Sunday, March 28, 2010

The stereotype of rote learning in East Asian classes

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?

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.


lgm said...

>>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?

My experience is similar. My child's kindergarten teacher decided he didn't know how to read becauase he wasn't shouting out answers out of turn, demanding to answer every question, and jumping up and down like a Price is Right contestant. After he was finally tested at the end of the year,(she illegally disregarded the written request 3 months earlier) she found she had him in a group that was 2 GRADE LEVELS below his instructional level. American children do have manners, if they are from homes that teach manners. It is sad that veteran teachers with Master's Degrees can't figure this out.

Barry Garelick said...

The following letter to the editor of Science appeared in the latest issue and promotes the stereotype of rote learning:

Science 26 March 2010:
Vol. 327. no. 5973, pp. 1576 - 1577
DOI: 10.1126/science.327.5973.1576-b

Asian Test-Score Culture Thwarts Creativity

Asia has been hailed as the next global science player as fast-growing Asian economies invest heavily in science and technology to drive further growth. However, Asian science will continue lagging behind the West because the Asian education system does not nurture the creativity and thinking skills required in successful scientists.

In Asia, high scores determine the future career of the students as well as which schools get more funding. Teachers, under pressure to maintain their school's scoring record, teach to the test and organize extra classes for exam drills. Parents ferry children as young as first grade to centers for private tuition and exam preparation after school and on weekends. In Singapore, a 2008 poll found 97 out of 100 students enrolled in private tuition (1). Last year, the test preparation industry was worth $16.3 billion—36% of the public education expenditure—in South Korea (2), a country where, on college entrance exam day, parents pack churches and temples to pray and flights are rescheduled to reduce noise (3). Amidst pressure from long school days and heavy homework, the Asian student's most intellectually demanding work is memorizing facts for regurgitation. The product of this educational culture is deficient in the inquiry, investigation, and reasoning skills needed for scientific discovery.

My experience with aspiring local graduate students has been that while motivation and work rate is usually high, they are weak at seeing connections in the published literature, extrapolating ideas, and generating hypotheses. The fact that they are top test-takers suggests that the Asian education system does not foster scientific talent.

East Asians have been described as strong in absorbing existing knowledge and adapting existing technology, but weak in making original contributions to basic science. A radical transformation of the educational culture must happen before homegrown Asian science can challenge Western technological dominance.

William K. Lim

Department of Paraclinical Sciences, Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences, Universiti Malaysia Sarawak, 93150 Kuching, Sarawak, Malaysia.

I asked someone I know who is a math professor what he thought of the letter. He replied as follows:

"He doesn't know what he is talking about. He is in Malaysia so all he sees are Asian grad students and he see that they are very well prepared technically but have no critical thinking.

"If he had something to compare with, say, the USA, he would find American grad students and see that they are unprepared technically and have no critical thinking.

"I repeat it often. The ability to learn something and then solve straightforward problems with it in a straightforward way is so rare that anyone who can do it is immediately pegged as in the top 1% (much higher than that really) of intellectuals. My question for the great critical thinking supporters: good critical thinkers should be able to solve straightforward problems, right? How come no one can?"

Beth said...

What I hear from Chinese friends is that the competition in China is just ferocious. There's a rising, ambitious middle class and just not enough university spots to accommodate them all. Some friends of mine told me that when they visit China, they never get to see their niece, even for an hour, even during summer vacation. She studies all the time (I think she's middle-school age.)

I've also read about universities resorting to all kinds of tactics to weed out their huge numbers of applicants. For instance, many universities (and even employers!) are instituting minimum height requirements -- as high as 5'4" for women (I'm not that tall!)

Chinese culture is completely different from ours in its group orientation. In the West, we feel that the individual trumps the group, and we celebrate the heroic individual who defies the group. In China, the group always trumps the individual. The whole school system reflects this.

Finally, I wonder what the situation in China is like for special-needs kids. What would Chinese schooling look like for your kids with autism, for example?

Finally, and please don't flame me, for decades the US has been known for its creativity and innovation. I do think that a well-designed school system can nurture those very important qualities. One of the ways to nurture creativity is to give kids free time.

LexAequitas said...

I liked this post.

My kids are half-Japanese, and spend time learning in both American and Japanese environments.

It's true that there is some rote learning involved, even in math. My fourth grade son pretty much finished his explicit rote learning of the multiplication tables just before the beginning of first grade doing afterschool at home, and my current first grade son is finishing that up now.

It was, indeed, a bit of a struggle. But far less than an American parent would think.

Since then, afterschool has involved a lot more reasoning -- largely word problems (actually, initially learning arithmetic involved word problems, too. It's just that those were dispensed with after a time to focus on the necessary memorization).

The idea that the Asian educational process stifles creativity is a bit misguided, but the idea that the American educational system enhances it borders on senseless. If you can't teach something as straightforward as reading and arithmetic, how are you going to teach something as ambiguous as creativity? And particularly, how are you going to do it when most classroom teachers value their own rules over almost anything else? My fourth-grade son regularly gets in trouble in American school for all sorts of violations. He has never gotten into trouble in his Saturday (accelerated, full day) Japanese school.

By claiming to teach creativity, teachers give themselves an escape from accountability, since creativity isn't something you can measure. The same goes for critical thinking without content.

Students of wealthy parents don't do well because the parents bring them to museums, zoos, etc. They do well because wealthy parents usually see the deficiencies in the educational system and remedy them at home.

Beth said...

Hmm, I see that I have two paragraphs labelled "finally". I think that's because I'm tired of these blogs and need a break.

It's draining being the lone voice of dissent, and probably pointless, too.

Katharine Beals said...

Beth, I don't consider you the lone voice of dissent on this blog, and would be sorry to lose your voice here.
I agree with you that kids need more free time for creativity. Indeed, that free time is the number one ingredient. Let's get rid of the homework in early grades, and let's have schools stop pretending that they can teach creativity, and pretending that it's ethical of them to grade students on creativity. They can't. It isn't.
I hope you didn't think I was presenting the Chinese system as the panacea for everything. Please reread me. However, since you bring up "my kids with autism," I will say that I imagine that high functioning kids like my son probably do better academically under the Chinese system than under the American one because of the emphasis on math and lack of mandatory group work in China.
"In China, the group always trumps the individual."
This sounds like another one of those inaccurate stereotypes that Americans keep repeating about China. Chinese students can learn on their own; they are not forced into groups in the classroom. They are assessed as individuals, not as groups. I've taught in Hong Kong traveled extensively in China, and taught Chinese students here in the U.S., and while I do see some group effects in extracurricular socializing that are different from group effects in America, I never saw "the group always trumps the individual."
In the West "we celebrate the heroic individual who defies the group." I'd argue that this is less and less true in America today, especially in our schools.

"for decades the US has been known for its creativity and innovation." Yes, and many of those who've produced this creativity and innovation got their k12 education in schools that people now consider too "traditional"--whether they got this education in this country or abroad.

Katharine Beals said...

Barry, fascinating letters! Thanks for sharing them; there are several people I'd like to pass them on to.

LexAquitas, I hadn't consider the accountability angle on creativity and higher-level thinking. It also applies, I think, to "organizational skills."

lgm, incredible story about reading level assessments. I've seen plenty of examples of this kind of Price is Right class participation affecting grades in general--but reading assessment???

Anonymous said...

Asia is pretty much rote learning, at least in India. Students cram at the last minute, score high on the exam, then promptly forget it. The system is so bad that most graduates are unemployable. I pretty much believe that so many scientist, engineers and doctors seem to be from India is not because of the wonderful education system, but actually in spite of it. Cheaper labor prices matter more than skill and knowledge to capitalists.

If you don't give a word for word passage from a textbook, you fail. Even if you are right. Because most of the teachers are clueless too. Education is just a commodity and leverage to get a jb. If they can get paid and get away without having to learn anything--most students will do it.