The Easy Way Out

A mortal enemy of mine who hates when people use strikethrough because of how clichéd and needlessly ironic it is friend of mine recently brought to my attention an NPR story about a researcher studying the role of intellectual struggle in American classrooms vs. its role in Eastern classrooms.

Basically, the guy finds that struggle is treated like a plague in the United States, while it’s accepted as a critical aspect of academic success in places like Japan, Taiwan, and South Korea. Americans tend to treat intelligence as the cause of success – a view which stresses inborn ability and the tools you’ve been given over hard work – while many Asian cultures see intelligence as the effect created by discipline and dedication to a task. My friend wanted to know whether or not my experience as a teacher supported the researcher’s conclusions. The answer is almost too simple to write about.

Yes. Of course the researcher is right.

When I ask a question of my students – perhaps a question to which there are multiple supportable answers – I can reliably count on four to six (out of thirty) raising their hands to offer up a response. On a good day, that is. Does this happen because only a small percentage of them even have a thought in their heads? Do only four students have any idea what’s going on? Do I teach at a school for the Mostly Mute? The Armless? No. None of these explain why my students sit petrified. The truth is much simpler: they’re scared of being wrong. It’s not that they’ll be wrong and their classmates will mock them for it (which doesn’t really happen, despite what teen movies would have you believe), and it isn’t even that they’re worried I’ll chastise them for not having a good answer. They’re afraid of wrongness itself, of the feeling of admitting to a room full of people that they aren’t exactly sure what the answer is.

This, for me, is what the researcher’s point about struggle boils down to. In our culture, to quote the great Ken Robinson (we’ve featured his TED Talks – I’ll link another at the end of this piece), “the worst thing you can make is a mistake.” Students, for whom this is especially true, react the same way to struggle as they are to being wrong, because we’ve come to equate the two so strongly in our culture. To struggle is to be wrong, to be shown the limits of your talents and intelligence not just in the short term on the way to eventual triumph and mastery, but irrevocably. It’s why when we hand a kid Poe or Dickens, they give up quickly or fake their way through it. The diction, the syntax, and the density make it difficult for them. Most are only willing to accept the “challenge” of something that is within their immediate grasp. Anything more, and we alienate them by expecting them to engage with something that doesn’t make clear sense immediately.We’ve got copies of Sarte’s No Exit that, I’m afraid, might never get cracked open again.

Of course, this isn’t true of all students, but it is, I think, an accurate assessment – and, more importantly, a vital concern going forward – of our academic culture. The reason students are afraid (using that word creates its own problems, I’ll admit) of struggle isn’t because they’re lazy, or, if they are, it’s because we’ve made them that way. We are obsessed with the Right Answer.

In other news, bacon is delicious.

Listen, I know it’s obvious, but the whole standardized test saturation we’re wading through isn’t an accident. We preach and preach that SAT scores and AP exam scores (guilty as charged) and GPA are the end all, be all of education. Wanting students to be right before we want them to be anything else is our contribution to the fear of struggle. What if students could expect something different from their teachers? What if struggle were embraced as a vital part of the intellectual process? What if teachers, not just students, were more willing to admit that they simply don’t know an answer and, in enlisting help to find the answer, didn’t just talk about, but actually show that the process of finding the answer is what you have to get good at.

Nothing worth having comes easy, or so the fella says. We embrace this kind of thinking in America. Or, more accurately, we embrace the idea of this kind of thinking. We’d like to think we actually believe it, but we don’t. If we did, we’d let our students, our children, ourselves struggle just a little longer before we gave up, before we looked for the answer in the back of the book. We might be less frustrated from time to time, but we’d almost certainly be worse off.

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Categories: Various Things

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