Skip to content

Struggle Means Learning: Implications for Organizations

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.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. Fiona Quigley permalink
    January 23, 2013 2:43 pm

    Great blog Holly. I read this article a while back and went through this very same thought process. When I design eLearning I do try to add difficulty, but it is often shot down or should I say dumbed down, by course reviewers. People want to have right and wrong answers, but if we are teaching good practice rather than best practice, generally right and wrong is too simple.

    To me, effort and ability go hand in hand. Effort leads to increased ability. Only a very few of us are born with such innate talents that we need make little effort. I wrote a blog for Chat2lrn last year on learning through failure. Interestingly, a few people criticised me for being negative! I believe this is a similar mindset. If we teach our children and young people that failure is hard and success is easy, then it mitigates against the effort mindset. We need more encouragement of putting in effort to get just rewards, while accepting that a few bumps a long the way is perfectly normal.

    We need to help our children and young people to develop healthy core values and beliefs. How limiting would it be if you thought you couldn’t fail at something – that is, if you fail, then you won’t ever be any good at it?

  2. February 18, 2013 5:22 pm

    I think there is something to the preference for (perceived) ability over effort. In fact it brings to mind the fixed-mindset versus growth-mindset that Carol Dweck studies.

    I seem to recall her using the young John McEnroe as an example of fixed mindset. To oversimplify, he felt that since he was a champion, he shouldn’t need to strive to improve — as if he’d come up to a set level of talent (thus, “fixed”). In contrast, a person with a growth mindset figures that there will be ways to observe and analyse shortcomings and to find methods for overcoming barriers to better performance.

    I’m a big advocate of job aids and other tools for guiding performance. My experience is that many organizations and many individual managers see the use of job aids as somehow a failure — “They ought to know this. They shouldn’t have to look it up.”

    As a result formal training wastes enormous resources trying to have people memorize information and procedures that could better be handled by a job aid.

    That’s not precisely the “do we not challenge?” angle (and, no, I don’t think we do — the learning machine isn’t well set up for that) but I think it’s related.


  1. Struggle Means Learning: Implications for Organizations | Coporate Training and eLearning |
  2. Struggle For Smarts? How Eastern And Western Cultures Tackle Learning : NPR « Reason & Existenz

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: