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” Struggle For Smarts? How Eastern And Western Cultures Tackle Learning”


Struggle For Smarts? How Eastern And Western Cultures Tackle Learning is a very interesting piece from NPR this morning.

It basically says that in Asian cultures, the feedback that is given both at home and at school to children tends to be the kind that specifically reinforces the struggle and hard work that they give to learning, while in Western cultures we tend to tell them that they are smart only when they get things right. In other words, supposedly in Asian cultures they already know and apply the research of Carol Dweck on feedback without knowing it….

I’ve taught many Asian students at our school, and clearly the importance of hard work is valued in many of their families, but I’ve never really thought about this particular kind of cultural difference. I’d be interested in hearing from other teachers here and in Asia if they agree with the analysis described in NPR.

Here’s an excerpt:

This is not to imply that the Eastern way of interpreting struggle — or anything else — is better than the Western way, or vice versa. Each have their strengths and weaknesses, which both sides know. Westerns tend to worry that their kids won’t be able to compete against Asian kids who excel in many areas but especially in math and science. Jin Li says that educators from Asian countries have their own set of worries.

“‘Our children are not creative. Our children do not have individuality. They’re just robots. You hear the educators from Asian countries express that concern, a lot,'” she notes.

So, is it possible for one culture to adopt the beliefs of another culture if they see that culture producing better results?

Both Stigler and Li think that changing culture is hard, but that it’s possible to think differently in ways that can help. “Could we change our views of learning and place more emphasis on struggle?” Stigler asks. ” Yeah.”

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 the students 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.”

Author: Larry Ferlazzo

I'm a high school teacher in Sacramento, CA.


  1. I love this post because of the truth that it holds. Recently I have been doing a lot of research on book choice and reading growth for one of my graduate school classes. During this research, I have come across the idea that students spend more time on task and engaged in reading when they are reading books that are on their instructional level. For me this was mind blowing because as teachers we are told to encourage students to read on their independent level but instruct them on their instructional level. However, the studies showed that it is better for students engagement to have them reading books that are slightly too hard because they have to work hard to read them. This parallels this article exactly. By creating activities throughout the day that require students to squirm a little, you are able to help them grow tremendously. It is also a life skill to be able to persevere when the topics get tough. Now if only more teachers could take the time to create activities that pushed the envelope just a little bit…

  2. Pingback: The Role Culture Plays In Multicultural/Interracial Relationships: Asia | KolorBlind Mag

  3. 2nd attempt at this message:
    The standardized test used to assess school effectiveness does not match the learning objectives of the textbooks used in those schools. Textbooks are designed using a scrambling of standards from three states (CA, FL & TX), but the Big Test is based on each state’s standards. Teachers, even administrators, swimming in the confusion of too many standards and their adaptations for language learners can’t even see the core problem underlying the problems with learning. As a school reformer who brought a bottom tier high school to the top tier of schools with similar demographics (high poverty, low language skills) in 2007, I had to study standards across disciplines and grade levels. It is completely unfair to students and teachers not to provide clear learning goals, texts, and assessments that match. We need national standards. We need curriculum to come in line with those standards with on going assessments. Until the match is made, there can be no meaningful discussion of how to improve schools.

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