Tuesday, January 4, 2011

The stereotype of rote learning in East Asian classes, II

There were so many excellent comments of '10 to post that I was able to take quite the extended vacation from blogging. Now that it's time to start posting my own stuff again, I'll begin by catching up on the latest news about math education, starting with a December 30th New York Times article on--what else?--math in Shanghai:

In Li Zhen’s ninth-grade mathematics class here last week, the morning drill was geometry. Students at the middle school affiliated with Jing’An Teachers’ College were asked to explain the relative size of geometric shapes by using Euclid’s theorem of parallelograms.

“Who in this class can tell me how to demonstrate two lines are parallel without using a proportional segment?” Ms. Li called out to about 40 students seated in a cramped classroom.

One by one, a series of students at this medium-size public school raised their hands. When Ms. Li called on them, they each stood politely by their desks and usually answered correctly. They returned to their seats only when she told them to sit down.

Educators say this disciplined approach helps explain the announcement this month that 5,100 15-year-olds in Shanghai outperformed students from about 65 countries on an international standardized test that measured math, science and reading competency.

The Shanghai students performed well, experts say, for the same reason students from other parts of Asia — including South Korea, Singapore and Hong Kong — do: Their education systems are steeped in discipline, rote learning and obsessive test preparation.
But many educators say China’s strength in education is also a weakness. The nation’s education system is too test-oriented, schools here stifle creativity and parental pressures often deprive children of the joys of childhood, they say.
Ah, yes, and how well all this fits our self-serving stereotypes of East Asian students and East Asian countries. Subtext: they may have memorized more meaningless facts and procedures than non-Asian Americans do, but how good are they at higher-level thinking, creativity, and risk-taking?  

Consider the classroom profiled above. Discipline, yes; the children are, by American standards, extraordinarily well-behaved. Obsessive test preparation? Maybe. But does test preparation detract from meaningful learning? That depends on what sort of test the students are preparing for. What if the test involves conceptually challenging problems and higher-level thinking?

Rote? Drill? We usually associated these with mindless trivia; here the students are being asked "how to demonstrate two lines are parallel without using a proportional segment." By this reasoning, I myself was "drilled" repeatedly on the proof of the Rank Nullity Theorem when I took linear algebra in an American college. Each time I was "drilled" on it, I understood it better--and, though it would take some serious reviewing to get back up to speed on it today, I suspect I'm closer to understanding it now than if I would be if I hadn't once seen it repeatedly proved and been repeatedly asked to prove it.

Even some Chinese educators--at least the ones that get quoted by the New York Times--are buying into the idea that the Chinese schools stifle creativity:
“These are two sides of the same coin: Chinese schools are very good at preparing their students for standardized tests,” Jiang Xueqin, a deputy principal at Peking University High School in Beijing, wrote in an opinion article published in The Wall Street Journal shortly after the test results were announced. “For that reason, they fail to prepare them for higher education and the knowledge economy.”

In an interview, Mr. Jiang said Chinese schools emphasized testing too much, and produced students who lacked curiosity and the ability to think critically or independently.

“It creates very narrow-minded students,” he said. “But what China needs now is entrepreneurs and innovators.”
This is a common complaint in China. Educators say an emphasis on standardized tests is partly to blame for the shortage of innovative start-ups in China. And executives at global companies operating here say they have difficulty finding middle managers who can think creatively and solve problems.
From what I know about middle management, I suspect that the shortage of "middle managers who can think creatively and solve problems" isn't specific to China. As for Chinese managers in particular, the New York Times itself acknowledges the existence of cultural forces that extend beyond Chinese schools:
In many ways, the system is a reflection of China’s Confucianist past. Children are expected to honor and respect their parents and teachers.
As for the shortage of innovative startups, is isn't too difficult to think of possible impediments to starting up a business in mainland China that have nothing to do with how much Chinese schools focus on test preparation.

Because this East Asian stereotype--minds drilled with facts and procedures but incapable of creativity--is so popular among k12 educators these days, I've taken to asking people I know who work with graduate level East Asian students whether these students lack creativity in comparison with their American counterparts. So far that's not what I'm hearing. 

But it's a tough stereotype to bust, partly, I think, because it's reinforced by another entrenched bias: the right-brain bias against left-brain kids. Too many of us fail to see how a narrow focus can deepen rather than rigidify thinking, and how discipline and knowledge can enhance rather than stifle creativity. And, failing to imagine what might lie behind the quiet deference that comes from politeness or introversion, we forget how deeply still waters can run.


Barry Garelick said...

The argument posited by the Times and others is compelling for reform math apologists of all stripes and colors. By saying that the Chinese system is test oriented, then getting high marks on a test is evidence of lower order thinking, and that getting low marks on a test is evidence of higher order thinking. Sort of like the excuse I used to use when a beagle I had wouldn't obey any of my commands. I told people it was because she was so smart she knew exactly what the command was but she just was choosing not to follow it.

Michael Paul Goldenberg said...

Wouldn't it depend on the nature of the tests, Barry, or are all tests good and hence high marks on any test means high competence in the subject being tested?

The fact that many Asian educators are raising concerns about the Chinese, Singapore, Korean, Taiwanese, and/or Japanese systems appears not to concern you at all. Are these folks all "apologists" for reform math? Or might they actually have some valid points?

Barry Garelick said...

How many is "many ", Mike? And didn't Japan try a more student-centered approach ala the US a few years ago and went back to their old ways? And what specifically about the tests do you not like?

FMA said...

Saying that Asians are less creative or that tests like PISA aren't a good indicator of competence are self-comforting mechanisms. We see that they are ahead of us but we want to comfort ourselves by saying it doesn't mean anthing because (enter excuse here).

America really needs another Sputnik Moment. Obviously PISA results aren't waking us up to reality. Maybe China trouncing us on clean energy will wake us up. They're already ahead of us. Hopefully we will wake up before it's too late to catch up.

Bob Compton, producer of 2 Million Minutes and the upcoming film The Finland Phenomenon put it well:

"If your kid has graduated three years behind the rest of the world in every subject, how do they catch up? It’s very serious."

JC said...

Why so much opposition to drilling in American education? Neuroscientists say that something has been learned when a connection for it has been created in the brain. Building these connections requires repetition (drilling). You simply can't learn without repetition. The brain simply doesn't build connections without it.

Creativity won't be much use to our students if they don't know anything. Knowledge and creativity have to go hand-in-hand to be useful.

FMA said...

"Why so much opposition to drilling in American education? Neuroscientists say that something has been learned when a connection for it has been created in the brain. Building these connections requires repetition (drilling)."

There is a big disconnect between how we actually learn and how too many educators think we should learn. It is a problem of ideology over evidence.