Redefine Struggle

My sister recently sent me an article entitled, “Struggle for Smarts”. The author opened his article with a story about a fourth grade classroom in Japan. In this story, the teacher was teaching his class how to draw three-dimensional cubes. As he observed the class, the author noticed that one of the boys was struggling with the concept and appeared unable to draw the cube correctly. The teacher noticed this as well and invited the youngster to draw the cube on the board in front of the class. Doing as he was instructed, the boy went to the front of the class, and drew the cube to the best of his ability, but he still could not complete the cube correctly. After his first try, the teacher asked the class, “How does that look?” The class confirmed that it was drawn incorrectly, so he tried again. Every few minutes, the teacher would ask the class if he had gotten it right, and each time, the students would look up from their work and shake their heads “no”. As the hour went on, and the boy had still not completed the cube correctly, the author realized that he had begun to perspire as he watched the boy anxiously and worried that he would become discouraged and begin to cry.

But, to his surprise, he did not. He diligently persisted, drawing his cube incorrectly each time. Try after try, he continued to draw his cube until, he had gotten it right. And when he had finally drawn the cube with mastery, the class broke into applause and he was able to return to his seat with pride.

Like the author of this article, many of us become uncomfortable when we imagine this young boy struggling in front of his peers in such a way. We think, “Why would the teacher do that to him, knowing that he was unable to draw the cube correctly? That poor boy! I feel so badly for him!” Yet, while this boy was struggling to master the task of drawing the cube, it does not appear that he was struggling emotionally. So why is it that we assume that he was? And why is it that we ourselves shift uncomfortably and feel badly for this boy who struggled to learn something new? It seems that many of us tend to view struggle as an indicator that we, or someone else, is lacking or “less than” in some important way. That we are not as intelligent, not as capable, not as resilient as we “should be”. That because we do not have it figured out yet, we are missing a skill or trait that we should otherwise possess.

Yet, if we were to adopt a perspective that is similar to the Japanese classroom, we would realize that struggle is an inherent and predictable part of life. It is part of learning, part of mastering a skill, part of figuring things out and finding our way. As this classroom knows, to struggle is not a sign of weakness. Rather, to struggle is to be presented with yet another opportunity to overcome challenge and to learn. To struggle is an opportunity to be proud of ourselves and satisfied with our efforts as we work through something difficult and overcome an obstacle.

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