Monday, January 10, 2011

The stereotype of rote learning in East Asian classes, III

Two paired articles in this weekend's Wall Street Journal, I predict, will entrench this stereotype even further. 

First we have Amy Chua explaining how she and other "Chinese mothers" extract straight A's and award-winning musical performances from their children by forbidding play dates, restricting extra curriculars to piano and violin lessons, and forcing their kids, through harsh shaming and credible threats, to spend nearly all their after-school hours studying and practicing their instruments.

Then we have Jiang Xueqin, also quoted in the New York time and here, berating China for its "demanding parents, ambitious students, and test-obsessed culture" and Chinese schools for their "rote-memorization system" that produces "mid-level accountants, computer programmers and technocrats" who lack imagination, curiosity, passion, and social skills, rather than the "entrepreneurs and innovators needed to run a 21st century global economy." China's "most promising students," Jiang claims, must "still must go abroad to develop their managerial drive and creativity, and there they have to unlearn the test-centric approach to knowledge that was drilled into them."

Whatever conclusions Chinese parents and educators will draw from these articles, I worry that their American counterparts will find plenty of reasons not to emulate what the Chinese are doing well: educating their children in math and other core academic subjects. Here are some things to keep in mind:

1. Hard work does not equal rote learning, even if you are being forced to work hard by someone else. 
2. The fact that the techniques some people use to get kids to work hard are morally revolting doesn't mean that there are no reasonable, ethical ways to encourage hard work.
3. Test preparation does not equal rote learning, especially if the test is a good one like the PISA.
4. As I noted earlier, Jiang provides no examples of rote learning in Chinese classrooms. Math instruction in China involves rigor, but rigor does not equal rote, and much of what we see in Chinese k12 classrooms is higher-level mathematical problem solving in the truest sense of "higher level" and "mathematical".
5. As I also noted earlier, to the extent that China fails to produce entrepreneurs, innovators, and team players, there are alternative explanations that have nothing to do, in particular, with Chinese classrooms. 
6. Indeed, to the extent that Chua's descriptions of Chinese parents, and Jiang's description of Chinese students and graduates, are accurate, "Chinese parents," not Chinese  classrooms, may be the prime culprit in rearing kids who lack imagination, initiative, and social skills.
7. Embracing a Chinese--or Singaporean, or Japanese--model for math instruction does not mean embracing Amy Chua's model for child rearing.


Barry Garelick said...

The PISA test was designed to measure "critical thinking skills" and is not in the same vein as TIMSS exams. The original PISA exam was prepared by the Freudenthal Institute of
Holland with close assistance of Tom Romberg of U Wisconsi; both very fuzzy in terms of championing open ended and ill posed questions. The test was developed as an antidote to genuine mathematics which is denigrated with descriptions of "exercise-like problems that students have learned by rote how to solve". It is noteworthy, (and just a tad ironic) therefore, that despite the procedural and factual and problem/exercise-solving focus of Asian mathematics programs, that math competence still really helps.

Nancy Bea Miller said...

Your point is well made. But I admit that when I read the Chua piece I thought it was satirical. Not? Then a deliberate, attention-seeking, polemic.