Time and again you hear Americans claiming that East Asian education is all about rote learning, including East Asian math education. Where does the East Asian rote learning stereotype come from?
Sunday, March 28, 2010
At a book talk I gave at the Yale China Association two days ago, where several Chinese nationals were in attendance, this was one of the questions we addressed.
Is it simply an instance of sloppy, prejudicial stereotyping and American self-promotion?
Is it that the people who most strongly denounce rote learning tend to conflate it with other things they don't like that are true of East Asian education, like students sitting in rows facing a teacher and a blackboard, like highly-structured, teacher-directed lessons, and like hard work and after-school cram schools?
Is it that students from East Asia are often quiet in American classrooms, and that Americans assume this lack of participation stems from having nothing to say rather than from the kinds of cultural differences of which too few Americans have sufficient appreciation?
Is it that, in one subject in particular, there is, necessarily, a lot more memorization than in American classrooms--namely written Chinese, with its thousands and thousands of distinct characters--and that, again, people sloppily conflate this with everything else?
Or is it that American Constructivist advocates occasionally manage to find someone who was educated in East Asia who will politely tell them that they would have learned so much more if they had had the privilege of attending grade school in America, where there's so much more higher level thinking? (This is a claim I've heard from several Constructivist advocates, though I have yet to meet the person they're talking about).
In addition to discussing these possibilities, I learned the following things about mainland Chinese k12 math education:
In the early grades, students only learn math and Chinese, with about 3 hours a day spent on math.
Students do large numbers of problems that one person characterized as having certain patterns that students eventually get used to, but these problems are challenging word problems--especially involving trains and other moving objects--not columns and columns of pure calculation problems. One student characterized these problems as extremely helpful for higher level mathematical thinking.
Curiously, while some American educators write off East Asian education as all about rote learning, certain Constructivist advocates point to Japan (and sometimes Singapore) as a paragon of group-centered, multiple-solutions based, discovery learning. But, as one learns in The Learning Gap, the group in question is the whole class, and the person in charge of this group is the teacher, and the discovery comes about as a result of his/her Socratic dialogue with the entire class, and that while multiple strategies are entertained, the teacher ultimately helps the class understand why all strategies are not equal, and why one strategy (often one involving a standard algorithm) is often far better the others.