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China Vs. America? Learning Strategies in the 21st Century (Part 2)

Could the differences between Eastern and Western education models lead to future problems?

August 26, 2008

Could the differences between Eastern and Western education models lead to future problems?

Beyond his blond hair and pale skin, there are cultural distinctions, already apparent, that distinguish my 15-month-old son from the local Chinese children around him.

My son is more active and determined than the other kids we meet at the playground, qualities which arise from some mixture of genetic predetermination and social conditioning.

Before he could sit, my son spent hours clenching his stomach muscles, practicing the type of semi sit-ups that are encouraged at the gym.

Natural tendencies, however, are compounded by nurture. There are countless ways that the Chinese, in their speech, actions and attitude, work to control and suppress their children’s innate will and energy.

Howard Gardner, the educational psychologist, has written extensively on China. He argues that it is evident, even in the simplest forms of infant play, that different ways of learning begin long before school begins.

When Westerners play with their children, they tend to sit back a little, giving them space to discover the world on their own, letting them follow their desires and determine their own limitations.

In China, on the other hand, when children explore, there is usually someone hovering right behind them, guiding their movements and activities.

Whereas North American parents emphasize self-reliance, creative solutions and problem-solving skills, their Chinese counterparts use illustration and gentle guidance, a learning style known as “ba zhe shou jiao” (teaching by hand-holding).

Teaching art in North America, to give one stark example, usually consists of handing out paint and paper and encouraging children to use their imagination.

In China, on the other hand, model pictures are hung on the wall and the art teacher takes the child by the hand teaching them how to draw.

Thus, the Chinese culture of education at even the earliest stages stresses the mastery of technical skill, learning through mimicry, concentrated discipline — and the value of respectful conformity.

In contrast, Western culture tends to value free experimentation, creativity and original expression. Chinese babies are, in general, far more disciplined than their North American counterparts.

Much of my son’s behavior that is perfectly acceptable in the West — fidgeting in one’s seat, banging on the floor, crawling around in public spaces — seems wild and out of control to the Chinese.

Western teachers working at Chinese preschools express shock at the levels of strictness imposed, and the ways in which the most difficult (read: active) children are chastised.

While this high degree of discipline has the negative effect of making children reluctant to initiate play, it does succeed in teaching self-control and respect for authority — precisely those qualities that are seen to be lacking in U.S. schools.

Friends and family in North America often tell me that between piano, art and sports lessons, their kids are already overscheduled and subject to pressures beyond their years.

Yet, regardless of the number of extracurricular activities, the lives of Western children are leisurely when compared to Chinese.

In America, a general rule states that teachers should assign ten minutes of homework per grade per day. The average eight year old thus has a daily limit of 30 minutes of homework. If schools go beyond this, parents complain.

In China, especially in the era of the one child policy when the lost opportunities of the Cultural Revolution still have lingering effects, kids are subjects to tremendous pressure.

Parents typically assign extra homework themselves and weekends, evenings, summer and winter holidays are filled with English and math tutoring.

Even kindergarten teachers are asked to provide extra work. This requires immense sacrifice from parents who must spend hours each evening supervising homework.

As a result of this cultural devotion to study, Chinese children have far less free time than their North American counterparts with little opportunity for play.

North American 6-10 year olds play for average of about 2-3 hours a day — more on weekends and holidays. Chinese kids of the same age are lucky to squeeze in a half hour evening trip to the park.

This lack of leisure time extends well into adolescence. In stark contrast to the West, the typical Chinese teenager rarely goes out on evenings or weekends.

When I asked one 16-year old in Shanghai how often she hung out with friends after school, she shockingly replied that she did so about once or twice a year.

The cultural distinction is evident not only in teenage lifestyle — but also in attitude. North American culture by and large tends to glamorize the rebel and sees the uniqueness of the misfit as worthy of praise.

It accepts — and on occasion even encourages — failure. Chinese society in comparison is massively conformist. “The tall nail gets hammered down”, goes the popular saying.

Idioms such as these pepper the Chinese language and are often used to express near universally held opinions. Westerners on the Chinese mainland soon discover a kind of group-think on topics as diverse as politics, history, food, art and travel.

Unlike in the West, in China it’s cool to be a good student and even being the teacher’s pet is considered OK. Explicit favoritism is widespread.

It is common practice for Chinese schools to publicly rank their students and test results are posted for all to see. There are even cases of classroom seating being arranged according to rank.

While many complain about the cruelty of this lack of privacy and parents often tell their kids to aim toward the middle of the list, this type of overt comparison is generally seen as a positive motivational force.

The differences between methods of learning in the East and the West are thus based on profound cultural differences that will be glacially slow to shift.

Yet, while only limited change can be expected from domestic education reforms, a global educational environment is emerging which offers an ever-widening variety of choice.

In China, more and more parents are sending their toddlers to private American-style preschools that — despite their exorbitant fees — are doing a booming business in the most prosperous cities, such as Shanghai.

Alternatives to Chinese education
Wealthy Chinese parents who worry that their kids cannot face the pressures of the country’s education are finding ways for their children to go to North America for their primary education.

Hong Kong’s South China Morning Post recently reported on South Koreans paying for U.S. couples to adopt their children so that they can gain access to Western education.

Meanwhile, rich Shanghainese couples invest in Canada with the aim of gaining citizenship so that their children can escape the pressures of Chinese high school.

And, in the United States, private schools offering Asian-style math are becoming increasingly popular and students who are home-schooled use textbooks from Singapore and India.

In the latest outsourcing trend, tutors from Asia are available online. As increasing numbers of mainlanders seek Western education abroad, Western schools and universities are setting up more and more campuses in China.

In a few years time, when my son is ready for school, it is doubtful that any institution in either China or North America will be able to offer a “best of both worlds” combination of Western and Eastern education.

Instead, what globalization offers is a broad range of stark and relatively unadulterated cultural differences, between which individuals are increasingly free to pick and choose.

Whether it be the Chinese students filling the classrooms and hallways of Western academia or a Western schoolboy learning to speak Mandarin and attending a local Chinese school, it is to these experiments in cultural variation, communication and exchange that people will turn.

Rather than counting on any policy innovation on either side of the Pacific, that is how people will attempt to optimize the balance between technical competence and creative thought.


Unlike in the West, in China it's cool to be a good student — and even being a teacher's pet is considered OK.

Chinese babies are, in general, far more disciplined than their North American counterparts.

In China, especially in the era of one child policy when lost opportunities of the Cultural Revolution still have lingering effects, kids are subject to tremendous pressure.

In China when children explore, there is usually someone guiding their movements and activities.

In contrast to China, Western culture tends to value free experimentation, creativity and original expression.