East versus West -- No Pain, No Gain

A few days ago, this blog moved over 65,500 page views since its inception.   It is amazing how often I receive emails from teachers (around the world) who start out by saying “A friend of mine who teaches at my school told me about your blog.”  

Consequently, I like to stop now and then and say Thanks!!! to everyone who passes along a good word about this blog.   If not for you, I would be writing all this stuff to myself.   Whether you agree or disagree, I really appreciate your passing along the blog entries.


One of the things that I try to do in my classes is talk with my students about my teaching philosophy.  I want them to understand that I do not do things randomly.   I try to have a reason for what I do and I want that reason to be logical.   I think students appreciate being brought into the conversation about their own education.   I think they are more likely to do what the teacher asks if they understand that there is a reason.  

To use an overused cliché, I want my teaching to be transparent.

Here’s an email that I sent out to my students today.   It is probably pretty obvious that I do become frustrated at times by students who simply will not try.   For some reason, they have come to the conclusion that trying is not a necessary part of learning.  Or, that trying is some type of bad omen.  

I want them to look at trying in a different light.   Here's what I wrote them.

To: Accounting Students

From: JH

A friend of mine sent me the link above from an NPR show that was aired this morning about education. As people who have been students virtually your entire lives, I thought you might find this essay interesting. It could make you question whether you have been educated by the best possible philosophy. And, it might also help you understand my style of teaching a bit better.

Basically, this article stresses a philosophy that learning is greatly improved by struggle (a word that we rarely associate with education in the US).

In fact, here is the quote that I found most interesting.

“In Eastern cultures, Stigler says, it's just assumed that struggle is a predictable part of the learning process. Everyone is expected to struggle in the process of learning, and so struggling becomes a chance to show that you, the student, have what it takes emotionally to resolve the problem by persisting through that struggle”

“To show that you, the student, have what it takes emotionally to resolve the problem by persisting through that struggle” – interesting concept for education. The author is apparently talking about something more than taking notes and memorizing formulas.

I think we all realize that in sports there are many sayings that stress the importance of struggle: “No pain, no gain” being probably the best known. I don’t think I’ve ever met a single athlete who didn’t subscribe to that philosophy whole heartedly. Whenever you see a championship athlete (in the Olympics, for example, or on the football field), it is simply assumed that the person has spent countless hours in rigorous training in order to become that good.  

However, we don’t exhibit the same attitude toward our best students. We rarely talk about the countless hours it takes to become a championship student. Instead, we tend to dismiss the difficult work that is necessary because “oh, he/she is just smart.”

For some reason, our education system doesn’t put much emphasis on the struggle that is necessary for deep learning. In fact, any visible sign of a struggle to learn material is often viewed as a weakness (“he/she is really not cut out for this stuff”). Is learning that takes place quickly any more beneficial than learning that occurs after considerable effort?

I believe the reason we don’t stress the need to struggle to learn is that we don’t challenge our students enough (and then we are often unhappy that they don’t turn out better prepared). From kindergarten forward, the “struggle” to learn is not often much of a struggle. After enough years, you come to believe that struggle is not really a necessary component of learning.

Oh, do I disagree with that. I want you to struggle. To repeat, I want you to struggle. Every single day. I want you to have to put up a fight. I want to make this stuff hard enough that you have to struggle to do well. I think it is good for you and it makes the learning so much more a part of your being.

If I could make learning easy for you, I would not do it.

In truth, I think about 70 percent of you are putting up the fight that I want. I am very pleased (most days) with about 70 percent of you. The other 30 percent have a tendency to give “lazy answers” that often seem to say “I didn’t feel like struggling with this material so here’s a throw away answer so that you’ll let me slide.”

My goal in this email is not to convert you to my thinking. I’m more interested in making you aware that lazy answers don’t do you any good.

My real goal here is to make one point: Champion athletes struggle mightily to get better. Champion students must do the same thing. There is no shame in having to put up a fight to learn this stuff. In fact, that’s how it ought to be.

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