Tag Archives: America

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)


Response to the NYT Article “Americans Think We Have the World’s Best Colleges. We Don’t.”

I read an article in the New York Times today that annoyed me. It’s another one of those articles along the lines of how bad American students are compared to the rest of the world. But this one was focused on how bad American universities are.

Basically the author claims that Americans believe their universities are the best, but that recent studies/statistics/international tests (PISA and Piaac in particular) show that American college students are way below their international counterparts, particularly in regards to their ability to do math as compared to students in other countries.

These articles pop up all the time, and they often bring up the fact that American students are bad at math. And it can’t be denied, when you compare American students to their counterparts in Japan and China, American students ARE worse at math. But does that mean the whole system is worse?

I taught in China for three years and I am currently teaching in Japan. I have mainly taught students in the upper echelon, the students who are college bound, many of them hoping to go to college abroad. They are the cream of the crop, really. And some less creamy ones mixed in. I feel like I have some awareness of the caliber of student here in Japan and also in China, especially the elite students.

They are amazing at math, but that is because they are expected to be working at a much higher level of math at a younger age. Math is a priority. Students who struggle in math face extreme pressure to improve their performance in math. Even the ones who struggle and must take the lower math are still performing at a higher level than most American students.

This long-term, hardcore, intense study of math from a young age is why they are better at math! But I don’t think it means that American colleges are not as great as many colleges in other countries.

The fact is, American colleges ARE rigorous. I attended University of Massachusetts, Amherst for my general ed classes – my first two years. I found the professors to be challenging, inspiring, and critical (in the best way possible). I learned so much. In addition to that, I had the opportunity to work for a cooperative business on-campus, which was basically a student-run business that was overseen in the same way that an on-campus club or organization would be. We were overseen by the UMASS organization of cooperative businesses, along with about six or seven other co-op businesses. It was such an invaluable experience – I worked with about 10 other students to organize from top to bottom the running of a small sub-sandwich shop in one of the dorms. I learned how to run a small business, do inventory, purchasing, planning, publicity. And I made friendships that were so meaningful because we were participating in this challenging venture together, and we had to figure out how to run it AND agree about how we would run it. It was exhausting and fun and one of the best learning experiences of my life.

American universities offer these types of extra curricular activities to students; I believe that these types of activities beyond the classroom are so important, so stimulating, and so valuable! Not just to student learning, but also to their social development. The array of activities and opportunities on campus make the experience of attending an American university really unique.

I ended up transferring (a long story for another day) to UC Berkeley and finishing my undergraduate degree in linguistics at that top university. I won’t try to convince you that UC Berkeley is one of the best schools in the world – it is, and everyone knows it. But I do feel like I have some perspective because I went to a lower-tier public university (not lower-tier, really, just lower-tier when compared with Berkeley) for my first two years, and I was challenged and enthralled by my academic experiences in both places.

However, I think what really sets the American universities apart is the access to resources. To go to school at a large public university and have access to an incredible library, like the one at UMass Amherst or at UC Berkeley. That in itself is a gift to any learner. If you go to libraries at Japanese universities or Chinese universities, I guarantee you that they just don’t compare.

And being in proximity to great minds who are at the center of groundbreaking research studies….. my professors at both schools discussed their research on a regular basis in lectures. Some of that spirit for inquiry just rubs off on you when you are surrounded by it. You can’t help but be inspired to think, to ask questions, to debate with your peers, to practice being a thinker like those professors in front of you.

I loved my college experience in America. I believe that having the opportunity to take two years of general education courses allows students to become more well-rounded and more sure of what it is they want to focus on. Being a specialist is important, but that’s what grad school is for. American universities at the undergraduate level produce well-rounded thinkers…. at least, that’s what they try to do. Some responsibility also falls to the student to take advantage of the opportunities they have before them.

Everyone knows these studies which compare different countries and try to figure out which students are the best are just bunk. It’s impossible to get a fair measurement because so many aspects come into play. But just based on my own experience living and working abroad for many years, having the experience of working closely with many Asian students, seeing the style of Japanese and Chinese education in action…. I have to say that there are talented students everywhere. But if I were to choose where to go to college, if choosing between Asia and the US… I would choose to return to university in America in a heartbeat. American education is expensive, but the learning opportunities are incredible.