Written by:

Holly Macdonald


January 22, 2013

I read this article a couple of months ago, and it really struck a chord with me: Struggle Means Learning: Difference in Eastern and Western Cultures | MindShift. The basic premise of the article (although I suggest you read it, it’s not long)  is summed up here:

“I think that from very early ages we [in America] see struggle as an indicator that you’re just not very smart,” Stigler says. “It’s 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.”

In Eastern cultures, Stigler says, it’s just 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.

This is an interesting contrast. I don’t know if it’s true. Seems plausible. But the fundamental comparison is between ability and effort. If it was true and “Western” culture did value ability more than effort, it would pose a number of challenges for organizations:

  • Younger employees have been educated in a culture where ability is more valued than effort. This might result in an entitlement attitude and potentially arrogance when it comes to learning at work
  • A dislike of organizational learning, which by its very nature, you’d have to “go to” or “take” training because you lack ability
  • Pressure on learning departments or instructional designers to create learning solutions that are easy, to allow for maximum demonstration of ability. Those that don’t make learning solutions that are easy find themselves organizational pariahs
  • Lack of problem-solving skills
  • A workforce that may be deficient in tenacity, who lack resilience in the face of challenge or change.

It made me wonder. Does organizational learning have a culture that echoes this?

Do we value ability over effort? Does organizational learning perpetuate this through learning solutions that do not challenge anyone? Do those of us in the organizational learning field feel pressured to make it easy all the time? Are there places where learning shouldn’t be easy in a corporate setting?

How would we design learning that encouraged effort (struggle)? Are these examples?

  • Branching scenarios with no right answer, just some that lead you to different paths
  • Simulations that don’t give you extraneous feedback
  • Immersive solutions – like Augmented Reality or Role playing games

I’d be curious to hear what others think about this.