December 03, 2012

Perseverance makes perfect

This NPR story highlighting the differences between Eastern (Asia) and Western (U.S.) approaches to classroom learning accurately sums up the prevailing attitudes in Japan, where it is

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.

It's an ethos and a state of mind summed up in the verb ganbaru, often expressed in the volitional form: ganbarou! (がんばろう!), meaning to persist, to hang on, to stick it out. But there are limits to what sheer effort can accomplish, and dangers in not acknowledging them.

Until they saw the wisdom of the "American style" of training, Japanese baseball coaches regularly burned out pitchers and exhausted players in the mistaken belief that perseverance alone made perfect. As described in this New York Times story, Yankees pitcher Hiroki Kuroda

is one of the last of a cohort of Japanese players who grew up in a culture in which staggeringly long work days and severe punishment were normal, and in which older players could haze younger ones with impunity.

To be sure, the hand-wringing in Japanese educational circles over the stubborn persistence of ganbaru-based pedagogies and the dearth of more "creative" options is real too, but nothing compared to the industrial-scale educational angst on this side of the Pacific.

A big part of the problem in the U.S. are conflicting ideologies that ricochet back and forth between assertions of inborn genius and the child's mind as a blank slate, the Panglossian belief that given the right pedagogical touchstone, kids can be programmed like computers.

The more realistic Asian approach has recently found pop-science acceptance in the "10,000 hour rule." However equalitarian it may appear, though, at the end of the day, how perfect practice makes you will correlate to inborn talent or IQ or whatever gifts God blessed you with.

10,000 hours of practice can make most people competent at a skill. Only a few will become truly excellent. Yes, Mozart practiced a whole lot, but chain the average child to a piano bench and he'd chew his arm off before getting anywhere close to the 10,000 hour mark.

There will come a point of diminishing returns when you have to decide how much more work is going to make the difference. In most cases, you're going to hit a plateau that is fine for a hobby but short of professional grade. (Not that there's anything wrong with hobbies.)

Giving up at what you thought you wanted to do with your life is often a prerequisite to discovering what you're actually good at, what is actually worth spending your time and effort on. The art and talent of cutting your losses and quitting deserves a lot more respect.

No matter how hard they study, no matter how many cram schools they attend, no matter how often they retake the entrance exams, most Japanese kids aren't going to make it into an elite university. A system that encourages them to waste their time trying is seriously flawed.

Except that in Japan, the blame is placed almost entirely on the kid who fails, not on the system. He just didn't ganbaru enough.

The NPR story misses this huge irony. A ganbarou! culture ultimately consigns responsibility to the individual. Americans see educational failings as institutional, while the Japanese portray them as personal. Maybe it's those attitudes we need to swap most of all.

Related posts

Dragon Zakura
Ganbarou! Japan
Feeling (too good) about ourselves

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# posted by Blogger Kate Woodbury
12/03/2012 6:28 PM   
"Maybe it's those attitudes we need to swap most of all."

Here beginneth my teacher's rant (with the warning that I just entered the last two weeks of the semester): I sure would like it if my students saw education as something that involved struggle and perseverance.

Although a student with average writing skills rarely becomes more than proficient, that student's sheer willingness to attend every class, follow every instruction, and visit every tutor translates into a more than respectable grade. And produces people I would actually hire.

I do have this type of student. Unfortunately, I also have the other type: who shows up once or twice a semester, hands in assignments late and incomplete, fails to hand in assignments, and then is astonished--astonished, I say--when it fails the course.

And, although I try to retain my so-called liberal arts belief that all students have the potential to do well in my courses, I usually can tell within the first two weeks of school which students will reach the end of the semester with decent (from their perspective) grades and which will fail despite their persistence in remaining on the class rolls.

The former students do precisely two things: (1) hand in the first assignment on-time; (2) actually follow the instructions for the first assignment, including the formatting instructions.

Granted, this isn't quite the same as wanting every kid to become a world-class surgeon. And I don't much want that. What I would like is to no longer have to say, "Look, will you stop treating research like Google where you put in your topic--cross-dressing hamsters of Illinois--and then throw up your hands because you didn't get ten credible sources right away?! Try actually researching!"

Along the same lines, it would be nice to NEVER hear: "I wasn't in class the day you covered comparison/contrast. I couldn't do the essay. That's why it isn't done."

Seriously?! SERIOUSLY?!

Is this inability to problem-solve a generational thing? Or is it the age? Students who say the above to me are not people I would hire to do anything, even feed my cats. ("I couldn't figure out where you might store the canned food, so I just let the little beggars starve.")