Teaching Methods: East vs. West

I just finished reading an article on NPR, Struggle for Smarts?  How Eastern And Western Cultures Tackle Learning.  I’ll post a link to the full article at the end of this post.

50's students in classroom images

Asian children

Education and our children, is and always has been an emotionally charged subject to debate but what, if any, change has come out of all those discussions? A few questions to ask ourselves: Are our children better educated these days?  Is it just about academic excellence and what price, if any, do the children who do not excel pay in self-esteem and success when entering the job market? What should the role of our teachers be to encourage and support those kids?  Parents are often criticized for not taking enough responsibility in overseeing their children’s progress both academically and emotionally.  Do you agree?

This article suggests that American schools support only the best students and judge those who struggle as “not very smart”. I don’t think the article was referencing the kids that have distinct learning disabilities but were talking about kids who might just need a little more time and attention to, “get it”.  That was my take anyway.

I’m reminded of my son’s sophomore year in high school.  He was falling behind in one of his classes and damned if I can remember now which one it was.  I learned of the issue during a parent-teacher conference.  I asked the teacher if some “extra help” after school would be available to my son. This teacher looked at me straight in the eye and said that given the number of students he taught he didn’t have the time to tutor those that were falling behind and that they were, “on their own”.  I know, as a parent, I was a bit sensitive when it came to my son and, yes, I had the option of finding my son a tutor outside of the school system but this guy’s response rattled me to the core!  Admittedly, I’m an idealist but with a clear sense of what is realistic and I shouldn’t have been surprised at this response but then again, I’m an idealist.

teacher with struggling student images

By contrast, in the West, Asian children who struggle are brought to the forefront and urged to keep working on those areas in which they are challenged. Jim Stigler, now a professor of psychology at UCLA, shared his experience as a guest in a classroom he visited in Japan in the late 70′s while a graduate student at the University of Michigan.  One fourth grader in this class was having trouble drawing a cube.  The teacher asked the kid to go to the blackboard in front of the class and continue trying to draw a cube.  Every few minutes the teacher would ask the rest of the class whether the kid got it right.  The kids would look up from their work and shake their heads no.   By the end of the class this kid did succeed in drawing a cube.  The teacher asked the class, “how does this look”.  They all looked up and said, “He did it!” And broke into applause.  The kid smiled and sat down, clearly proud of himself.  While I get the message:  Persistence pays off, I have mixed emotions about the way in which it was carried out in this scenario.  With this particular kid it worked out fine but what would have happened is he hadn’t figured it out? Would his classmates have responded by booing him? I know, I’m too sensitive!  Still…

struggling student math_education

This article is limited in its scope and I take it with a grain of salt but it does serve to bring the subject of education back to the table.  I’d like to hear what you think.   What has been your experience with your kids that are currently attending school in America or abroad?  I know, it’s probably moot. Your kids are all geniuses like my son.  :)

little boy with glasses images

Here’s the link to the NPR post: NPR, Struggle for Smarts
P.S. If you do read the article you must read some of the comments too. The fun starts with the following comment from “JB”, “Failure should be stigmatized”.

14 thoughts on “Teaching Methods: East vs. West

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  2. Pat,
    Great post. Having studied education I’m always interested in how different cultures, countries, etc., approach teaching their students. I’m sorry for the unfortunate encounter you had with your son’s teacher. I think he could have at least guided you and your son towards a tutor or offered some other way for your son to get the help he needed. I agree with you I would have also been rattled. Since my son keeps interrupting me as I write this I’m going to have to finish my comment, but I wanted to say that I found this post very interesting and will be reading the NPR link.

    • Nareen,
      Thanks so much and I agree with you. If my son’s teacher had just pointed me to a resource for tutoring that would have been so helpful. Instead, his negative attitude served only to confirm that he had lost (if he ever had it) his passion for teaching. To be fair, there are many wonderful and passionate teachers out there and I hope they far outnumber those who are just “doing their time”.

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  5. I think one of the problems is, kids at both ends of the spectrum aren’t getting what they need. Those who can’t learn or grasp subjects as quickly don’t get enough attention and help; and those who are advanced get bored, because they aren’t being challenged enough. Right now, schools offer one-size-fits-all learning, but in fact, it doesn’t work. Customized programs would be the ideal, but obviously that’s just not possible. At least not currently. But maybe we need to still think outside of the box. Maybe, instead of age being the determining factor for which grade a student is in, maybe it could be intelligence. Maybe we need more vocational programs. Not everyone is cut out for University. Maybe their are online courses available that would allow students to learn at their own pace. At least in some instances. I don’t have the answers. All I know is, it’s not working as well as it should, or could, right now. And I’m not sure that the solution always has to revolve around cost. Creativity is free.

    • You nailed it with “one size fits all” and everything else you listed…the need for more vocational training, nurturing creativity, etc. The arts need to be taken out of the back seat and put in the same seat with the basics. Maybe we need to bring some out of the box thinkers into the education system who aren’t teachers but visionaries. You made a lot of valid points. I wish I knew what could be done to get the ball rolling. Thanks so much for your insightful comments.

      • Thank you for the vote of confidence. I’m not a visionary, but I am an out of the box thinker. I don’t know if you’re familiar with the concept of design thinking. It is absolutely fascinating. There’s a company in California called IDEO. Their roots are in industrial design, but they’ve evolved. Google them. I think you’d find it very interesting. Anyway, that’s the way I like to look at things.

      • I just visited IDEO. I was not familiar with the concept of design thinking. I just found a TED talk by IDEO’s CEO, David Kelley, and plan to post on it. He confirms exactly what I believe to be true. The question remains…how do we begin the process of redesigning our educational curriculum. The first step, in my way of thinking is that it begins with “inspiration”- planting the seed. Thanks so much for connecting me with IDEO!

      • You’d also like the book Tim Brown, their CEO and President (I think David Kelley founded it) wrote: Change by Design.

  6. Hi BP!

    Terrific post. I do not have children so I cannot comment on whether kids are smarter or less smart but what I can say with certainty is most kids lack manners. I ride the train in/out of Boston 5 days a week. I am astounded by the college kids or BC High kids who will either A.) cut me off so as to board the train before me; B.) knock me over in an effort to get past me; or C.) As we gather single file to exit the train, I will allow one of them to exit his/her seat, ahead of me and file out the train without so much as an acknowledgement never mind a “thank you”.

    I have been out in public, exiting, say a bookstore and I will hold the door for some kid who is with his mother, only to hear nothing for holding the door. When I was married, my then husband used to call people out on their behavior. He would scream, “You’re welcome!” And then he would attack the parent by saying, “Can’t you teach your kid some manners?!” It used to infuriate him. I was on his side, only I didn’t see the point in calling people out. Nevertheless, he would scare the parent because he had a very intimidating way about him. [He's a contractor and owns his own company so getting into a confrontation is a daily event with him.]

    Back in the 70s when I was in school, teachers taught us manners in addition to reading/writing/arithmetic. We addressed our friend’s parents as: Mr./Mrs. and our teachers as Ms/Mr/Mrs.

    Were I currently work, we have some executives who are still kicking around, despite being in their 80s and we refer to them as: Mr. or Ms. We never address them by their first name. In fact, watch any movie from the 1940s/50s or even 60s and you will see that people addressed one another as such.

    As I said, I don’t know much about kids educations but I sure wouldn’t mind seeing some manners being re-instituted into the curriculum.

    Just sayin’…
    :-)

    • Hi GE!,

      I couldn’t agree with you more about kids lacking manners. I was fortunate to be a stay at home Mom for the first 10 years of my son’s life and I think that made a huge difference. Given the cost of living these days it is almost assumed that both parents will work and therefore the kids are spending more time in groups (eg after school activities, day care, etc.). There is less one-on-one time (parent/child) and I think that is so important when it comes to nurturing behavior and character. It’s really tough today for parents who, depending on their combined income, are either living paycheck to paycheck or if both are making a really good living it is likely they are in very demanding careers that leave little time for anything else. The school system is lacking in the discipline department. Your kid gets in trouble while in school and there is a preset agenda as to what will happen depending on the severity of the issue. The schools generally look to the parents to handle the problem with their kids. If it’s not fixed then the kid gets suspended. They don’t consider themselves responsible for counseling kids with behavior issues. Their only responsibility is to remove the offender off of school grounds. If there is no support system in place, the kids are basically, on their own.

      I too have worked in the corporate world and have seen a lot of changes over the years. As you noted, respect was the rule in the 40′s, 50′s and 60′s. Today, everything is so lax and verbal abuse is not uncommon in the workplace. You are so fortunate to work for a company that honors and respects its aging executives.

      Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts and experiences! Your ex must be very busy these days in the confrontation dept.! :)

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