NPR aired a piece on Monday morning about how Japanese schools (at least in the elementary grades) promote struggle as the pathway to learning and understanding. It was a profile of work by psychology professor Jim Stigler. The essence of it, and a nice parallel with Carol Dweck’s work on mindsets, is that unlike most American schools where success is attributed to innate intelligence, Japanese schools emphasize and even celebrate when students struggle to achieve.

Consider the fact that in America, students who are not performing up to standard, who aren’t proficient, are labelled as struggling learners. This is not typically a good label to have, since these kids are often removed from the regular classroom for part of the day in order to receive “remediation.” They do have a lot of attention lavished on them, of course, since a struggling learner likely means a less-than-proficient score on the state test at the end of the year. Stigler puts it this way:

I think that from very early ages we see struggle as an indicator that you’re just not very smart. It’s a sign of low ability — people who are smart don’t struggle, they just naturally get it, that’s our folk theory.

The NPR piece highlights something that I’ve discussed before: the value of failure. I believe we put too heavy an emphasis on continuous, unfettered success, what we like to call “achievement.” This term is a misnomer. A student who sees nothing but success, who puts in no effort yet receives a perfect score, has achieved nothing. Achievement implies something gained that was not there before. I think a better word for what we seem to value would be “coasting.” Think of it this way: Sir Edmund Hillary is a hero because he climbed Mount Everest, not Capitoline Hill. It was the very fact that it was hard that makes it an achievement.

Thus my argument here: all students should be struggling learners, and when students aren’t struggling, we need to see that as a red flag. We need to honor and respect the struggle. We need to coach our students to cheer when a student works hard at something and finally accomplishes the task. We need to quit putting on a pedestal the student who has all the right answers immediately, and for goodness sake stop praising kids for being smart.

Gifted education, then, should be all about the struggle. Stigler says that “in Asian cultures they tend to see struggle more as an opportunity.” We need to teach all of our students, and particularly gifted learners, that struggle is good and it is necessary for learning. Struggle is not a sign of weakness or lack of ability, it is a sign that the student is in the zone of proximal development. (See, this isn’t such a new idea after all.)

The NPR blog post closes with this, which I think sums this up quite nicely:

For example, Stigler says, in the Japanese classrooms that he’s studied, teachers consciously design tasks that are slightly beyond the capabilities of the students they teach, so the students can actually experience struggling with something just outside their reach. Then, once the task is mastered, the teachers actively point out that the student was able to accomplish it through hard work and struggle.

“And I just think that especially in schools, we don’t create enough of those experiences, and then we don’t point them out clearly enough.”

But we can, Stigler says.

But how do we make this happen? Many would argue that the solution is clearly that gifted students cannot be educated in the same class as other learners. To ensure that they are given opportunities to struggle means that the tasks will be beyond the reach of most other kids, and therefore not appropriate.

To that I make two counter-proposals. First, that we often sorely underestimate the capabilities of most children in most classrooms, and I think it may be because of our predisposition against struggle. We don’t want struggling learners, so we ease back on what we’re asking students to do until they no longer struggle. Set a high bar and leave it there. When students struggle, don’t immediately send them off to the remedial class–instead, let them flounder for a bit. Let them work at it. Give just enough assistance to get them over the big bumps. You might be surprised at what they can accomplish.

Second, I believe that our fast-food curriculum delivered in bite-sized bits in teacher-driven classrooms is significantly to blame for the problem. We need to fix this not by segmenting things further by subdividing our classes into smaller and smaller groups and clusters, but by creating rich, meaningful, curriculum and student-centered instruction that asks kids to do real and exciting things on a regular basis.