What’s “Struggling” got to do with Achievement?

A typical class in a Japanese elementary school.
A typical class in a Japanese elementary school. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

What’s “Struggling” got to do with Achievement? It depends on your perspective

On Morning Edition today (11.12.12; the National Public Radio morning news program), correspondent Alix Spiegel presented the word “struggle” in a positive light, that is, she reported that in educational contexts, struggle isn’t necessarily a bad thing. The “take away” of the report is that the emotional and motivational value of struggling in school depends on your perspective. Music to my ears! This is just the message I like convey whenever I can. I’ve mentioned this some in previous posts, and am inspired to elaborate further here.

A matter of perspective

Whether struggling in school is viewed in a positive or a negative light varies across individuals, AND on a larger scale across countries. Both levels of analysis are worthy of note. I’ve discussed the individual level before, but not the cultural, in any degree of detail. At the cultural level, as reported today, the US perspective is that struggling is seen as a problem. In contrast, in Japan, struggle is seen as a solution.

This cultural level difference is worthy of consideration for a number of reasons. As a country, students in Japan outperform US students. However, in the US, we spend more money per child in public education. Clearly our economics aren’t working for us when it comes to educational outcomes. Our students fall far from the top on exams like the one sponsored by PISA (Program for International Student Assessment). The latest PISA results available for view cover the 2009 test results, and they show that across the 70-some countries who participated, neither economic prosperity nor number of dollars spent per child in a public school environment predicted national achievement.

  •  Notable countries at the top of the achievement list: Korea, Finland, Singapore-China, and Japan
  • A Notable country at the top of the dollars-spent-per-child list: United States

Note that US students did not score highly on the last PISA exam. Our students tend to perform better in science than in reading, but our students are not competitive on exams that require reading comprehension, thinking, and analysis. Why might this be?

Beliefs about success cause it

The reasons are surely complex, with more than one factor at play. Rather than list them all, I want to discuss one factor that surely plays a role and that is our national attitude towards achievement motivation and our perceptions about what “struggling” means. Our national attitudes towards achievement motivation are diverse and often misguided (see my earlier post on self esteem), we tend to view “struggling” as a bad thing, and we tend to believe that intelligence is genetically inherited. It is possible that this package of beliefs holds our students back from growing up to their academic potential (especially when these beliefs exist in a high-stakes testing environment).

What might happen if we changed our beliefs? There’s reason to believe that good things might come of this. The reasons are grounded in research and theory. This should come as good news to you. Why good? Because that’s something that can be fixed, and fixed for free! Yes, attitudes, perspectives, and beliefs are free, yet the benefits from the right kind can be priceless.

What needs fixing, exactly?

As noted earlier, in the US, the common perception is that “struggling students” feel negative emotions and we worry that they will tend towards “learned helplessness” where they lose all motivation to carry on. In contrast, in Japan, “struggle” is seen as a necessary step towards achievement and thus is an integral aspect of achievement motivation. An anecdote gleaned from research investigating achievement across cultures (research by Professor James W. Stigler, currently at UCLA) makes the difference noted here stark.

  • First graders were given a math problem that was intentionally too difficult for the children to easily figure out.
    • US Students spent about 30 seconds on it, before stopping and asking for help
    • Japanese students spent 1 hour on it, and the researchers then had to ask them to stop because their allotted time in the classroom was up

In short, US students stopped just as soon as the struggling set in, whereas Japanese students carried on, working through the challenge. Their skills were not better at the outset, but their motivation to persevere surely was. That is, their perspective on what that feeling of “struggling” means differed. Presumably, Japanese students felt the challenge in a positive light, whereas US students felt the challenge in a negative light. Related to this is another “national attitudes” difference between US and Japanese parents and teachers: in a survey US parents on average reported thinking that intelligence is inborn whereas Japanese parents reported thinking that intelligence comes from hard work. With a belief like the latter, struggling makes sense: it will yield a positive outcome. With a belief like the former, struggling is pointless, since you can’t change your genetic inheritance. No wonder US students view struggling in a negative light. Who likes to be reminded of things they can’t change?

But, that is simply a matter of belief – I’ve mentioned elsewhere that Psychologists have yet to decide just what intelligence is. And that doesn’t much matter when it comes to achievement motivation. When it comes to motivation, the mindset that intelligence comes from hard work, wins out every time.

Where did our view that struggling is bad come from?

So where did this national attitude come from? At what point did “struggle” become something to be avoided? I really wonder about this, because when we look to Psychological theory on the nature of growth and change over the lifespan, a general principle jumps off the page: growth emerges from resolving conflict. In other words from working through a situation that made you struggle. All the major theories rest on this assumption. All that differs across theories is the skill under investigation, or contextual factors, or the quality of the research supporting the theory. But they all agree that change doesn’t happen if it doesn’t need to. And what makes change necessary is the feeling of discomfort. For inquisitive readers, here’s a brief mention of some of the biggies:

  • Piaget called the necessary motivational state for promoting growth “disequilibrium.”  Humans experience discomfort when their knowledge and skills don’t allow for easy problem solving, so they do something to change their knowledge and skills. When the change works, discomfort is relieved and growth happens.
  • Vygotsky likened the necessary motivational state for promoting growth to the discomfort felt when engaged in argumentation. By framing learning in dialectical terms (e.g., reasoning via argumentation), Vygotsky discussed the proposition that cognitive growth can only happen when more accomplished “tool users” challenge less accomplished users to go about the work of learning at a higher level, while supporting the learner just enough to boost the learner’s performance, but not enough to relieve the discomfort (e.g., that where the terms “scaffolding” and “zone of proximal development” come in, when Vygotsky’s work is applied to education).
  • Maslow’s theory of self-actualization rests on the premise that our behaviors are motivated in a needs-reduction manner, such that tension caused by an deficit motivates behavior in a hierarchical manner where physiological needs come first, followed by more psychological needs. The point relevant here is that discomfort directs behavior.
  • The Self Determination Theory rests on a similar (to Maslow) notion that what guides behavior is the degree to which three core needs are met: autonomy, relatedness, and competence. When these needs are thwarted, our behavior changes for the worse. When these needs are satisfied, our behavior is the best that it can be.
  • Maria Montessori, who built a method of instruction rather than a large-scale theory of development, recognized this as well. The materials that guide primary instruction have a built-in error correction element, so that young children can work through their initial problems on their own, and “solve” the challenge inherent in the task on their. There is nothing in her writings to imply that children’s shouldn’t struggle with their work – quite the opposite, in fact. She noted that when children found their school work too easy or not stimulating, they would begin to misbehave. The perfect balance of challenge and age-appropriate engagement, according to Montessori, keeps children actively engaged in learning.

In sum, all theories state that struggling is good. We only grow when our current views or skills are challenged. Sometimes we can work through this challenge alone, but at other times we need to be shaken up a bit. The report on the radio this morning shows that teachers in Japan know this and the structure of their classes reflect the knowledge. The characterization of the Japanese classroom researcher Dr. Stigler observed played out like an illustration of Vygotskian principles with a dollop of Self Determination Theory on top.

We can learn from this, and that’s where the news story ended: with a comment that we should take note and change our classrooms in kind. We can’t very well pick up a Japanese curriculum plan and plunk it down in a US school and call it good though, rather, we need to make it our own. If you peruse some of my previous posts, that’s just what I’ve been aiming to do. We can take steps to inform teachers of “best practice” when it comes to motivating students. We can inform parents too of “best practice” when it comes to talking with their kids about schoolwork and success (e.g., see “Planting Seeds of Change”). Today served as motivation for me to keep on writing about this, in the hopes that my hard work will yield some positive change for others. Let me know what you think, so far. Are your beliefs changing?



  1. I love reading your articles. I think what you are saying relates to Dweck’s idea of a growth mindset being really important and believing that intelligence is not fixed. I have to say though that I believe intelligence is genetic to an extent although one’s environment and efforts can have a major impact on achievement. Furthermore, emotional intelligence is the most important thing for success in life.

    • Thank you Faye! I agree that this issue is just what Carol Dweck discusses with her work on mindsets (i inserted a link to one of my posts where I discuss her work, but didn’t call it out directly). In fact, I was surprised that the NPR correspondent didn’t make that connection explicit as well. As for your perspective on intelligence, I also absolutely agree that the ability to read others’ emotions and respond appropriately, as well as regulate your own, is paramount to success no matter the situation. Whether that skill is called “intelligent” and whether its inborn, is surely one of the greatest debates in modern psychology. I think something is coded in our genes, but I hesitate to say that any one intelligence theorist has gotten the labels right, quite yet.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s