Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Born Spellers?

I love Arthur. For those of you who don’t have kids I’ll give you a quick introduction. Arthur is an animated Aardvark who has his own kids show on PBS. The characters were created by Marc Brown. The plot lines have some very deep and surprisingly sophisticated themes.
One of the chapters of Mistakes Were Made deals with the drastically different approaches that Americans and Asian cultures take on the issue of making mistakes in school. In American schools there seems to be a theme that certain people are born better at one subject than others. If they don’t excel in that subject rather than being asked to apply themselves and devote a little more effort on homework they are told things like maybe “this just isn’t your thing.” Performance and lack of performance is blamed on inherited ability or the lack thereof. The side effect of this is that by linking it to innate ability the student doesn’t have to feel too bad about not excelling in that subject. Unfortunately, the opposite is also true. When students succeed they are denied the right to take credit for their accomplishments. What is there to take credit for if you didn’t have to do anything to achieve it? I might as well just be proud of my accomplishment of having blue eyes. That’s another genetic trait that I had nothing to do with.
Conversely, Asian cultures and encouraged to tough it out and work through problems in all subjects. Mistakes are not viewed as failures until you quit trying. Perhaps this attitude explains why Asian and Middle Eastern cultures do so much better that Americans in math and science; not because it’s genetic but that they just work harder because they know it is within their control. True the stigma of failure may be strong in those cultures but the joy of success if proportionally greater.
So I’m listening to the current episode of Arthur while I check my email. I’m not listening too intently until I hear the line, “Don’t worry Arthur. Some people are just born good spellers.”
Knowing how well Marc Brown weaves deeper philosophical themes into his stories I turned around and watched the rest of the show. Arthur was studying for a spelling-bee. Just as I suspected Mr. Ratburn, Arthur’s science teacher, took a more Asian philosophy to learning. He encouraged Arthur to enter the spelling-bee because it was hard for him. He empowered Arthur to not be afraid of mistakes and to just keep trying. Later on Arthur’s sister, DW, used the line, “Sorry. Arthur can’t come out to play. He’s exercising his brain.”
Arthur’s brain exercises paid off when it came time for the spelling-bee, in spite of his earlier advice that he may not have been a “born speller”.
This is one of the most powerful lessons that I learned from Mistakes Were Made. I’d like to thank Arthur and Marc Brown for reinforcing this idea with my family.

1 comment:

  1. Granny Sue11:23 AM

    "real" Success can only be obtained after many, many attempts in the real world but too often failure is not seen as a part of the learning process. We need to stress the processes used by inventors that illustrates how many ideas and trials they experienced before reaching their goal (and that sometimes, they discovered things along the way that was totally unintended). Research and development in medicine or business rarely succeeds the first time something is attempted.