Monday, March 17, 2014

Lessons from East Asian Education Systems

Imagine being told by your teacher that you should take birth control.

My friend from Beijing told me this happened at her school. Her teacher recommended that female students who really worried about impending exams should skip their period by taking birth control. Nothing would stop students from doing their best.

Stories like these hide behind the well-known success of East Asian education systems. Nations around the world often look to the region to find ways for improving their own systems.

The latest Program in International Student Assessment, which assesses reading, mathematics, science and problem solving in 15-year-olds, suggests that this may be a good idea. The assessment, carried out by OECD, found that the top seven scores were from Shanghai, Singapore, Hong Kong, Taiwan, South Korea, Macau, and Japan.


Students attend class at the Jing’an Education College Affiliated School in Shanghai

The recipe of East Asia’s success is setting high standards for all schools and giving them the means to achieve them, the OECD’s head of education Andreas Schleicher told Reuters.

Others are concerned that the impressive performances by students in the region are actually due to intense pressure and extreme measures.

Andrew Kipnis, an anthropologist who wrote a book on the intense desire for education in China, told the BBC that parents borrow from relatives, put off building a new house or even forgo buying healthcare in order to spend money on private education.

In their article, “True Lessons of East Asian Education”, Drs. Young-oak Kim and Jung-kyu Kim argue that East Asia has a lot to learn from the American education system. They criticize the East Asian focus on rote memorization, its top-down instructional style, competitive college entrance exams and the deindividualization of students.

The OECD, though, found that East Asian students were increasingly more creative in extrapolating from previous knowledge – skills that are usually associated with Western school systems.

Nevertheless, East Asian systems still have a lot of room for improvement when it comes to expanding student potential past test taking.

I remember a friend from Wenzhou telling me that her teacher did not understand why she spent so much time playing ultimate Frisbee. She was on a team with many foreigners and loved that she could practice her English, exercise, and have fun, all at the same time. But, no matter how much she tried to explain this, she was told to stop wasting time and to get back to her books so she could pass her exams.


“Asian Dad” gets it

Keeping kids from having fun or choosing to spend on tutors instead of healthcare are probably not the East Asian practices that the West should be emulating.

Instead, it should take a look at East Asia’s belief that all can achieve. In the region it is hard work, rather than inherited talent, that is seen as the key to success. Resources are allocated equitably so that the most talented teachers are put in the most challenging classrooms. This way all students, regardless of background, are given the opportunity to work hard and succeed.

So, while it’s unlikely that the West will start handing out birth control to female students any time soon in order for them to maximize their studying time, maybe it should examine whether it is handing out other important education resources in a way that will maximize student potential.

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