Struggling is Good

Yesterday morning on our drive to the office, Peggy and I were listening to NPR’s Morning Edition. We were quite struck by the news report about struggling versus knowing in comparing “how differently East and West approach the experience of intellectual struggle,” and how that impacts the teaching methods in the classroom.

In Eastern cultures, according to Jim Stigler, professor at UCLA, it is assumed that struggling is 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.”

Stigler suggests that in the American culture, for the most part, “intellectual struggle in schoolchildren is seen as an indicator of weakness.”

Both Peggy and I, as educators, found this concept of “If you are struggling, it doesn’t mean you are stupid, it means you are demonstrating the strength to persevere,” so intriguing that the radio was switched off and the concept dominated our conversation on the remainder of our commute to work.

I reflected back on my own education and (no surprise to those who know me) I was not the sharpest knife in the drawer. Getting through my elementary, secondary, and most of my postsecondary education was a struggle.  I was not one of those students who knew, I had to spend a good deal of time studying and re-studying subjects and finding ways to get to “know.”  Looking back, I didn’t want to let anyone know that I was struggling, because I did see this as a sign of a lack of intelligence, and who would want to admit that?  But I do believe that learning how to struggle to learn served me well in my doctoral studies.  I knew I had to put in more hours with the books, I knew I needed to join study groups, and I knew that it wasn’t going to be easy.  With all that in mind, some of my best learning experiences took place while completing my doctorate. I succeeded in subjects like statistics, which was one of the content areas I didn’t grasp as an undergraduate.

Peggy and I also talked about this concept of struggling and perseverance as it pertains to leadership.  I don’t know about you, but I find myself, particularly earlier in my career, feeling stupid because others around me quickly grasped the issue and had these great ideas for addressing it.  I was the one who kept asking questions, stupid questions I thought, to better understand the challenge, struggling to understand.  You may know the feeling; I just wanted to come up with “the” good idea.

With age, I guess, I’ve become more content with the fact that I do sometimes struggle to get my arms around issues, and I consider it a good thing when others come up with “the” idea as to how to move forward.  I may not have “the” idea but it is my job to help others see what “the” idea should be and how we can, together, implement the idea.

In thinking about this concept of struggling versus knowing, I thought about the adult students we work with in our Adult Degree Program.  Like many others, our Adult Degree Program is a degree completion program and it is targeted for those students who have stopped out for whatever reason and are now coming back to finish their degree. When I think about these students, they, by their nature, demonstrate the strength to struggle and to persevere.  Certainly one of my most important jobs is to be an advocate for adult students on our campus and to help others to understand that we need to celebrate the perseverance of these students.  We are very lucky at JMU that we have excellent support services for our adult students, but imagine how difficult it can be for an adult student who is struggling to understand the policies and procedures of a university and is told when asking for help, “I can’t believe you don’t know this, all of our on campus students know how to do this.”  Or, “what do you mean you don’t have the book, don’t you know where the book store is?”

I am very intrigued by this notion of celebrating the struggle and recognizing that being able to persist is as important if not more important than simply knowing. So here’s to all those who are willing to take on the struggle; let’s raise a glass to celebrate the importance of their persistence.  While I’ve always known that I am a bit like the characters in Jimmy Buffet’s song Fruitcakes (that is, I may be a fruitcake because the cosmic bakers took me out of the oven a little too early), at the end of the day, we need more fruitcakes in this world and fewer bakers.

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2 Responses to Struggling is Good

  1. grahammb says:

    What a great post, Jim! Clearly, you are in the right position. To have this kind of understanding and empathy is such a remarkable gift for the students you serve. And you are absolutely right….more fruitcakes and less bakers!!!!

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