My early career as a high school teacher in inner-city San Francisco was formative for me. I’m an advocate for public education and I am proud of many of the changes we have made in our schools today – from more student-centered learning techniques to a stronger focus on diversity and multiple learning styles. There is a lot of great stuff going on in American public schools today. But there’s also a lot going wrong. In our state, many schools have shortened the school year, gone to a 4-day week, and cut key programs such as physical education, art, and music from the curriculum. I never thought that I would make the choice to place my own child in private education, but that’s just what I’ve done.
Still, I am encouraged by the number of truly Evolutionary leaders working to improve education in our country. With alternative public options popping up in every state, we see a new wave of ideas and experimentation challenging long outdated models of education. (Watch for our upcoming podcast this week with Gina Fafard, Executive Director of ISAAC Middle School in Connecticut for a great example)! I was particularly struck by the recent article “Struggle for Smarts? How Eastern and Western Cultures Tackle Learning”, where science reporter Alix Spiegelinterviews psychology professor Jim Stigler to explore the role that suffering plays in learning, and how we could take a lesson from East when considering new models for teaching in the West.
Stigler describes observing a fourth-grade math class in Japan, “The teacher was trying to teach the class how to draw three-dimensional cubes on paper, and 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.’” Stigler knew that in American classrooms, it was usually the best kid in the class who was invited to the board. “I thought, ‘This kid is going to break into tears!’ [But by] 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.”
The famous chess master, David Bronstein, once wrote, in discussing a game he played as black in the Ruy Lopez, that he chose that variation despite its bad reputation for the black pieces because he needed to try something out – something he was worried would change the evaluation. He needed to see how it looked from the other side of the board, and he could rely on his opponent to know the current theory. In short, he was sacrificing a half a point (or maybe even a point) in the tournament table, and taking on a long defensive slog of a game, in order to get a better understanding of the variation. His closing remark: “One has to pay for knowledge.” Bronstein was among the best chess players in the world for two decades. His story is an excellent reminder that even when you are AMAZING you must engineer struggle to get better. It’s not just that struggle is an opportunity – it is a mandatory piece.
Asian cultures tend to view struggle as an opportunity – a chance to show you have the emotional resolve to persist, practice, and put in the effort it takes to overcome challenge. In a culture where struggle is viewed as a sign of weakness, students tend to give up quickly – often only working on a problem for 30 seconds before asking for help. But in cultures where struggle is seen as an integral part of the learning process, students will engage with a problem for much longer periods of time, increasing the depth and longevity of the learning experience.
For more on Stigler’s research check out this recent interview.
This is not simply a case of East vs. West. For decades Asian educators have been concerned that their students lack creativity and critical thinking skills that American students have. Both methods of education have advantages and disadvantages. The point is we need to rethink our approach, open our minds and try new mixes of methodology to meet the needs of our children and prepare them for success in an increasingly global society.
That is the Evolutionary challenge – is it possible for one culture to adopt the beliefs of another culture if they see that culture producing better results? Simply identifying and acknowledging the profound impact of culture on the process of education is a big deal. It is the nature of culture to be self-reinforcing and pervasive. Shifting from one world view to another may be all it takes to have several “Eureka!” moments with respect to seemingly intractable problems like bullying, childhood obesity, racism, or substance abuse. Certainly it is the rare teacher or leader who can switch easily from one world view to another, but these people bring a kind of super-power to solving tough problems. Imagine the power of being able to leverage the best parts of the world’s diverse cultures in tackling some of our biggest challenges. Imagine if these leaders and teachers are prepared for struggle, difficulty, complexity, and set-backs. What if we could move away from the silver bullet, pop-a-pill, press a button approach to solving problems?
There are Evolutionary educators out there working, teaching and leading the way. And changing our education system in America is a monumental struggle of its own. So when you meet these great leaders, give them your support. Ask how you can help? What do they need? Because this struggle belongs to each and every one of us. What can we accomplish together if we persist, work hard, and struggle for that dream that seems just beyond our reach?
I, for one, am ready to find out.