East Asia’s Culture of Learning and Higher Test Scores

A Culture of Learning
A Culture of Learning

In reaction to the recent PISA 2012 results, this week’s panel GPS with Fareed Zakaria discussed the educational leg up that East Asian countries seem to have over American education. His guests included Sal Khan (Khan Academy), Tom Friedman (New York Times author), Wendy Kopp (Teach for America), and Arnie Duncan (US Education Secretary). The discussion was dominated by a sense of ‘those guys got it right’ which unfortunately is not the over-arching reason for China’s higher test scores, in my opinion. Let me explain…

One argument, that Chinese teachers are visiting school systems in other countries and somehow coming home to implement better pedagogy, is borderline absurd. As a visiting lecturer in one of southern China’s higher ranked universities, I found just the opposite happening. Professors were being sent to sister schools in America for different reasons: unbeknownst to foreigners: 1) Teachers had paid their dues and had earned the privilege, and/or 2) their English proficiency was exemplary and gave the American school a good impression of their Chinese counterparts. Hearing the stories of Chinese professors who came back to share what they had “learned” was laughable since some actually confessed these reasons to me in private. Many grade school teachers likely return to their schools with this kind of experience as well.

As I commented on the GPS forum, “the Secret”, as Tom Friedman attempted to use as a hook, is not mainly what has lead to higher test scores in comparison. It’s less likely that Chinese public school teachers are executing best practices. What Friedman says he discovered was that “they execute across a system the best practices that we all know… are differentiating in education.” He went on to list the obvious: how teachers work on their own professional development…, while collaborating and learning from one another…, as well as working intensively with parents…, etc., etc. And although these sound wonderful, this is not why the Chinese have higher test scores.

chinese students
Elbow grease in a Chinese classroom

Actually, the most accurate reason the panel provided about superior test scores by East Asian 15-year olds was based on another number: the minimum number of school days (and the length of a school day). The Chinese school year is 230 days, compared to the USA at 180 days- resulting in 50 additional days of school per year! The school week lasts from Monday to Saturday, starting at 7:30am and finishing around 5pm, which varies depending on the grade level. Most families put their middle school and high school students into Buxi Bans (补习班) to supplement their daily lessons. They take quizzes everyday and test every week or two. Life as a student in China, Korea, and Japan is grueling as I described a few years ago, but it’s ALL about testing taking. That is the skill they get so much pressure to develop. And any performance improvement specialist will tell you this is 100% behavior training for test taking, NOT some kind of brilliant pedagogical adaptation brought on by the teachers or administration.

Parents, teachers, and administrators in America already know that more academic exposure (after school programs and tutors) leads to stronger cognitive skills, which generally leads to better test scores. This is the actual “Secret” that everyone knows. And there is a compounding effect which occurs when students are provided (or required to spend) more time reviewing content or working out problems. Therefore, the key is over-learning content or providing “muscle memory” for the brain. Rote memorization is not the only method used but it is the most common in Asian classrooms. Ask the exchange student you meet from China, Korea, or Japan.


Who’s Better at Math?
Math is a GREAT example to use as a comparison between East Asian and American students. First of all, one group is not “just better” at math because of some race-based, innate ability. A North American baby could be moved to Japan, grow up there, and learn math just as well as the local kids! But there is a tool that they have which is different from your everyday American 15-year old: Japanese. As Malcolm Gladwell surmises in a piece called Rice Paddies and Math Tests, getting a leg up in Math education could be as simple as using a language which requires less time to learn your numbers. Number naming systems are what cause speakers of one language to learn basic math sooner and faster than speakers of another language. And this leg up is the MOST UNDERVALUED DIFFERENCE between East Asians and Americans!

chinese numbers 1-10
1 number, 1 syllable

From Rice Paddies and Math Tests:

In English, we say fourteen, sixteen, seventeen, eighteen and nineteen, so one would think that we would also say one-teen, two-teen, and three-teen. But we don’t. We make up a different form: eleven, twelve, thirteen, and fifteen. Similarly, we have forty, and sixty, which sound like what they are. But we also say fifty and thirty and twenty, which sort of sound what they are but not really. And, for that matter, for numbers above twenty, we put the “decade” first and the unit number second: twenty-one, twenty-two. For the teens, though, we do it the other way around. We put the decade second and the unit number first: fourteen, seventeen, eighteen. The number system in English is highly irregular. Not so in China, Japan and Korea. They have a logical counting system. Eleven is ten one. Twelve is ten two. Twenty-four is two ten four, and so on.

That difference means that Asian children learn to count much faster. Four year old Chinese children can count, on average, up to forty. American children, at that age, can only count to fifteen, and don’t reach forty until they’re five: by the age of five, in other words, American children are already a year behind their Asian counterparts in the most fundamental of math skills.

This irregular number naming system in English slows our kids down, comparatively speaking. Then they start arithmetic, and progress through it, more slowly than their Japanese and Chinese counterparts. This language handicap is compounded with fewer school days in a year, which leads to this very obvious outcome. And it’s not just an American problem, it effects all native English speaking countries. Take a look at the PISA 2012 results again and you’ll see that Canada has the highest average math score for native English speaking countries at a paltry 13th. Australia scored 19th in Math, Ireland 20th, New Zealand 22nd, and the UK 26th. Western countries only entered the top Math scores by riding on the coattails of Liechtenstein at 8th place!

So, how do we fix this? 
There is certainly no silver bullet for America. After all, our country is expansive and the states make their own educational decision. And then there’s the teachers’ union… [fun!] But, if we didn’t have as many hurdles in our way there are a few things we could try to do: 1) Change or simplify the English language :) haha…; or 2) Lengthen the school day slowly and in phases over a period of a 4 years… more likely; or 3) Find a better way to create a Culture of Learning in America. Whatever we do, we’ll have to sell it to a public at the local level, which might not be willing to fund the changes… It is a very challenging situation indeed.  What do you propose?