Jim Stigler is a psychologist who studies the differences in how Eastern and Western cultures approach learning. After watching a Japanese student try and fail and try again, for a whole period, to draw a geometric shape in front of the entire class, and then enjoy the experience … he knew something was different about the philosophy of struggle in Eastern classrooms. A key bit from the NPR story (emphasis mine):
"I think that from very early ages we [in America] see struggle as an indicator that you’re just not very smart,” Stigler says. “It’s a sign of low ability — people who are smart don’t struggle, they just naturally get it, that’s our folk theory. Whereas in Asian cultures they tend to see struggle more as an opportunity.”
In Eastern cultures, Stigler says, 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.
"They’ve taught them that suffering can be a good thing," Stigler says. "I mean it sounds bad, but I think that’s what they’ve taught them."
Not all Eastern cultures are identical, of course, but I think it could serve American students nicely to realize that yes, this stuff is hard, struggle is part of learning, and not learning something at the same pace as others doesn’t mean you are stupid … it means you are learning the way that you learn.
That idea should be encouraged. Success in learning and in life comes from the desire to work hard to master the problems before you. Intelligence is not bestowed upon us like magical powers from above.