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In learning, if at first you don't succeed ...

Few people would suggest going down the Asian route to promote attainment in our schools.

Some educators suggest the system is too reliant on recall and rote learning at the expense of other skills and attributes such as critical thinking, analysis and creativity.

But what can be learned from the Far East? One of the main differences between the respective cultures is the extent to which young people and their parents value education. Some years ago, I worked in a school with a significant number of Asian pupils. They and their parents were astonished how lowly many Scottish children and parents valued education and their teachers. A few Korean children actually became emotionally distressed by the poor behaviour and low motivation of some of their peers.

Those Korean and Taiwanese families wished their children to be happy but they also had burning ambition for them. In contrast, I lost count of the number of Scottish parents who placed happiness above attainment, as if the two were mutually exclusive. Parents of children who could have attained five Higher grade passes were often depressingly content for them to study for four or even fewer "as long as they were happy".

Therein lies the real difference between Scottish children and parents and their Asian counterparts. The latter value education more highly and recognise what it can provide for their children. It might also explain why so many non-Scottish families make huge financial and personal sacrifices to place their children in private schools which they perceive as more closely aligned with their own educational values and aspirations.

Too many Scottish parents and teachers are complicit with children who opt out when the going gets tough. In some schools the unofficial motto appears to be "if at first you don't succeed, give up". Do we do as much as we should to ensure pupils continue with the "hard" subjects such as mathematics, languages and science? How can we promote resilience in young people so that struggle is seen as an important aspect of learning?

Alix Spiegel of the University of California, Los Angeles in his paper Struggle for Smarts? explored the concept of struggle in learning. He identified clear differences in how Eastern and Western cultures regard struggle. In Scotland it is essentially negative to describe someone as "struggling". Irrespective of age and activity we tend to equate struggle with failure or being perceived as "thick". Given the emotional insecurity and vulnerability during adolescence, we should not be surprised that the first reaction of many young Scots to difficulty is to give up. However, Spiegel suggests that, in the context of learning, suffering might not in itself be a bad thing.

In Eastern cultures, struggle is seen as an important aspect of learning. In an experiment, American and Japanese students were presented with an unsolvable mathematical problem. On average the American students gave up after 30 seconds. The Japanese had to be prised away from the problem after an hour. It could be argued that the Americans were smarter if they spotted the impossibility of the task. It probably tells us more about "stickability". Jin Li of Brown University observed American and Taiwanese mothers speaking to their children. She concluded there were significant differences in the way the mothers regarded intelligence. The American mothers tended to see intelligence as innate. Their Taiwanese counterparts were more likely to associate intelligence with action and not giving up.

Neither culture is right nor better, and each can learn from the other. Perhaps we should learn that struggle is an integral part of learning and it should not be a stigma, a threat to self-image, coolness or whatever you want to call it. In Japan teachers routinely build struggle into tasks by making them slightly more demanding than the pupils' current levels. In contrast, Education Scotland's inspectors regularly report a lack of challenge in our schools, especially for our brightest learners.

Scottish educational reforms are strong on choice, flexibility and creativity. Perhaps it's not too late to incorporate a new quality: resilience in the face of challenge and difficulty. Struggle is demonstrably an important component of learning. It is too important to give up on.

Contextual targeting label: 
Education

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