Sunday, 25 May 2014

Suffering And Sacrifice in Eastern Thinking

A student used this as a graphic
text in an English Elearning course
I had an English student hand this in yesterday as an example of a graphics text.  The assignment was to create three questions with answers based on the graphic text.  This is a surprisingly quick way to assess a student's understanding of a graphic text (well done Elearning Ontario).

But ya gotta be careful with the manga, it can get deep quickly, especially when you throw cultural differences into the mix.  The student's understanding of this snippet fell into a number of problems, not the least of which was the yawning gap between how a Christian middle-class, white teen in rural Ontario and the Buddhist, Japanese writer of the manga interpret suffering.

The student took "a painless lesson is one without any meaning" and focused on the lack of meaning.  He suggested when random, pointless things happen to you, you should just roll with it; suffering just happens arbitrarily.  I like how student's analysis of a text often tells you more about them than it does about the text.

Incompetence: when students suddenly decide to try they
think instant success will follow because the only thing
preventing it before was their lack of effort.  It turns out
that mastery requires  a bit more than showing up once.
I wrote back suggesting that without fully committing to what you're doing and suffering loss and sacrifice in the process, you never really learn anything.  Only by being fully committed to your lesson, and possibly losing something valuable to you in the process, can you hope to truly learn.  A painless, safe lesson is meaningless because you'll never learn (keep) anything from it.  It's also useless because you're not working at the ragged edge of your abilities, so you're not doing anything you haven't done before.  Put another way, no risk, no reward.

The student didn't seem interested in my interpretation.  It fits a Western 21st Century teen's world view to frame learning in terms of pointless suffering and minimal personal investment.  By being an intentionally ineffective agent in an arbitrary world, you can blame everything except yourself for your circumstances.  Your abilities are never in question because you are never the architect of any failure.

Eastern thinking is an ongoing fascination for me.  I did my first two years as a teacher in Japan. This student's graphic text was especially resonant because I'd just read this the week before:
The nail that stands highest gets hammered down.
What looks like cruelty takes on a different tone
when you consider how stress and suffering
are integrated into Eastern Culture.

Struggle for Smarts: How Eastern And Western Cultures Tackle Learning
From a Western perspective, struggle is "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."

Like the author of that article, I saw Japanese students almost revelling in the difficulty of what they were failing at.  That difficulty and failure is what made it all the more satisfying when they eventually found success.  The Japanese don't toss out suffering because it's difficult, they use it to leverage learning and they do it in a culturally immersive way.  What looks like cruelty to foreign eyes is actually a sign of respect from a Japanese perspective.  If everyone is focused on doing their best then the rest will happen.  We're much more focused on the end result in the West.

They don't say good luck in Japan,
they say gambate, do your best.
I studied Kendo while I was in Japan.  In the thousand year old temple that was our dojo I was the only gaijin.  For the first six months I couldn't get anyone to teach me defence.  My Sensei (a principal at the local high school) said I should be focused entirely on attack, if you think defensively you'll never succeed.  I liked the boo-ya Bushido samurai thinking behind this, but suspected it was really because the other students loved beating the hell out of me with a stick.  I used to come home cross eyed from getting hit on the head, but I wouldn't give up, I'm stupid like that, but it turns out that this stubbornness was what the Japanese enjoyed most about me.

I also played hockey while in Japan.  I had all sorts of trouble getting comfortable with my team mates until we had a wedding party that never ended followed by a morning hockey game.  We were a wreck, but seeing me in that kind of misery seemed to break down all the barriers.  Did the Japanese like to see me suffer, or did they like to see me gambatte?  It's all about the effort, not the result in Japan.  It took me a long time to see it from an Eastern point of view.

Resiliency and genuine, deeply personal learning are born of failure, Eastern thought embraces this.  Western students, by contrast, preempt failure by refusing to fully commit to learning in the first place.  When they fail they shrug because they know it isn't their failure;  you can't lose if you don't play.  Our glorious sense of Western individualism is remarkably fragile.  Isn't this all about protecting egg-shell egos?  Western education systems encourage this approach by presenting learning in the most impersonal, abstract way possible and hiding any failures.  Safety nets abound ensuring that students can disengage from learning the moment it becomes difficult.

You'd never expect a Western school to take the weakest kid in the class and have them display their lack of skill in front of everyone as happens in that article, but then you'd not expect Western students to earnestly cheer the student when they overcome repeated frustration and see success either.  I suspect Stigler is right, we frame struggle in terms of a lack of intelligence rather than recognizing it as the foundation of resilience and genuine learning.

That English student stepped in a surprisingly deep puddle with that graphic text.