Tuesday, September 3, 2013

If You're Smart It's Easy

stormy skies and triple digits

It's "Back to School" time, and kids everywhere are sharpening pencils, donning backpacks and getting on yellow buses.  This morning I was recalling my own memories as a school boy, some of which are not all that pleasant. 

When I was a freshman in high school I was required to take a standardized "IQ" test. All these years later, I vividly recall meeting with a guidance counselor who discussed the results of my test with me, presenting me with the devastating news: "You just have "average" intelligence. You will probably be able to go to college, but it won't be easy for you." 

Now these many years later, having earned a Ph.D and having been a university professor, I realize that the only thing the IQ test was measuring was the fact that I never performed well on standardized tests. 

While many schools have de-emphasized IQ scores, there is an underlying supposition that still continues to govern teaching and learning in Western cultures: "If you are smart, it's easy." The corollary to this supposition: "If you have to struggle with learning, you must not be that smart." Therefore "struggling" is obviously seen as a bad thing.

Yesterday, I heard a very interesting "Back to School" news report comparing the difference between Western cultures and Eastern cultures when it comes to learning.

An American researcher was observing a third grade class in Japan. The students were asked to draw a cube. Some were instantly successful, others were struggling, and one boy just couldn't do it. The teacher called forward the student having the most difficulty and for almost an hour, the boy, his teacher and his fellow classmates engaged in a process of mastering  the art of drawing a cube.  

The American researcher observing all this reported that he (the researcher) was very anxious as he sat and watched what he called an "excruciating process," noting that this would never happen in an American classroom.  An American teacher would never embarrass a student by placing him in front of fellow classmates by engaging in a struggle that obviously demonstrated a "lack of intelligence." 

The American researcher also noted that the Japanese teacher and students were having great fun with this process -  everyone coming up with creative ways to help the boy figure out how to draw a cube. When he finally achieved success, the boy broke into a big, broad smile and the class all stood up and cheered.

When it comes to learning, the difference between Eastern and Western cultures is that the "East" operates under a different set of assumptions when it comes to education.  Intelligence isn't viewed as something you possess (like a substance in your brain). Anyone is able to learn and everyone "should" struggle with learning. Struggling provides an "opportunity - an occasion to collaboratively promote teamwork. 

In fact if it comes too easy, and you don't struggle, you won't learn as well as when you have to work at something. So struggling is a good thing (not a sign of little intelligence).

Personally I believe, we in the West, can learn a lot from this Eastern model. 

As kids across America go back to school today and sit in classrooms across the land, they will likely hold some basic common assumptions: "If you have what it takes, it will come easy. If you have to struggle you are somehow deficient. Struggling is a bad thing." 

Of course these lessons learned in school tend to be applied to everything in life. Maybe that's why we think life is supposed to be easy and why we give up so quickly when our life doesn't instantly work out just exactly the way we want it to.

Now, in my later years, I have moved out into the desert. The desert is my new classroom, and the wilderness is my new teacher. Today it's going to be a struggle out here. The temperature is supposed to get up to 109 degrees and a sub-tropical storm coming up from Mexico is supposed to hit us this afternoon. 

Life in the desert is always a struggle - that's the lesson you learn when you live here. 

Struggling is good. 

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