So which works better: memorization or discovery on your own, self-discipline or creativity? This, to vastly oversimplify, is the crux of the debate between models of education in Asia and the West. As an educator who has taught at every level from middle school to grad school during the last 30 years, I, too, wonder what approach leads to the result we all desire: young people who are educated to succeed in their world.
One interesting take on this is the recent book by journalist Lenora Chu, Little Soldiers: An American Boy, a Chinese School and the Global Race to Achieve. Chu has deep experience with both systems, having been raised in Texas by immigrant parents from China and then living for seven years in Shanghai, where she and her husband sent their young sons to the local schools.
She gives an engaging account of the insights she gained as a parent of a child in the Chinese system, weaving her personal story in with research about current education policy and outcomes in both the PRC and the U.S. In addition, she conducted her own extensive observations in classrooms and interviews with educators in both countries. Her thorough bibliography offers rich pickings for any reader who would like to know more.
On the Chinese side, she found the strengths to be the value placed on discipline, hard work, and concern for the welfare of the group. Questioned about teaching methods and the homework given even to young children, teachers told her that memorizing the basics saves time that can be better spent on going deeper into a topic later, and that learning daily routines established good work habits to last a lifetime.
On the other hand, Chu found some teacher behavior, such as public shaming and force-feeding her son foods he did not like, off-putting and even alarming. She was reluctant to see her son’s natural liveliness suppressed by these Chinese limitations on his freedom to think for himself and worried that he would lose self-confidence. Yet she witnessed him adjusting to the Chinese way, willingly memorizing math facts and Chinese characters, cheerfully accepting public criticism, happily following corrections from his teachers. He even showed that he was learning Chinese values of helping out when he began doing home chores without being asked.
In the schools she visited in the U.S., Chu witnessed the emphasis on inquiry-based instruction that she herself had experienced growing up in the same system. Teachers voiced support for the idea that developing the confidence to find their own way prepares learners to be creative later on. They encouraged students to discover concepts through experimentation and often praised diverse viewpoints. Value was placed on creativity and willingness to take risks and “think out of the box.”
However, U.S. teachers did not have a tried and true response for discipline problems in the classroom and often lost considerable class time dealing with disruptive behavior by individuals. Children created their own plays and songs for public performances, rather than working from memorized scripts as in China, but they generally got lower test scores in math and science than their Chinese counterparts. And, as is frequently reported, in many districts, almost 20 percent of U.S. high school students fail to graduate.
Chu periodically considered moving her son to a Western school in Shanghai but, at book’s end, planned to leave him and his younger brother in the Chinese public school system through primary school.
Interestingly, our family had a similar experience with Chinese vs. Western education systems. When we lived in China in the 1980s, my teenage son went to art school in Chongqing and was frustrated to be told he must spend hours copying a sculpture instead of creating his own piece. Yet that is the Chinese way in art, as in math: copy the classics over and over, memorize the ideas of the masters until your mind repeats the formulas and your very muscles know the techniques. Only then, strengthened by your forebears, are you ready to create art or discover science. And, after several months of doing art the Chinese way, Nils reported with some astonishment that he was actually learning a lot.
As in so many endeavors, very likely the best approach is a balancing act between the two: Chinese rigor and Western risk-taking.
Nancy E. Dollahite is the author of Field Notes from Sichuan: Learning to Be a Foreigner, to be published by Blue Ear Books.