From Snuggle to Struggle: Part 1 – Don’t sweat the mistake

Trying to escape insanity during a long car trip with an “unhappy”–read “screaming”-infant in the back, my husband and I, both therapists in Early Education at the time, waited until he fell asleep and listened to what we like to call “adult content”. By adult content, I mean a short educational story about cultural attitudes towards struggle, of course.

In the story, Alix Spiegel from the National Public Radio interviewed Jim Stigler, Professor of Psychology at UCLA.  Stigler studied teaching and learning around the world, and he reported an experience he’d had in a classroom in Japan. That story would stay in my mind for years to come.

As the story goes, somewhere in a Japanese school, a problem is presented to the students. The teacher picks a young child clearly struggling with it, and brings him to the board. The child keeps on trying to find the solution, over and over, in front of the entire class. At first, despite his efforts, he cannot solve it, and he is left pondering in front of the board. Long minutes later, the student finally reaches the correct answer. The victorious child is then applauded by the entire class and celebrated for his success.

Not the ending you expected, is it? Who knew a child could not only survive the embarrassment but actually turn it into something other than clammy hands and damp forehead? I didn’t. I definitely remember being ‘chosen’ to go to the board and feeling self-conscious, nervous, and a distinct feeling of impending doom, made worse by the certainty that my classmates had grown razor beam eyes and were now taking aim at the base of my neck. You see what I mean… It made me wonder what other differences in education could affect a child’s perception of success?

I think that from very early ages we[in America]see struggle as an indicator that you’re just not very smart”

Just like us, Stigler also felt nervous and anxious for the child standing in front of his peers. He pointed out that, in American schools, the best student would have been chosen to go to the board. “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.”

Of course we cannot forget that both education systems differ drastically, and to even begin to compare the two would be biting off more than I can chew in this article. What Stigler’s story illustrates, however, is how our views on learning could be modified to adopt struggle as part of the learning process.

This story always comes to mind when we discuss children’s problem-solving skills. It is a clear example of how we parents and educators, and our culture, influence children’s self-esteem and perception of success, and how easy it would be to improve ourselves! For instance, ever had a child whine during a problem-solving activity and state that “It is too hard; I can’t do it”? Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? So what happens when they refuse to work hard and fear failure? What should we do then? Should we help? Should we solve the problem for them? What is the right course of action? How can we support our children as they struggle to solve a difficult mental puzzle? We parents are so quick to come to our children’s rescue to “save” them from failure. How many times during testing have I observed parents step in to answer a question addressed to their child, just because he took his time to respond? He was not struggling, he didn’t need saving and snuggling, he just needed to take his time and think it through. That parental reaction is an instinct hard-wired in our culture, but it is detrimental to our children’s problem-solving skills. The act of struggling is not the issue – it is part of the solution.

Our tip: Teach them to recognize mistakes as the way to reach success.

For adults like for children, mistakes can be disruptive and hard to swallow. But mistakes should be presented to children as a normal part of the learning process. Everyone makes mistakes. What’s important is how a child learns to react to them.  So let’s encourage children to embrace mistakes as a step towards victory. Let’s show them how to overcome failure. Next time your child makes a mistake, tell them it is okay to not get it the first time; now they know what NOT to do! They learned a lesson, and  will make better choices next time. Just say “Try again, and you’ll get it right. I know you can do it!”



NPR, Alix Spiegel, “Struggle for Smarts? How Eastern And Western Cultures Tackle Learning”

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1 Comment

  • Posted December 13, 2014

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    Excellent post. I will be going through many of these issues as well..

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