Life Compass
Stress Tests of Character

Lesson Plan #6

The Struggles of Mathematicians and Scientists


To help students make the connection between perseverance and success in STEM.


Ask students to jot down reflections about the following questions: 

What does the word “struggle” mean? When you hear the word “struggle,” does it have positive or negative connotations? Do strong math and science students “struggle” with the subject?

After five minutes of writing, ask students to share their ideas with a partner or small group. 

Then pose this question: How can struggles be valuable to the learning process?

After taking some comments, share aloud this passage from “Struggle Means Learning: Difference in Eastern and Western Cultures:

In 1979, when Jim Stigler was still a graduate student at the University of Michigan, he went to Japan to research teaching methods and found himself sitting in the back row of a crowded fourth-grade math class.

"The teacher was trying to teach the class how to draw three-dimensional cubes on paper," Stigler explains, "and one kid was just totally having trouble with it. His cube looked all cockeyed, so the teacher said to him, 'Why don't you go put yours on the board?' So right there I thought, 'That's interesting! He took the one who can't do it and told him to go and put it on the board.'"

Stigler knew that in American classrooms, it was usually the best kid in the class who was invited to the board. And so he watched with interest as the Japanese student dutifully came to the board and started drawing, but still couldn't complete the cube. Every few minutes, the teacher would ask the rest of the class whether the kid had gotten it right, and the class would look up from their work, and shake their heads no. And as the period progressed, Stigler noticed that he — Stigler — was getting more and more anxious.

In Japanese classrooms, teachers consciously design tasks that are slightly beyond the capabilities of the students they teach, so the students can actually experience struggling with something just outside their reach.

"I realized that I was sitting there starting to perspire," he says, "because I was really empathizing with this kid. I thought, 'This kid is going to break into tears!'"

But the kid didn't break into tears. Stigler says the child continued to draw his cube with equanimity. "And at the end of the class, he did make his cube look right! And the teacher said to the class, 'How does that look, class?' And they all looked up and said, 'He did it!' And they broke into applause.” The kid smiled a huge smile and sat down, clearly proud of himself.

Stigler is now a professor of psychology at UCLA who studies teaching and learning around the world, and he says it was this small experience that first got him thinking about how differently East and West approach the experience of intellectual struggle.

"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.


Ask students: Speaking of struggle, do you know of any mathematicians and scientists that struggled with learning? When we learn about famous people, we often only hear about their successes, not the personal and intellectual challenges they faced along the way. But great math and science breakthroughs always come with struggle — the people we read about are those who didn’t give up when things got tough. They had the tenacity to stick with a problem.

Share with students that a study out of Columbia University found that when students learned about the struggles of scientists, they were more motivated to persevere in their science class. The researchers wrote: “When students struggle in science classes, they may misperceive their struggle as an indication that they are not good at science and will never succeed.” But when students learn about how even famous scientists struggled, they began to see that encountering challenges — and learning from them — was simply part of the professional journey.

Ask students to share and discuss their reactions to this study (you can read more about it here). 

Then, write down some or all of the following names on the board:
  • Katherine Johnson
  • Marie Curie
  • Albert Einstein
  • Niccolò Fontana Tartaglia
  • Mary Anning
  • Alfred Nobel
  • Mary Jackson
  • George Washington Carver
  • Michael Faraday
  • Tu Youyou
  • E.O. Wilson
  • Rachel Carson
  • Stephen Hawking
Assign these mathematicians and scientists to individuals or groups. In class or for homework, ask students to research both what the individual was famous for and ways in which they struggled personally, academically, or professionally. Share these findings with the class.


Offer the following prompt for reflective writing:

Stanford researcher Carol Dweck wrote: “Effort is one of the things that gives meaning to life. Effort means you care about something, that something is important to you and you are willing to work for it. It would be an impoverished existence if you were not willing to value things and commit yourself to working toward them.” Think back to the opening discussion about “struggle.” What is one moment in your life when you struggled and persevered? What gave you the motivation to keep going? What did that experience teach you?

The Stress Tests of Character curriculum was made possible with the generous support of a grant from the Kern Family Foundation and our partnership with the Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues.

Copyright © 2020 LifeCompass Institute for Character & Leadership. All rights reserved.

For more information on this and other resources, visit The LifeCompass Institute.

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