Why do we feel the need to generalize about education in Eastern cultures versus Western cultures?

I was checking my daily Facebook feed and I came across an interesting article that someone had shared. The article was titled “Struggle Means Learning: Difference in Eastern and Western Cultures.” The article is from 2012, so it is a couple years old and I’m not sure why my Facebook friend chose to share it, but it caught my eye because I teach in Japan and I often find myself comparing education here to education back home in the United States.

Pretty quickly into the article I had a negative reaction. The main premise of the article is that Eastern cultures view “struggle” as a valuable part of the learning process, and cultures such as China and Japan tend to encourage students to face a difficult situation and struggle through it. This might be true. However, I was irritated by the way they chose to present this argument: through a single anecdote about a psychologist who was observing a math class in Japan, and found it interesting that the teacher chose a boy who was struggling with the problem to do it on the board rather than a good student who knew how to do the problem. According to the article, the psychologist Stiegler “knew that in American classrooms, it was usually the best kid in the class who was invited to the board.”

We have a lot of generalizations being made with that anecdote. My first thought as I was reading it was that this choice to have the struggling student come to the board was not based on culture – it was based on the unique teaching style of that particular math teacher. I am sure that many American teachers use strategies such as these to help both the struggling student and the class learn how to accomplish a problem. And I have seen teachers in Japan show preference for the students who already know the answer by asking them to give the answer or write it on the board.

Later in the article, the psychologist offers another generalization about Eastern education:

“Stigler says, in the Japanese classrooms that he’s studied, 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. Then, once the task is mastered, the teachers actively point out that the student was able to accomplish it through hard work and struggle.”

Again, this just seems like good teaching practice to me. Most teachers I know are familiar with the concept introduced by Lev Vygostsky called the Zone of Proximal Development, which says that there is a difference between what a learner can do by himself, and what he can do with assistance. Teachers who use this strategy design a task that is just out of the reach of the learner, but then provide scaffolding and other strategies to help the child learn how to achieve the learning goal. Eventually, they will be able to do the task on their own, without the teacher’s assistance. The “struggle” they go through to get to the point where they can do the task on their own is part of the learning process, and it is a very effective teaching strategy, in my opinion.

I guess the article meant to emphasize the fact the the Japanese teacher actively points out that it was the students’ hard work and perseverance that made them able to achieve the goal, rather than their natural intelligence, which Americans tend to place high value on (according to the article). But I’m not convinced that Americans don’t also place great emphasis on hard work and struggle – we believe in the idea of the American dream and we respect, even worship, personalities such as Steve Jobs who dropped out of college but built a supremely influential technology company. Entrepreneurship is a highly valued quality, and most people agree that it is a combination of perseverance and perspiration that brings success.

My point is that the article uses these types of generalizations to make a blanket statement about education in Eastern cultures and Western cultures. While there is probably some truth to this idea that Eastern cultures view struggle differently from Western cultures, I felt that the article was too comfortable making quick assumptions and using anecdotal evidence to try to convince me of this cultural difference between education in the East and West.

I have worked in both Japan and China as a teacher, and I just don’t understand how people can so easily lump the two together and talk about “Eastern” culture. They are very distinct cultures. China places great emphasis on teaching students the virtues of Confucianism; Japan promotes social behaviors which help to maintain group harmony, sometimes to the extent of sacrificing the individual’s needs. I know these also are huge generalizations, but in my experience they are aspects that are unique to China and Japan as individual cultures. We often lump these ideas together and say they are “Eastern.” Then we put ourselves in the category of “Western” and we make these ridiculous comparisons. But by doing so, we do a disservice to ourselves, making it seem like our cultural values are lacking in something, and to Asians, since we are basically stereotyping.

I have seen excellent teachers in Japan and China. I must acknowledge that students in both China and Japan are ahead of American students as a whole when it comes to math (but I don’t necessarily think we would want to put our students through what they put their students through to achieve these high standards in math). But I have seen terrible teachers in both countries, just like I have seen terrible (and excellent) teachers in America.

I think it would be better for both the “East” and the “West” if they stopped comparing themselves to each other by saying one is better at this, while the other is better at that. All this does is provide fodder for politicians to criticize a system and say that teachers in one country are not as effective. Instead we should strive to find the teaching strategies that are proven to work, and then make sure that teachers everywhere are using those strategies. I don’t think these stereotypes are the answer – solid research of what effective teachers do in their classrooms – all over the world – is what we need to look at. Find the great teacher and sit in her classroom – then tell the whole world about her success.

You can read the article and listen to the NPR story it was based on here:
“Struggle Means Learning: Difference in Eastern and Western Cultures” (Mind/Shift)
“Struggle For Smarts? How Eastern And Western Cultures Tackle Learning” (NPR)

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