November 12, 2012

If there is no struggle, there is no progress. Those who profess to favor freedom and yet deprecate agitation are men who want crops without plowing up the ground; they want rain without thunder and lightning. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters… This struggle may be a moral one, or it may be a physical one, and it may be both moral and physical, but it must be a struggle.
-Frederick Douglass

Interestingly, National Pubic Radio (NPR) featured a story on how Eastern and Western cultures approach learning. In 1979, Jim Stigler, professor of psychology at UCLA, he went to Japan to research teaching methods and observed the following in a fourth-grade math class:

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. The teacher said to him, ‘Why don’t you go put yours on the board? Every few minutes, the teacher would ask the rest of the class whether the kid had gotten it right, and the class would look up from their work, and shake their heads no.  Stigler thought the student was going to break into tears. But the kid didn’t break into tears. Rather, the child continued to draw his cube with equanimity. And at 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.

Stigler, who studies teaching and learning around the world, says it was this small experience that first got him thinking about how differently East and West approach the experience of intellectual struggle. He summed up the lessons he learned from his experience in Japan this way:

I think that from very early ages we [in America] 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. Whereas in Asian cultures, they tend to see struggle more as an opportunity. In Eastern cultures, 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.

Similarly, the same conclusions and instructions can be drawn from the symbolic meaning of the Kwanzaa red candle and from the Kwanzaa color scheme which places emphasis and priority on struggle. In the Kwanzaa candle color pattern: red is symbolic of struggle, green symbolic of prosperous future, and black, symbolic of black people. The lesson drawn from this is straightforward: continual effort and work results in a prosperous outcome or future. Put another way, attention and investment in the right process equals/results in a good outcome. Parents must embrace this concept and teach it as a practice to children. Rather than emphasize intelligence and smarts as key determinant of school success, parents and children ought to accentuate struggle, i.e., effort or due diligence in all realms of life, but especially in school and the learning process.

Equally important, as adults, we must model this practice. Empirical studies are clear that modeling is the most important element of teaching and shaping behavior. When children excel, we must say to them that their achievement was an outcome of their willingness to persevere, stick to it, and not give up because it was hard. This is the lesson drawn from the Kwanzaa red candle.

This Kwanzaa and in the subsequent weeks and months, we must highlight and continuously teach this lesson. Employment of a Kwanzaa Journal accenting effort, along with a family incentive and merit system which rewards effort, is one of the best means for tracking, monitoring and measuring adherence to the instructive lesson of the Kwanzaa red candle.

Next blog post- Kwanzaa Journal

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