and focused. “Japanese tend to stress developing adaptive dispositions; Americans try to make the learning context more attractive.”

One of the purposes of Americans trying to make the learning context more attractive is to minimize the difficulty and struggle facing students. Summarizing one prevalent view in America on how education should work, Hess and Azuma explained how “Children are enticed into working by presenting tasks in easy steps, by assuring prompt success, and by moving briskly from a completed problem to a new one. The teacher does not count on internalized diligence; the stimulus environment is designed to induce interest and create a motivation to work on the task.”

By contrast, the Japanese model of developing adaptive dispositions nurtures students into seeing that a subject—mathematics for example—is inherently interesting for its own sake. To quote again from The Teaching Gap, “Japanese teachers also act as if mathematics is inherently interesting and students will be interested in exploring it by developing new methods for solving problems. They seem less concerned about motivating the topics in nonmathematical ways.”

The emphasis on developing internal rather than external sources of motivation fits within the Japanese framework of a good student being one that can develop internal virtues through struggle and self-discipline.

Since the sign of a successful student in America is someone who can get his or her work done with a minimum of struggle, classrooms are tailored to make learning as fun as possible. But in Asia the sign of a good student is precisely the opposite: it is the students who show they can persevere through struggle that are believed to be destined for great things later in life.

Confucianism and the Malleability of the Brain

Discoveries in the last 30 years about neuroplasticity have been heralded as a huge breakthrough in neuroscience. However, cultures steeped in Confucianism have always understood about the malleability of the human brain. With their belief in the adaptability of the brain has come a heightened emphasis on the role struggle plays in the development of character and in the learning process. Given their beliefs in human adaptability, cultures influenced by Confucianism have historically tended to put more emphasis on changing oneself through struggle, including working through frustration, confusion and failure.

In Contexts of Achievement: A Study of American, Chinese, and Japanese Children, a team of researchers compared American students to Chinese and Japanese children. They found that the greater the emphasis a culture places on innate ability as the primary cause of success (what the authors call the “nativistic view”), the less motivated parents are to make strong efforts at assisting their children. On the other hand, in cultures emphasizing hard work and effort as the primary cause for success, parents have huge incentive to offer assistance. They go on to explain that in the Confucian understanding, the path to achievement lies not in innate ability but in never giving up:

“One of the most pervasive beliefs in Asian cultures is that effort is the major avenue for improvement and accomplishment. The malleability of human behavior has long been emphasized in Chinese writings and is one of the fundamental precepts of Confucianism (Munro, 1977). A typical example of this view is found in the writings of the Chinese philosopher Hsun Tzu, who wrote, ‘Achievement consists of never giving up. … If there is no dark and dogged will, there will be no shining accomplishment; if there is no dull and determined effort, there will be no brilliant achievement’ (Watson, 1967, p. 18). According to this view, differences among individuals are believed to be primarily a result of life experiences rather than of innate differences. A similar theme is found in Japanese philosophy, where individual differences in potential are deemphasized and great importance is placed on the role of effort in modifying the course of human development. Japanese values are summarized in the phrase, Yareba dekiru (If you try hard, you can do it). Effort and self-discipline are considered to be essential for accomplishment.  Lack of achievement is attributed to the failure to work with utmost self-exertion rather than to a lack of ability or to personal or environmental obstacles. In many classrooms in Japan, one finds four written precepts that describe the ideal student; the first is gambaru kodomo—a child who strives his or her hardest.”

The different orientation towards struggle informs how Japanese and American mothers talk to their children about their school work, the former placing more emphasis on effort and the later on innate ability:

 “Tokyo mothers of preschool children placed greater emphasis on the value of effort than did their California counterparts and that their American mothers placed greater emphasis on ability than their Japanese mothers.

“…the emphasis given to effort relative to ability is much higher among Japanese and Chinese mothers than among American mothers. American mothers gave only a slightly greater emphasis to effort than to ability….

“the Japanese mothers were most likely to agree that children tend to have the same amount of ability in reading and mathematics but that the American mothers were most likely to agree that children  were born with these abilities. Conversely, Japanese mothers were more likely to believe that any child could be good at reading or mathematics if he or she worked hard enough…”

“Relative to the Chinese and Japanese mothers, the American mothers placed greater emphasis on ability; Chinese and Japanese mothers placed greater emphasis on effort as an explanation for achievement.

The study went on to show that these differing ideas had practical ramifications in how mothers interacted with their children and how much assistance they were willing to provide for their children’s education:

“When parents believe that success in school depends on ability in contrast to effort, they are less likely to foster participation in activities related to academic achievement that would elicit strong effort toward learning on the part of their children, such as doing homework, attending after-school classes, and receiving tutoring. American parents, in fact, did not use these activities with great frequency as means for improving their children’s scholastic performance, even though they were willing to provide such supplemental activities for their children in sports, music, and art. Mothers who emphasize the importance of ability may ask if such activities are useful for children of low ability and may accept the poor performance of their children.

“If the child has high ability, the mother may question whether such activities are needed. A greater emphasis on ability appears to be related, therefore, to American children’s lower accomplishments in elementary school.

Struggle and the Growth Mindset

There has been a lot of fascinating research recently on the importance that our mindset makes in our career choices and success. Those who believe that their basic qualities are things they can cultivate through struggle (the “growth mindset”) are more likely to succeed in life than those who believe they are stuck with the cards they’ve been dealt (the “fixed mindset”). TSM has dealt with this distinction in more detail in our post ‘The Myth of the Good Memory: how memory is a skill not a gift (Study Myths Part 2).’

In her book Mindset, psychologist Carol Dweck explained that the difference between these two approaches can be seen in how people respond to failure and struggle. As a young researcher Dweck had the opportunity to observe children working on puzzles that were beyond their ability. She was surprised to find some children responding positively to their failure since they saw them as invitations to stretch their intelligence further. “They knew that human qualities, such as intellectual skills, could be cultivated through effort. And that’s what they were going—getting smarter. Not only weren’t they discouraged by failure, they didn’t even think they were failing. They thought they were learning.”

What is true of individual persons (i.e. what one individual thinks of as failure another person thinks of as learning) is also true of cultures as a whole. What one culture labels as a symptom of something being wrong (i.e., having to struggle through confusion and frustration), another culture sees as a symptom that something is right.

Not surprisingly, cultures emphasizing the virtues of struggle tend to embody the growth mindset. This emerged in fascinating research published by Jin Li, professor of education and human development at Brown University. Dr. Li’s research, which appeared in the journal Current Directions in Psychological Science, contrasted Western and Chinese beliefs about learning. In an attempt to uncover beliefs about learning, Chinese and European American children were asked to comment on the purposes of going to school. European American children as young as 4 mentioned “smartness” as one of the purposes of going to school, while Chinese children mentioned about growth and the need to self-improve morally. “In their construals of the learning process, EA children referred more to ability and related mental processes, to learning as a task to be tackled, and to creative strategies. Chinese children mentioned more the virtues of diligence, persistence, and concentration.”

Dr. Li explained how Chinese parents tend to encourage their children towards continual self-improvement regardless of their current level of achievement. This is very different to the mentality of many European American parents who believe that smart children don’t need to work as hard, and that a characteristic of intelligent people is that understanding comes to them in a process of sudden insight. For European Americans, enduring hardship with perseverance, diligence and resolve is at most a necessary evil, whereas in China this is central to the development of virtue. Accordingly, Chinese parents adopt a completely different orientation towards struggle:

“Chinese value efforts to achieve understand of the world, but mentally oriented understanding (understanding achieved by articulation, analysis, and reasoning rather than by experience, practice, or meditation) alone is not central to their learning beliefs…. For Chinese students, the purposes of learning are mainly to perfect themselves morally and socially, to achieve mastery of the material, and to contribute to society. To accomplish these aims, the learner needs to develop the virtues of resolve, diligence, endurance of hardship, perseverance, and concentration. These virtues are not task-specific but are viewed as enduring personal dispositions that are more essential than actual learning activities (e.g., reading) and they are believed applicable to all learning activities and processes….”

“British students viewed understanding as a process of sudden insight (i.e., mind orientation), and they used repetition to check their memory. In contrast, Chinese students believed understanding to be a long process that requires extensive personal effort, and memorization (aiming at deeper understanding through persistence) and repetition are two such concrete ways of showing effort. …Chinese students believed that learning is a gradual process that requires tremendous dedication and methodical steps.”

Innate Ability vs. Persistent Effort

Further research by Dr. Jin Li expanded our understanding of these important cultural differences. Last year Dr. Li teamed up with four other academics to publish research on the differences between how American mothers and Taiwanese mothers talked to their children about learning. Their findings, which were published in the journal Child Development, documented various recorded conversations between 116 Taiwanese mothers and their elementary school children and 102 European American mothers and their elementary school children. The recordings showed that both Taiwanese and European American parents stress the value of educational excellence. However, the Taiwanese mothers emphasized effort (including self-exertion, endurance of hardship, perseverance) whereas the European American mothers emphasized ability.

Or again, in an article for Vol. 93, No. 1 of the education magazine, The Phi Delta Kappan, authors Mei-Hue Wei and Corinne Eisenhart explored why Taiwanese children excel at math. They also found that the difference was at least partially attributable to a difference between the growth mindset and the fixed mindset, and the role that struggle plays in the former. Wei and Eisenhart discovered “a cultural difference in how Taiwanese mothers and American mothers view the connection between effort, intelligence, and learning. Research suggests that most American mothers believe a child’s mathematical performance primarily depends on intelligence and innate math ability; Asian mothers believe effort is more important for academic success. … This difference in maternal perception may affect the learning experiences mothers provide for their young children.”

This was also something that emerged out of Hess and Azuma’s research. They reported how, when confronted with a child’s poor achievement, Japanese mothers were more likely to put it down to “lack of effort” whereas American mothers were more likely to put it down to “lack of ability.” American mothers were also more likely to blame conditions outside the students’ control such as the school environment and other external factors.

Similarly, in chapter 9 of the Handbook of Race and Development in Mental Health, authors Lisa L. Liu, Shu-wen Wang, Joey Fung, Omar G. Gudiño, Annie Tao and Anna S. Lau shared research on the psychology of Asian American children. Their work, which can be read online here, showed some of the practical ramifications of the American belief in native ability vs. the Asian belief that one’s abilities are the result of hard work and struggle. One of the many ramifications is that Asian American parents were more likely to structure their children’s free time in include extra homework and tutoring.

Rejecting the “Struggle Is Bad” Myth

In Alix Spiegel’s article ‘Struggle For Smarts? How Eastern And Western Cultures Tackle Learning’, she summarized the cash-value implicit in these two different mentalities:

“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.

How a person thinks about struggle has implications whether you are learning a musical instrument, a foreign language, a new skill, or studying to pass the EPPP exam. If we think that struggle indicates weakness and low-ability, we will be less inclined to do what it takes to master material and to persevere through difficulty to reach our goals. We may even give up prematurely, concluding we just don’t have what it takes to succeed.

Rejecting the “struggle is bad” myth can also be empowering for those with psychological and emotional problems who are trying to retrain their brains to habituate new behaviors or mentalities. It all comes down to whether we believe struggle to be a sign of weakness or a strength.

What this does not mean is that there is virtue to struggle in and of itself. The virtue of struggle lies entirely in the object or end towards which we are struggling, as well as the means by which we are struggling to reach that end. In his earlier post “The ‘Just-Study-Harder’ Myth and Your EPPP Materials“, Graham Taylor showed that using strategic, research-driven methods of learning and memory can actually reduce the difficulty involved in the learning process. But learning anything, even using the right methods, will still involve enormous struggle, self-discipline, perseverance, and at times frustration. However, when we are struggling towards mastery by doing right things repeatedly over time, we know that eventually the struggle will pay off by producing competency, which leads to confidence and success. Keeping our eyes on the goal should enable us to persevere through the struggle no matter how difficult it becomes.

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