Different Approaches to Teaching

This week, NPR ran a story called “Struggle for Smarts? How Eastern and Western Cultures Tackle Learning.” The roughly 9-minute segment explores the differences in approaches to teaching from here in the United States compared to Eastern Cultures. We not only found the article to be extremely thought provoking, but it made us think of how we could apply some different approaches to teaching and more specifically tutoring.

Academic Struggles

The report pointed out that in most American classrooms; the “smart” students are invited to share with the rest of the class. The best students raise their hands and interact more with the teacher because they are comfortable with the course material. On the other hand, students who are struggling tend to keep to themselves and don’t participate. They rationalize that they are not smart enough to know the answer and instead remain quiet.

Jim Stigler, a psychology professor, comments on his time studying abroad in Japan. He was researching teaching methods and was observing a fourth grade math class.

Stigler remarks, “The teacher was trying to teach the class how to draw three-dimensional cubes on paper,” Stigler explains, “and one kid was just totally having trouble with it. His cube looked all cockeyed, so the teacher said to him, ‘Why don’t you go put yours on the board?’ So… I thought, ‘That’s interesting! He took the one who can’t do it and told him to go and put it on the board.’”

The student made many attempts to get the answer in front of the class, to no avail. Finally after many tries, the student got the right answer and was met with applause from the entire class. Stigler, who was sitting in the back of the room, was in complete awe. He fully expected the student to break down into tears due to the pressure of messing up in front of the class; however the student smiled once he finished the problem, knowing he had figured it out correctly.

What We Can Learn

Struggle is going to be a part of learning. We need to start incorporating struggle into our learning processes. Let’s face it, learning is messy. Some people pick up on subjects very quickly. Others have to practice, study, and practice some more until they get it right. Keeping this in mind, we need to make sure that there is some buffer room for success and for failures in teaching.

What the Japanese school culture can teach us is that making mistakes is okay. Far too many American students are focused on getting the perfect score, straight A’s, and being the best in their classes. We need to start letting go of the stigma surrounding academic struggles and accept them as a part of the learning curve.

A good tutor can recognize that a student isn’t “stupid.” Some students just need a little bit of extra guidance, or a new way of processing the information so that they can learn the material on their own. The tutoring relationship is a perfect place to allow for failures as students work one on one with the tutor. Tutors should create a safe space where their tutees can feel comfortable making mistakes and messing up. A mistake alone is simply an opportunity to learn.

You can listen to and read the whole story here: http://www.npr.org/blogs/health/2012/11/12/164793058/struggle-for-smarts-how-eastern-and-western-cultures-tackle-learning

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