Annotated Bibliog.

Introduction to Annotated Bibliography

It is very common for a non-fiction book to include, on its final pages, a bibliography of books, articles, and other sources that were consulted by the author during his preparation of the text. But it’s rare for any type of book to include an annotated bibliography. A Mirror for Americans has an annotated bibliography. Why?

Familiarity with the anthropological research on which this book is grounded can be a useful aid to your full comprehension of the information related in the text. Anthropological research has a human quality that most other types of research lack because it almost always involves an individual or a small team entering a culture for the purpose of understanding it from an insider’s perspective. The researchers build relationships with local people and in many cases live among them for months, even years. If the visit is relatively short, they ground their understanding of the culture on their observations of, and extensive discussions with, local people.

These characteristics of the research help to elucidate the text’s meaning, but I don’t discuss these details within my text because doing so interrupts and lengthens the text. I keep the two separate: the main facts are contained in the this book’s text, while my annotations – overviews, summaries – of the key research reports are here on the website.


I estimate that there have been, since the early 1970s, over one thousand research efforts in China, Japan, Hong Kong, Taiwan, and/or the United States that attempted to understand early childhood, approaches to parenting, approaches to teaching, and/or children’s learning within each of those cultures. Some studies focused on East Asian immigrants in the United States. Each research report was an outcome of an effort to gain an insider’s perspective on children, parenting, learning, or classroom practices in the culture in question.

Anyone who gains an enduring interest in any scholarly field soon becomes aware that some researchers have been highly productive and are respected by their peers. In this field, and especially in reference to teaching and classroom practices, a short-list of such researchers might include the names Jinfa Cai, Martin Cortazzi, James Hiebert, Lixian Jin, Shin-ying Lee, Frederick Leung, Catherine Lewis, Jin Li, Ida Mok, Michelle Perry, Nirmala Rao, Thomas Rohlen,Farideh Salili, James Stigler, Joseph Tobin, and the most prolific of them all, the late Harold Stevenson. I made sure to study their publications and, equally important, to peruse their lengthy bibliographies to discover whose research findings they had been reading.

During my preparation I collected the published abstracts – author-prepared short summaries – of over 300 reports that seemed related to my focus. But for this annotated bibliography, I wrote my own annotations of 118 of the articles, monographs, and books that I had collected over the years.


If you are becoming seriously interested in this field of research and scholarship, then yes, reading most or all of my 118 annotations would be an excellent introduction to the field, its methods, its findings, and its multinational, multicultural group of researchers.

If you know you’ll never be seriously interested in this field, but nevertheless are finding  A Mirror for Americans unusually thought-provoking and would like to know more details, I strongly suggest that you read two or three of the annotations suggested at the end of each chapter.

Otherwise, I’m hoping that you’ll encounter in the text certain discussions that you find sufficiently interesting, or sufficiently questionable, that you’ll want to learn more about their basis in the research. If and when that happens, you can use the end-of-chapter suggestions to turn at once to this Annotated Bibliography to learn more about the characteristics, qualities, methods, and findings of the research on which I relied while writing the text.


Yes. If it’s a book, you can acquire it through your local bookseller, or via any of the several online book-ordering services. Even if the book is relatively old, it’s possible that you’ll be able to acquire a copy.

If the research report is a chapter within a book, one of your options is to acquire the book, which might have other chapters of interest to you. Otherwise, your remaining option is to visit, type in the full title of the book, enter, and determine if it’s available as an e-book. If it is, you might be able to read the chapter online (but not to save or print it).

If the research report is a monograph or an article in an academic journal – and most of the research reports annotated in this bibliography are of those types – then here is what you need to know and do:

First, you need to know that, within the past decade or so, it’s become amazingly easy to acquire virtually any academic journal article or monograph because they are maintained in ready-to-download format by several online publishing services. Among the services I used are JSTOR, ReadCube, ScienceDirect, Springer Link, SAGE Journals, Taylor & Francis, and Wiley Online. The first time you visit any of these websites, you’ll need to establish a user ID and password.

The steps you will take to acquire a journal article or monograph are these:

  1. Go to (an extremely useful and free service for researchers).
  2. Type in the full title of the article or monograph that you’d like to acquire; enter.
  3. The desired article will either be the only item displayed, or at or near the top of the items displayed. Click on its title.
  4. You’ll be taken to your desired article as maintained by one of the online publishing services. In most cases, you’ll be able to freely read, save, and print the abstract, but if you want to acquire the full article, you’ll need to purchase it first. Have your credit card ready (charges range between $12 and $48), then follow the site’s step-by-step directions.
  5. As soon as your purchase is confirmed, you may download the full article. This doesn’t always happen automatically. On some sites, it’s not clear how to download the article. My experience is that, if I can find the title of the article configured as a link, clicking on its title will give me the full article (as a PDF), after which I can both download it and print it.

The 118 Annotations

Becker, Jerry P., et al. (1999), Some findings of the U.S.-Japan cross-cultural research on students’ problem-solving behaviours.

Becker, Jerry P., Toshio Sawada, & Yoshinori Shimizu (1999). Some findings of the US-Japan cross-cultural research on students’ problem-solving behaviours. International Comparisons in Mathematics Education, Gabriele Kaiser et al., eds. Falmer Press, 121-139.

The research described in this article aims to discover why, in comparison with American students, Japanese students routinely exhibit greater sophistication in applying mathematical concepts. The findings point primarily to the methods used in Japanese math teaching.

The first problem, given to 4th graders in America and Japan, used a diagram with a pattern of black dots and asked students to determine the number of dots “in as many ways as you can,” and to describe or illustrate each approach. The second, given to 8th and 11th graders, involved three- and four-sided arithmagons (see Again, students were instructed to find the answer “in as many different ways as you can” and show all their work. (Suggested approaches ranged from trial and error all the way up to sophisticated algebraic equations with three unknowns). At the 8th and 11th grade levels, one difference was that the Japanese students used all the approaches listed; but the Americans very predominantly used trial and error – which yielded incorrect answers for 40% of the 11th graders – while not even attempting some of the more sophisticated approaches.

Accounting for Japanese superiority in thinking in a variety of ways about any math problem – the researchers point to the way math is taught in Japan (p. 137):

Japanese classroom lessons [are] carefully crafted, organized, and teacher-managed, and… focus on one main idea. Drawing on students’ thinking is part of the pedagogy along with a lot of teacher-student and student-student interaction. Very frequently, lessons begin with [one] carefully developed problem situation and the teacher, far from being a dispenser of knowledge, acts as a guide…using student input. [The teacher] knows…that the problem lends itself to multiple approaches…and can therefore draw upon students’ solutions for discussion.

[For similar research findings, See also Stigler & Hiebert, 1999; Marton, 2000; and Kawanaka et al., 1999.]

Ben-Ari, Eyal (1997), Body Projects in Japanese Childcare: Culture, Organization, and Emotions in Preschool.

Ben-Ari, Eyal (1997). Body Projects in Japanese Childcare: Culture, Organization, and Emotions in Preschool. Routledge, 165 pages.

Ben-Ari probes aspects of the Japanese preschool experience that others have overlooked, packing into this short book many new insights. Here’s how he explains his mission (p. 6):

In many previous studies, preschool activities are treated as a sort of ‘black box’ through which children move, only to emerge properly socialized. What I do…is to open up this ‘black box’ and to explore the interpersonal dynamics and individual centered experiences by which the children internalize the cultural definitions.

For his research, Ben-Ari deliberately chose a day-care center (hoikuen) over a kindergarten (yōchien) because the former are attended by children from infancy through age 5 and children remain in school for up to eight hours a day. Hoikuen need to provide a constant accent “on the moral, educational, and emotional dimensions…of eating, going to the bathroom, keeping clean, and sleeping” (p. 19) in the ways these are understood and practiced by the Japanese. At no time was reading, writing, or math taught at any of the 15 hoikuen where Ben-Ari observed.

The focus of this book is on the children’s embodied experiences, meaning experiences that involve each child’s whole body and being. Such experiences, Ben-Ari says, are how cultural practices, distinctions, and motivations come to be internalized, come to “take on… the ‘of-courseness’ of common sense” (p.57). The two key cultural values that Japanese preschools work towards inculcating are persistence (gambaru) and group orientation. The means by which these values are transmitted include naptimes, playtimes, mealtimes. Each gets a chapter. (Another amusing chapter discusses the children’s naughty “trickster” behavior.)

Young children form intense ties of dependency with their mothers; preschool teachers redirect those bonds to the children’s new peer group. Daily naptime is their chief opportunity. Each child beds down on a futon within touching/whispering proximity of the others in his class, who always nap together. Teachers coax them to sleep as mothers do, including by lying with a child in full body contact. Through these emotionally pleasant routines, “the children learn to embody in themselves the…sentiments of solidarity and intimacy of the peer group” (p. 42).

Another chapter explores how gambaru – persistence – becomes assimilated into each child’s store of motivations. Persistence seems a matter of self-control, a means of gaining one’s personal goals. In hoikuen, the development of persistence is associated with the group’s goals.

The two modes of persisting are passive techniques for controlling the body, and active behaviors for completing tasks in spite of obstacles. On the passive side, the children often adopt a sitting style with their legs uncomfortably tucked under their thighs, yet are expected to not fidget but attend to group activities. They’re also expected to queue quietly, and to sit up straight in their chairs. They are not necessarily excused to the toilet on demand, which would diminish the group, but are urged to bear it. These may be “passive,” but the needed self-control is explicitly associated with consideration for the other members of their group.

On the active side, during free play the children select a short activity, e.g., paper-weaving, and then are directed to finish it regardless of struggles such as manipulating awkward fingers or becoming bored. Teachers wait and watch, rarely assisting. They acknowledge the child’s outcome only upon completion or after dogged efforts. Races aren’t about beating others but about finishing faster than before, spurred on by classmates’ encouragement (“Gambare!”).

In these ways bodies, emotions, and memories are harnessed; culture becomes internalized.

Biggs, John B., et al. (2001), Teaching across cultures.

Biggs, John B. (2001). Teaching across cultures. Student Motivation: The Culture and Context of Learning, Farideh Salili et al., eds. Kluwer Academic/Plenum, 293-308.

Biggs’s focus is teachers working in an unfamiliar culture at the secondary and university levels. He describes them as operating at three levels:

Level 1 teachers focus on what the students are, that is, on their personal characteristics such as ability, attitude, motivation, ethnicity, etc. These teachers transmit content to the students, then account for the variety of learning outcomes by referencing each student’s characteristics. In cross-cultural situations such as an American teacher in East Asia, a Level 1 teacher is likely to judge the students as deficient (“they’re passive and want to be spoon-fed”). Biggs notes the absurdity of a foreigner in an unfamiliar culture branding its ways as deficient!

Level 2 teachers focus on what the teacher does, that is, on his or her own approaches and methods. In cross-cultural situations, such teachers are likely to try teaching in what they think is a culturally appropriate manner. At first glance, this seems good. But it’s not necessarily much better than Level 1 because it pays little attention to what students need to do in order to learn.

Level 3 teachers focus on what the students do, that is, on those learning activities, including thought processes, most likely to lead to students’ understanding of the content. After all, says Biggs, the most important factor leading to a student’s understanding is what’s going on inside the student, not what’s going on at the front of the classroom. Level 3 teachers support effective student learning activities, which for Biggs means that the teacher uses a constructivist approach. Across cultures, however, different means are used to put constructivist methods into practice.

Biggs gives an example of students at the University of Hong Kong who were assigned to complete learning portfolios in which each student selected examples of her learning and explained why she thought they matched course objectives. At first, the students protested; in their prior experience, it was important for students to know what the professor was expecting. But with support, they came to appreciate this assignment. One said she realized that there were no fixed answers. Another said he’d been led to consider many questions that he’d never entertained previously.

Biggs ends this article with an insightful discussion of key East-West differences in teaching and assessment. In the West, the purpose is to sort out students who learn well from those who learn poorly, which resonates with the Western assumption that what matters is each student’s inborn ability, which neither teacher nor student controls. In the East, the purpose is to try to insure that all students learn well, which resonates with the Eastern assumption that what matters is each student’s effort, which is under his or her control.

Bjork, Christopher (2016), High-Stakes Schooling: What We Can Learn from Japan’s Experiences

Bjork, Christopher (2016). High-Stakes Schooling: What We Can Learn from Japan’s Experiences with Testing, Accountability, and Education Reform. University of Chicago Press, 251 pages.

During recent decades, authorities in Japan, China, Korea, and Singapore decided that their respective educational systems’ intense focus on high school and university entrance exams was a mistake. Their students earned top scores on the international tests, but it was feared that they weren’t developing the social, creative, or practical skills needed by adults. The causes were identified as lecture-based instruction, rote learning, excess homework, and the root cause: arduous preparation for entrance exams.

Similar sets of remedies were devised. In Japan, the remedy was yutori kyoiku, “relaxed education”: a shortened school week, curriculum changes, more electives, and a requirement that teachers’ lessons promote “zest for living” by using more student-centered methods.

Ironically, authorities in the U.S. simultaneously noticing that our educational system was doing a poor job of giving students the knowledge and skills needed by adults, and that more rigor, not less, was the remedy. Today, No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top rely on “high-stakes tests” that add “accountability” by sanctioning teachers and schools whose students do not attain the higher standards.

Bjork was concerned that high-stakes tests would have unintended outcomes for Americans. So he undertook research to reveal the outcomes in Japan of (a) secondary education’s all-consuming focus on entrance exams, and (b) the yutori kyoiku mandate to reduce the intense focus on those exams. Over six years, Bjork completed participant-observation research in six elementary and middle schools in a medium-sized city. High-Stakes Schooling is Bjork’s report.

It’s also Bjork’s warning: (a) Yes, high-stakes tests do impact the experience of classroom instruction and the focus of young people’s attention and learning. (b) Japan’s experience shows that, regardless of concerns about students’ social, creative, and practical skills, when the tests become publicly associated with acceptance by selective universities and entry into top careers, it’s impossible to de-emphasize them.

Japanese teachers initially felt enthusiasm for yutori kyoiku. In elementary schools, where teachers already were using constructivist approaches and entrance exams were not on the horizon, even more engaging lessons were developed. But in middle-schools, where high school and university entrance exams are an overshadowing presence, teachers very largely ignored the yutori kyoiku mandate. Parents approved.

American elementary school teachers expressed admiration for Japanese constructivist learning activities, which they observed via videotapes. But the Americans said that it would be impractical for them to deliver similar lessons. They must adhere to directives about what to teach and how much time they have to teach it, and sanctions await if tests reveal that their pupils haven’t learned well enough.

When Japanese students don’t learn well enough, it’s they who bear the consequences. When American students don’t learn well enough, it’s their teachers who bear the consequences.

Cai, Jinfa (2005), U.S. and Chinese teachers’ constructing, knowing, and evaluating…mathematics.

Cai, Jinfa (2005). U.S. and Chinese teachers’ constructing, knowing, and evaluating representations to teach mathematics. Mathematical Thinking and Learning, 7 (2), 135-169.

Early in this research report, Cai states that while there’s no universal agreement on whether mathematics is culturally bound, there’s no question that the teaching of math is a culturally determined activity. This paper explores how that’s the case for China and the United States.

Previous studies have consistently revealed that, in thinking about mathematical problems, Chinese students tend to use abstract strategies and symbolic representations. American students tend to use concrete strategies and visual representations. Cai offers an example: When 8th grade students in the two nations were asked to find the number of blocks needed to build a 100-step staircase, several of the U.S. students drew a 100-step staircase and then counted the blocks, but none of the Chinese did. The sharp differences in the problem-solving success rates of Chinese and American students is related to this difference in the use of strategies, and this difference in strategy preference is found even at the 1st grade level. Why does this difference exist? Largely if not entirely because of the way in which Chinese and Americans are taught.

To gain insight into how teachers in the two nations think about their work, Cai studied 6th grade math teachers. Not randomly selected teachers, but teachers who had been publicly recognized as distinguished math teachers within their nations or regions. (One of the Americans, for example, had received a Presidential Award for Teaching Excellence.) Eleven American and nine Chinese teachers agreed to be studied during this research effort.

There were three phases to the study. First, each teacher was asked to prepare a written lesson plan for teaching the mathematical concept of average or mean. Second, each teacher was presented with ten problems and asked to identify the strategies that their 6th graders probably would use to solve them. (I will not report the findings of this phase.) Third, each teacher was given students’ answers to certain math problems and asked to evaluate the quality of each answer. Answers were identical except translated into Chinese and English.

The lesson plans were remarkably different. The longest American plan (three pages) was shorter than the shortest Chinese lesson plan (four to nine pages). All of the Chinese plans included the explicit goals of learning (a) what “average” means and (b) how to calculate it; only two of the eleven American plans explicitly stated these two goals. All of the Chinese plans explicitly introduced the averaging algorithm, but only three of the American plans did.

In the third phase, two problems were stated; for each, three student answers were given. Two of the three answers were “conventional,” i.e., they applied the standard algorithm-based strategy. The third was “non-conventional,” i.e., the student’s reasoning was informal (yielding a correct answer and an “estimate” that actually was correct). The conventional strategies were all scored as high quality by both Chinese and American teachers: 3.5 or above on a 4-point scale. (The American teachers’ scores were marginally higher.) But the non-conventional strategies were scored quite differently, with the American teachers giving students’ informal reasoning much higher scores than the Chinese. Why did the Chinese give lower scores? Those strategies were less generalizable, less applicable to more challenging problems.

Near the end of this report, Cai notes that “All of the Chinese teachers expected their 6th graders to solve problems using algebraic approaches.” But he could find no evidence that the U.S. teachers shared that goal. Instead, the Americans’ “expectation might be to have students solve a problem no matter what strategies they used” (p. 152). This is an example, I believe, of an unfortunate tendency in American education: expecting of our students too little, too late.

Cai, Jinfa, & Victor Cifarelli (2004), Thinking mathematically by Chinese learners.

Cai, Jinfa, & Victor Cifarelli (2004). Thinking mathematically by Chinese learners: A cross-national comparative perspective. How Chinese Learn Mathematics: Perspectives from Insiders. Lianghuo Fan et al., eds. Series on Mathematics Education, Vol. 1. World Scientific, 71-106.

The authors’ objective for this paper was to identify several characteristics of Chinese learners’ mathematical thinking, and to state them in cross-national perspective. Their learners are at the middle school level, and their cross-national perspective is vis-à-vis the United States.

Before stating the Chinese learners’ characteristics, the chapter extensively discusses two math problems that were used in the research. One of those is The Doorbell Problem (p. 104):

Sally is having a party. The first time the doorbell rings, 1 guest enters. The second time the doorbell rings, 3 guests enter. The third time the doorbell rings, 5 guests enter [and so forth]. How many guests will enter on the 10th ring? [And] 99 guests entered on one of the rings; which ring was it? Explain how you found your answers.

Students could employ either an abstract or concrete strategy to attempt their solutions. Those who thought abstractly noticed that the number of guests who entered on any ring (“y”) was twice the ring number (“n”), minus one: y = 2n – 1. Alternatively: y = n + (n – 1). Students who thought concretely constructed a table or list based on the problem statement, and then labor-intensively kept adding 2’s until they finally came upon the correct answer.

The first question – 10th ring – was the easier; 70% of U.S. and Chinese students correctly solved it regardless of the strategy employed. Of the Chinese, 44% used an abstract strategy; of the Americans, only 1% used an abstract strategy. The second question – 99 guests – was more difficult; it was correctly solved by 43% of the Chinese and 24% of the Americans. Of the Chinese, 65% used an abstract strategy, while only 11% of the Americans used an abstract strategy.

Especially revealing is this: Of the U.S. and Chinese students who used concrete strategies, success rates were similar. But of the U.S. and Chinese students who used abstract strategies, success rates were different for both questions: 98% of the Chinese, 60% of the Americans.

The authors arrive at six characteristics of Chinese learners’ mathematical thinking, which are contrasted with American learners’ mathematical thinking:

  1. Chinese perform unevenly on various tasks. For example, their computational skills are outstanding, but their ability to interpret unusual problems isn’t as good as Americans’.
  2. They are more likely to employ generalized (abstract) strategies and symbolic representations; an example is the Door Bell Problem. “Across problem-solving tasks, the performance gap between U.S. and Chinese students widens as the questions become more abstract” (p. 93).
  3. They are more likely to use conventional strategies (one taught in classrooms).
  4. They are capable of generating more solutions if asked. Their additional solutions also tend to employ conventional strategies. Americans strategies are more likely to be non-conventional.
  5. They and the Americans both tend to err either by using unjustified symbol manipulations, or by incorrectly applying a computational algorithm.
  6. Chinese are less willing than Americans to take risks in problem-solving.

In discussing the third characteristic, the authors note that while conventional strategies lack originality, they are efficient and can easily be applied to similar problems. “Non-conventional strategies show the originality of students’ thinking [but] are task-specific and less applicable for solving other similar problems, especially those that involve bigger numbers” (p. 96).

My view own is that if Americans weren’t so eager to promote students’ original thinking, the gap between U.S. and Chinese students on solving highly abstract problems would narrow.

Cai, Jinfa, & Tao Wang (2009), Conceptions of effective mathematics teaching within a cultural context.

Cai, Jinfa, & Tao Wang (2009). Conceptions of effective mathematics teaching within a cultural context: Perspectives of teachers from China and the United States. Journal of Mathematics Teacher Education, 13 (3), 265-287.

The authors compared 11 American and nine Chinese 6th grade mathematics teachers to find out how their perspectives were similar and different. Far from being randomly selected, all of the teachers had been publicly recognized as distinguished math teachers within their nations or regions. (One of the Americans had received a Presidential Award for Teaching Excellence.)

Although there were some similarities, the perspectives of the Chinese and U.S. teachers diverged on several key matters. Following are some of the most significant differences:

The nature of mathematics. Math can be understood from two perspectives. One is structural: Math is a unified body of knowledge, a set of interconnecting abstract truths bound together by meaning and logic. The other is instrumental: Math is a bag of tools made up of facts, rules, and skills. The Americans preferred instrumental; the Chinese sided with structural (p. 266).

Math’s usefulness in daily life. Both groups of teachers agreed that math has wide applications in the real world. However, the Americans strongly emphasized a pragmatic perspective: So long as math can be made to work, students can choose whatever strategies they like. The Chinese favored a general/logical perspective: They believed the true beauty of math lies in its logic and generalizability; solution strategies than can’t be generalized should be discouraged (p. 267).

The role of concrete examples. A significant difference emerged in the best use that teachers saw for concrete examples. The Americans thought their value lay in helping students see the close relationship between math and real-life problems. The Chinese thought their value lay in assisting students to develop abstract, generalizable knowledge, thus freeing students from having to come up with concrete solutions for each separate problem (p.272).

Student “readiness”. The Americans thought that most 6th and 7th graders were not ready for math at abstract levels, e.g., deriving formulas. The Chinese had no such concerns (p. 274).

The usefulness of practice. All of the teachers believed that practicing is the key to consolidating students’ knowledge. But some of the Americans were cautious because they saw too much practice as lowering student interest in math (“drill and kill”). Conversely, some of the Chinese believed that over-learning is necessary for students to deepen understanding, although some did sympathize with criticisms voiced within China about homework overload (p. 275-276).

Skills for math instruction. The American teachers emphasized abilities to manage classroom order, and to listen to students carefully in order to adapt their teaching to meet individual needs. The Chinese teachers emphasized abilities to develop coherent lesson plans, to give clear explanations, and to facilitate students’ seeing connections within mathematics (p. 278).

Teacher questioning during instruction. Both groups agreed that good questioning from the teacher is important for effective math instruction. For the Americans, good questions are often generated by the teacher through her listening carefully to what the students are saying spontaneously during class. For the Chinese, however, good questions are carefully designed by the teacher before the class, then written into the lesson plan, on the basis of their predicting the topics that the students are likely to find difficult to grasp. One Chinese teacher said, “To broaden participation, the teacher should design questions with different levels of difficulty to take care of good students, average students, and slow students” (p. 282).

Che, Yi, et al. (2007), Lessons from China and Japan for preschool practice in the United States.

Che, Yi, Akiko Hayashi, & Joseph Tobin (2007). Lessons from China and Japan for preschool practice in the United States. Educational Perspectives, 40 (1), 7-12.

The third co-author has been the force behind a study of preschools in China, Japan, and the U.S., the first phase of which occurred in the mid-1980s. The second phase occurred in the mid-2000s, yielding Tobin et al. (2009), Preschool in Three Cultures Revisited [annotated]. Both studies proceeded by videotaping a day in a preschool classroom, editing the tape to 20 minutes, then showing it to the teachers where it was made and asking them to explain the thinking behind their practices. The videos also are commented on by teachers in the other two nations. This article relates six incidents from Chinese and Japanese classrooms in the belief that “understanding how educators in other cultures handle familiar…situations in different ways can improve [American] practice by challenging assumptions…” (p. 7).

One Japanese incident concerns teachers’ non-intervention in children’s disputes, and another relates teachers’ intentional reduction of classroom resources (e.g., sandbox shovels) so that disputes will occur. One teacher explained that by not intervening in disputes, teachers give pupils “space to work issues out on their own. If teachers intervene too readily…, children lose the chance to experience social complexity…, to experience a range of emotions, to empathize, and to learn to function as a member of a group.” She added, “If I intervene and tell the children to do this or not do that, it would be easy and quick. But it’s important for children to think by themselves… The important thing here is not ‘Who started the fight?’ ‘Who is right?’ but how to solve the problem on their own” (p. 10). [See also Lewis, 1991 & 1995.]

One of the Chinese incidents concerns teachers’ encouraging the children to give each other both positive and critical feedback, in this case about how a classmate, Ziyu, told a story. The researchers, curious about Ziyu’s reaction to receiving critical feedback in public, inquired whether the teachers were concerned about children’s hurt feelings or lowered self-esteem. Teacher Chen replied as follows (p. 8):

In our class, it’s very unlikely to happen that way. We’re now into the second time going around the class. Everyone has had a turn and so far none of the children have expressed or shown any discomfort. They learn from each other. If one child sees that the previous story teller made a mistake such as saying ‘and then, and then’ throughout the story, she will be careful to not make this mistake when it is her turn. She will try her best to tell her story more smoothly.

When the researchers showed Ziyu’s story-telling video to American teachers, some of them pointed out that “those children’s comments were ‘constructive criticisms’ that were on topic, fair, said matter-of-factly, and therefore not likely to be detrimental to children’s self-esteem.” One added that the Chinese youngsters “were so able to clearly explain themselves” with “a lot more logic than I expected” (p. 8). [See also Heine et al., 2001.]

Chen, Chuan-sheng, et al. (1996), Academic achievement and motivation of Chinese students.

Chen, Chuan-sheng, Shin-Ying Lee, & Harold W. Stevenson (1996). Academic achievement and motivation of Chinese students: A cross-national perspective. Growing Up the Chinese Way: Chinese Child and Adolescent Development, Sing Lau, ed. The Chinese University Press, 69-91.

Noting that Chinese students’ academic achievement needs explanation, the authors report on studies carried out between 1980 and 1992 that contrast the performance and motivation of Chinese children with that of their U.S. and Japanese peers. The U.S. studies occurred in Chicago and Minneapolis, cities in which students were top performers on the National Assessment of Educational Progress. This article is noteworthy because its objective is to cast a wide net: “to examine children’s lives at home as well as school to discover how Chinese culture influences their beliefs, attitudes, and practices” and distinguishes them from peers in the U.S. and Japan.

Charts reveal the extent to which the U.S. students were outperformed by both the Chinese and the Japanese, especially in math; in that subject, the American children already were behind in kindergarten, after which the gap constantly widens through the 11th grade.

For those who believe that East Asian students’ superiority is the result of prodigious feats of memorization and “regurgitation” of correct answers on tests, the authors report findings for three types of math tests: word problems, number concepts, and operations. Here are examples of each: (pp. 78-79)

WORD PROBLEMS: A lake resort owner rented a cabin for 14 days on the condition that she would receive $40 a day for every day it did not rain, and $10 a day for every day it did rain. At the end of two weeks, she received $380. How many days did it rain?

NUMBER CONCEPTS: What is the number before 0?

OPERATIONS: Children were given an equation and asked to make up a word problem.

These three tests clearly required an understanding of mathematical concepts and of how to apply them in new problems. Chinese children displayed high levels of ability on items that required the application of their knowledge to problems requiring novel, creative solutions.

Explanations for Chinese superiority are considered. No scientific efforts to demonstrate their higher innate intellectual ability have ever succeeded. The authors discuss their own use of ten intelligence tests. They found no significant differences among the three groups except on ability to recall a series of numbers, on which Chinese 1st and 5th graders performed better.

Differences did emerge, however, in the higher value placed by the Chinese on education, and in their stronger emphasis on hard work, which is complemented by their belief in human malleability – beliefs shared by both parents and children. Also discussed is their high family involvement including parents helping children with school work, the longer time that children devote to homework, and their overall smoother adjustment to school. These and related factors are explained and discussed in my 2017 book, The Drive to Learn.

Chinese children’s evaluations of their own academic ability were more realistic than those of American children, who usually view themselves as above-average. The authors note that one reason is because Chinese schools post publicly each student’s numerical grade on all important tests; thus, each student often sees how he or she ranks against the others. Other researchers have noted the belief among American parents and educators that children’s self-esteem must be preserved and increased, which fosters unrealistically high self-evaluations of one’s innate abilities and lowers motivation to persevere in studying. How Americans came to their belief in the determining impact of innate ability is the subject of my 2013 book, The Aptitude Myth.

Cheng, Kai-ming (1998), Can education values be borrowed? Looking into cultural differences.

Cheng, Kai-ming (1998). Can education values be borrowed? Looking into cultural differences. Peabody Journal of Education, 73 (2), 11-30.

Near the end of this perceptive article, Cheng states that, “The learning gap is much wider than one can explain from practice on the surface” (p. 25), wisdom that the reader already will have gained from his previous pages, where he reveals the foundations of the learning gap.

Cheng begins by admiring Stevenson & Stigler’s The Learning Gap (1992) [reviewed herein], the only book on cultural differences in education to ever gain the American public’s attention. Nevertheless, that book’s suggestion that Americans could learn from East Asian ways did not lead to widespread changes. Cheng’s article explains why.

For American students to begin matching the achievement of their East Asian peers would require not only changing the way educators do things in classrooms, schools, and districts. It would also, and more profoundly, mean changing our assumptions and values about children’s learning, and even about how individuals relate to society. This is the fundamental challenge dealt with in the book you’re reading, A Mirror for Americans.

The body of this article examines three dimensions of assumptions and values that underlie observable East-West differences in educational practice. The dimensions are (a) individualist vs. collectivist social arrangements, discussed below; (b) emphasis on the physical or social world, applying a distinction drawn in 1984 by Howard Gardner [reviewed herein]; and (c) a tendency to think analytically or holistically, another often-discussed difference between West and East. The first of these draws Cheng’s best insights.

In East Asian societies, individuals are known to others, and to themselves, by their place within the hierarchy of their community. It’s the community – family, clan, classmates, work colleagues, neighborhood – that’s the central organizing concept of each person’s life. An individual’s most pervasive concern is not self, but how and how well his or her self fits into its various communities. Observes Cheng (pp. 15-16):

Education is viewed first and foremost as a means of socialization…by which children learn to adapt themselves to the expectations of the larger community. The strong weight accorded to the group helps to explain the uniformity and conformity that characterize East Asian educational systems. The cultural priority of clearly delineating one’s status within the collective leads to…examinations and competition. Finally, these characteristics suggest why effort is valued over ability.

That East Asian way of being is profoundly different from our way of being here in the U.S. In our individualistic society, the emphasis is on each supposedly unique person, known to himself and others by his personal traits and characteristics. Education is viewed as enabling and encouraging each child to develop in accord with his or her needs and potentials. Individuality is valued more than conformity. Ability, not effort, is viewed as the key determinant of success. Educational systems are expected to adapt to the needs of individual students, not vice versa.

I disagree with Cheng in one particular. He points to the “extraordinary significance that extrinsic motivation plays in student learning in Asian societies” (p. 16). As I explain in Chapter 5 of The Drive to Learn, it’s misleading to label that motivation “extrinsic.” Each student is deeply identified with his community; the community’s values are intrinsically his own.

Cheng, Rebecca Wing-yi, et al. (2016), Motivation of Chinese learners.

Cheng, Rebecca Wing-yi, Tse-Mei Shu, Ning Zhou, & Shui-fong Lam (2016). Motivation of Chinese learners: An integration of etic and emic approaches. The Psychology of Asian Learners: A Festschrift in Honor of David Watkins, Ronnel B. King & Alan B.I. Bernardo, eds. Springer Singapore, 355-368.

The authors review academic literature and their own research findings to learn more about the role that “social goals” play in Chinese learners’ motivation. Western research has focused on performance and mastery goals. Performance goals are about demonstrating one’s innate ability to self and others; they emphasize avoiding failure and are associated with maladaptive learning behaviors (e.g., not being persistent). Mastery goals are about deepening one’s knowledge and are associated with adaptive learning behaviors. Note that performance goals resonate with Carol Dweck’s “fixed mindset,” while mastery goals resonate with her “growth mindset.” (See Chapter 3 of The Drive to Learn.)

Those two goals are found in China, but there’s also a third type, social goals, believed to be the principal driver of student behavior there. Social goals are about attaining an excellent outcome for the collective (one’s family), not solely for oneself. Social goals are associated with adaptive learning behaviors. Chinese students do not perceive social goals as being externally imposed on them. (A fact explained in Chapter 5 of The Drive to Learn.)

The four authors also address the role that “teacher controlling behavior” plays in Chinese learners’ motivation. Examples of such behavior include putting pressure on students, having external evaluations, and expecting conformity. Research in the West has found that this type of behavior diminishes students’ motivation and leads to poor learning outcomes. But that suggests another paradox because Chinese teachers have been described as “controlling,” yet their students have exceptionally good learning outcomes.

The authors’ research with fifth graders in China and the U.S. showed that the two groups had different emotional reactions to teacher controlling behavior. Students in both groups were given several scenarios; e.g., a teacher asks a student to stay after school to complete assignments that had not been submitted. The students then were asked how they would feel if their own teacher acted likewise, and were given 12 emotions from which to select, e.g., “cared for,” “manipulated,” etc. Each of the 12 emotions fell into one of two dimensions: love/care and control/hurt. The findings showed that Chinese and American students assigned different affective meanings to the same teacher behavior, with the Americans feeling control/hurt by more behaviors than the Chinese. Related research procedures further revealed that (p. 362)

American students felt more controlled by their teachers and, in turn, reported being less motivated in their teacher’s class. Chinese students felt less controlled by their teachers and, in turn, reported being more motivated in their teacher’s class.

Chinese people highly value filial piety, hard work, and education. Chinese students are expected to accept the demands their teachers make of them. When they have integrated the external regulations set by their teachers into their autonomous self-regulation, they tend not to perceive their teachers’ behaviors as controlling.

Whether or not a teacher’s behavior is “controlling” is in the eye of the beholder.

This research also revealed that, in both American and Chinese cultures, “students with a good relationship with their teachers had less negative feelings and more positive feelings about the controlling behaviors of their teachers than their counterparts who had a lukewarm relationship with their teachers” (p. 362).

Chu, Lenora (2017), Little Soldiers: An American Boy, a Chinese School, and the Global Race to Achieve.

Chu, Lenora (2017). Little Soldiers: An American Boy, a Chinese School, and the Global Race to Achieve. HarperCollins, 347 pages.

In this highly informative non-academic book, American journalist Chu tells the story of her experience in Shanghai as the parent of a 3-year-old son whom she enrolled in a state-run public school, the school attended by the children of Communist Party officials, celebrities, and rich businessmen. Two pages in, Chu reveals her awareness of cultural gaps (excerpts, pp. 2-3):

One afternoon, Rainey emerged from school with a shiny red star plastered to his forehead. “Who gave you that star?” I asked.

“My teacher! I was good in school,” Rainy chirped.

“Do you get it if you run fast?” I ventured.

Rainey laughed. “Mom, I never get a star for running in the classroom,” he said. I get it for sitting still.”

“Sitting still?” I immediately recognized the error in my assumptions. In America, a student might be rewarded for extraordinary effort or performance, for rising a head above the rest. In China, you get a star for blending in and doing as you’re told. It was America’s celebrity culture versus China’s model citizen; standing out versus fitting in.

That’s just the first of many insightful comparisons that Chu draws between the traditional Chinese approach to early education and the progressivism of the West. These insights arise from her years of personal experience, and from interviews she carried out with authorities in the U.S., China, and elsewhere, including with Andreas Schleicher, architect of the PISA exam.

Was Chu convinced from the beginning that she’d done the right thing? Not at all. Many experiences fueled lingering doubts. Others confirmed her wisdom. Consider this (pp. 121-2):

Summertime gave me the opportunity to observe my little boy against American priorities and habits. I liked what I saw. He was winning accolades from American friends and family, against whose children Rainey’s habits stood in stark contrast. Rainey bounded down to breakfast with greetings for all the elders. He waited his turn. One time Rainey stood so patiently in a winding line at a museum in New York that a stranger marveled, “How old is he? He’s so well behaved.”

Near the end of Little Soldiers, Chu offers the following conclusions (pp. 304 and 308):

As a journalist, I’ve searched high and low for evidence that creativity and critical thinking are quashed when we focus on our kids’ academic skills, and I haven’t found a direct link. Yet I have stumbled upon plenty of research that suggests a strong academic foundation, couched in knowledge, enables higher-order thinking and even the creative process. “You can’t think about something you don’t know – try it for a moment – and the more you know about a subject, the more sophisticated your thoughts become,” said U.K. educator David Didau.

I’d batted down desperate fears that Rainey’s schooling environment would snap him in two – and I’m certain much more of this kind of anxiety is in my future – but quite the opposite has resulted. Rainey embraces hard work, adjusts well to adverse situations, and has become an open and curious child. He has leadership skills, and he makes me and his friends laugh. This is a gift he’ll carry into the future.

For a parallel account by an American parent who sent her child to a Japanese primary school, see the annotation for Makihara, Kumiko (2018), Dear Dairy Boy.

Clarke, David, & Li Hua Xu (2008), Distinguishing between mathematics classrooms in Australia, China, Japan, Korea, and the USA.

Clarke, David, & Li Hua Xu (2008). Distinguishing between mathematics classrooms in Australia, China, Japan, Korea, and the USA through the lens of the distribution of responsibility for knowledge generation: Public oral interactivity and mathematical orality. ZDM, The International Journal of Mathematics Education, 40 (6), 963-972.

The authors believed that the well-known tendency of people to contrast “Asian” or “East Asian” instructional practices with “Western” or “American” ones is an oversimplification. So they investigated eighth grade mathematics classrooms in Shanghai, Hong Kong, Tokyo, Seoul, Melbourne, and San Diego in hopes of demonstrating that there are within-Asia differences.

Even without reference to the issue of whether there are instructional differences within Asia, the focus of their investigation is important. Simply stated, they looked at how much talk occurs during a mathematics lesson. They asked (1) how many utterances regarding any topic occur during whole-class and teacher-student interactions, and (2) how many “key mathematical terms” are uttered. Key terms were defined as ones that represented the main lesson content, not just any mention of a number or a basic operation. In their own words, they asked “Who is responsible for the public generation of mathematical knowledge in the classroom and how is this responsibility distributed between teachers and students?” (p. 965).

Simply stated, the research did turn up within-Asia differences, at least insofar as the public generation of knowledge is concerned. For example, two bar charts (p. 968) compare the use of key mathematical terms in Shanghai and Seoul; on average there is much more use of key terms in Shanghai, including from the teacher, from students individually, and from students chorally.

More interesting for us, however, are two bar charts (pp. 969-70) summarizing this project’s findings, across all research cities, regarding (1) public utterances on any topic per lesson, and (2) key mathematical terms within those public utterances. Public utterances on any topic occurred more frequently in the classrooms of the two “Western” cities, Melbourne and San Diego. Among the four East Asian cities, there were slightly more public utterances in Tokyo.

But the use of key mathematical terms was not significantly greater in Melbourne and San Diego than in the four East Asian cities. By far the greatest use of key terms – by the teacher, individual students, and students in chorus – occurred in Shanghai. (But the least use of key terms was found in one of the Hong Kong classrooms!) The authors’ observe that (p. 971-2):

Students in Shanghai had the opportunity to articulate their understanding of key mathematical terms through a structured process of teacher invitation and prompt that build upon the contributions of a sequence of students. Classrooms in Japan provided many instances where a student made the first announcement of a term without specific teacher prompting. These differences are non-trivial and suggest different instructional theories underlying classroom practice.

The authors seem satisfied that their own findings, and others’, show that it’s a mistake to assume “a one-to-one correspondence between membership of a Confucian-heritage culture and a single pedagogy leading to high student achievement” (p. 967). So if East Asian student superiority isn’t about Confucian pedagogy, how can it be explained? The authors know that, in the U.S., the performance gap between Chinese Americans and Caucasian Americans increases as both groups advance up the grades. Given that stubborn fact, they seem ready to accept that “the cultural affiliation of the learner (whatever their geographical location) is possibly as important as the cultural alignment of the school or school system” (p. 964; italics added).

In my view, the learners’ cultural affiliation is critical. That’s what The Drive to Learn (2017) is about.

Cortazzi, Martin (1998), Learning from Asian lessons: Cultural expectations and classroom talk.

Cortazzi, Martin (1998). Learning from Asian lessons: Cultural expectations and classroom talk. Education 3-13, 26 (2), 42-49.

In this paper, veteran researcher Cortazzi cautions educators – particularly those who write and read books like this one! – that it’s not realistic to expect to transfer Culture A’s ways of teaching children into Culture B. The classroom practices that become established in any given culture are aligned with the deeply held assumptions and values of that culture. Any attempt to copy and paste them elsewhere will plunge them into an unfamiliar and inhospitable milieu.

Cortazzi begins with the example of whole-class interactive teaching, which, at the time he wrote this article, was being touted in Britain and other Western nations because it seemed to help explain the consistently high performance of Asian math and science students. Whole-class teaching seems simple to copy and paste. But why is it associated with success in Asia? Because there it flourishes within an amalgam of assumptions, values, and expectations about teacher-student relationships and communication inside the classroom – and outside it as well.

In Asia and the West, questions such as the following are instinctively answered differently: What is the basic purpose of the teacher in a classroom? At what point in the learning process is it appropriate for students to publicly respond to questions about the material? When and in what ways may students address a question to their teacher? How should teachers deal with students’ errors? What are the expected ways in which students learn?

Copy-and-paste transferring isn’t easy because of the myriad underlying assumptions and expectations that are so deeply a part of our beings that we’re constantly guided by them but rarely think about them. That applies to Asians and to Westerners. Cortazzi is among those who dedicate their careers to helping us become conscious of these hidden guideposts in our lives.

Cortazzi, Martin, & Lixian Jin (1996), Cultures of Learning: Language Classrooms in China.

Cortazzi, Martin, & Lixian Jin (1996). Cultures of Learning: Language Classrooms in China. Society and the Language Classroom, Hywel Coleman, ed. Cambridge University Press, 169-206.

This article is your best single source for a thorough overview of the differences in the cultures of learning of China and the U.S. Written by the respected collaborators (and spouses) Martin Cortazzi & Lixian Jin, and focused on English language learning in China, it attends to historical background, socioeconomic influences, kindergarten & primary classrooms, “Intensive Reading” language courses, the experiences of Western English teachers in China, and the expectations that the Chinese have of both “good teachers” and “good students.” Well-written and useful.

The range of differences between Chinese and Western classrooms is extensive; some are easy to observe and describe; others are hidden among the values and expectations teachers and students bring into class to subtly guide their behavior. Here we can touch on only a few:

  • It is often claimed that Chinese students resist working in groups. That’s true, but only when they’re in class, on the grounds that it reduces the time when the teacher could be imparting knowledge. Outside of class, many Chinese students spontaneously form study groups.
  • It is often observed that Chinese students rarely ask questions in class. Again, true, but in this case it’s for several reasons. They do ask questions after class, and at other times and places. They prefer to do their own research, then ask thoughtfully prepared questions.
  • Chinese students are routinely maligned as “passive.” This claim tells us more about the Westerners who make it than about the Chinese. In the West, “active participation” means verbally and even physically active. In China, it means mentally receptive and engaged. On page 200 is an excellent table that contrasts Chinese and Western interpretations of “active in class.” For more on this topic, see also pages 8-11 of The Drive to Learn.

Cortazzi & Jin have the following to say about the likely reactions of Western observers to the way English is taught to 10-year-olds in Tianjin (excerpts from p. 177-8; italics added):

Western teachers might deplore the lack of interaction and individualization, the absence of creativity and self-expression, or dearth of personal interpretation and experiential learning. Chinese counterparts would draw attention to the large class size [60!], the importance of discipline, the significance of giving children necessary knowledge, the pressures of exams. They might remark on the role of students’ individual learning and preparation at home, on how teachers stress meaning and understanding before recitation and learning, on how students who attend with concentration do interact with teacher and text in their minds. Every Chinese child has different abilities and needs, but in China the priorities are that each person must be part of a group or community, expressing that which is socially shared rather than individually felt, creating on the basis of mastery rather than discovery.

Here is Cortazzi & Jin on the impact on youngsters of learning Chinese characters (p. 181):

They are taught to learn through memory, imitation, and repetitive practice. Although there is some recent emphasis on the importance of understanding word meanings before memorizing written characters, the notion persists that final understanding (enlightenment) will only come after full mastery.

There is also a persistent belief that anyone can achieve success in language learning – whether Chinese or English – by hard work. Again, this hard work is commonly demonstrated by memorization and practice. The transfer of these aspects of their culture of learning can be clearly observed [for example, by how they expect to go about learning English].

Cortazzi, Martin, & Lixian Jin (2001), Large classes in China: "Good" teachers and interaction.

Cortazzi, Martin, & Lixian Jin (2001). Large classes in China: ‘Good’ teachers and interaction. Teaching the Chinese Learner: Psychological and Pedagogical Perspectives, David A. Watkins & John B. Biggs, eds. Comparative Education Research Center, University of Hong Kong, 115-134.

The husband-wife team Cortazzi & Jin, veteran researchers, use the fact that Chinese teachers aren’t concerned about the size of their classes as the jumping-off point to explain what “good teacher” means to the Chinese. When Chinese students are asked about this, they say that they have a strong expectation that good teachers will have “deep subject knowledge,” with “deep” meaning thorough. At the same time, they don’t necessarily expect that good teachers will explain things clearly. In line with others’ research findings, the authors say that “perhaps the Chinese students believe that a good student should listen carefully and make a strong effort to learn” (p. 119). The students’ eagerness to learn is one reason large class sizes don’t matter.

A second reason why class size isn’t a concern of Chinese teachers is related to how they approach lesson-preparation. Teachers have generous amounts of in-school time to prepare their lessons, and they routinely collaborate with colleagues to fine-tune their deliveries. The pinnacle of collaboration is the “demonstration lesson”: Imagine a classroom, or a larger space commandeered for the demonstration. Observing teachers, occasionally including some who have travelled from afar to attend, are standing shoulder-to-shoulder along the sides and back of the room, taking notes and perhaps even videotaping. In China (as in Japan), these are frequent, organized events; each is immediately followed by a meeting in which all aspects of the teacher’s performance are analyzed. The goal is for all in attendance to improve their skills for lesson planning and delivery. (This method to professional development has been gaining a foothold here in the United States; for information, do a web-search for “Lesson Study.”)

One of the values of this article is that, more than most others, it provides detailed accounts of the progress of elementary school lessons. The first account is an outline of the initial 20 minutes of a lesson for a class of 50 – fifty – children. This lesson choreographs a “carefully structured series of activities…packaged by preparation, timing, pace, variety but often brevity of activity, and the efficient transitions between activities.” The lesson is “teacher-controlled but involves learners quite heavily” (pp. 126-7). The second account is a two-page description of a 20-minute kindergarten lesson on Chinese characters. “The children seem highly involved [and] concentration and attention is evident in the way they sit, stand, rapidly switch gaze direction, and read quickly as the game proceeds at a sharp pace.” The authors add (p. 130):

This can only happen with children of this age because they have been trained in the relevant classroom routines…before these routines can be used in creative interaction. The 20 minutes are used very intensively and the learner participation is very high throughout. The collective support, initially elicited by the teacher but spontaneous later, is also evident.

This brings us to a third reason why large class size is not a concern in China. Pupils, even kindergarteners, know the behavioral skills for learning because they were taught these early on. Termed “learner-trained learning” by the authors, such training is very similar to training observed in Japan (see Peak, 1991; and Lewis, 1991 & 1995). Comment the authors (p. 124):

While to a Western visitor this [behavior] may seem either dutifully disciplined or rather robotic, it is immensely effective in classroom organization because it cuts down on transition time between different activities. It helps to ensure a basic aim of the teacher: to use lesson time to maximum effect for quality teaching.

Dai, Qin, & Ka Luen Cheung (2015), The wisdom of traditional mathematical teaching in China.

Dai, Qin, & Ka Luen Cheung (2015). The wisdom of traditional mathematical teaching in China. How Chinese Learn Mathematics: Perspectives from Insiders [2nd vol.]. Lianghuo Fan et al., eds. Series on Mathematics Education, Vol. 6. World Scientific, 71-106.

The authors review the contributions and teaching practices of ancient Chinese mathematicians, revealing that their approaches could readily be described as heuristic and inductive. Unlike Western mathematicians (e.g., Euclid), the ancient Chinese began not with axioms, theorems, and deductive logic, but rather with practical problems drawn from many real-life activities, which they discovered how to solve and from which they inductively derived useful algorithms.

During the Zhou Dynasty (1046-256 BCE), students were required to master the Six Arts, one of which was mathematics (the other five were music, archery, charioteering, calligraphy, and rites). The philosophy of Confucius, who lived toward the end of the Zhou Dynasty, came to dominate the Chinese approach to education, including mathematics education. Among its principles were that (a) teachers should be guided by the characteristics, abilities, and interests of their students, and (b) students should put as much emphasis on thinking as on learning.

What does it mean that teachers should be guided by the characteristics of their students? “Education is delivered from the perspective of the needs of the students. To achieve this, teachers should have a thorough understanding of their students” (p. 8). What is advocated here is not “student-centered” classrooms, in which teachers are expected to accommodate student needs and encourage their self-expression. Rather, it’s about teachers’ figuring out how to present content so that students will more readily understand, retain, and master it.

What does it mean that students should put as much emphasis on thinking as on learning? “Education is not merely rote-memorization; rather, it promotes understanding of facts and rules in a way that students can apply them appropriately to new situations. To achieve this, students much actively think about the materials they learn” (p. 8). This is related to the East Asian expectation that students will devote persevering effort to mastering what is being taught.

Ancient math texts in China often used a wèn-dá-shù approach. Presentation began with a particular daily life problem (wèn), followed by an answer (). After similar problems had been presented, a technique or algorithm (shù) for solving them was outlined. Precise calculations were rare. “Traditional mathematicians usually provide just enough ingredients for the ‘backbone’ and the students should provide the ‘flesh’ inbetween” (p. 13). The goal was to heuristically derive general approaches that work with similar problem types. Furthermore (pp. 18, 20)…

Mathematics educators in ancient China emphasize the importance of ‘learning the other three corners of a subject when the student is presented one corner of it.’ To achieve this goal, they tried to provide multiple proofs to theorems and multiple approaches to the same problem. Offering two proofs to the same problem helps reinforce the understanding of the problem by looking at it from different perspectives. Students can be inspired by this way to actively look for other alternative approaches when they encounter mathematical problems in the future.

Much of this article is devoted to providing and illustrating actual examples found in ancient Chinese mathematical texts. Discussed are multiple proofs, use of manipulatives, use of games, application of the algorithmic approach, use of ‘counting rods’ to support calculations, and use of mnemonics including poems. Note: Many of the math and geometry examples are advanced.

Traditional Chinese math was life- and application-oriented, focusing on effective calculation and the inductive derivation of practically useful techniques, not the building of abstract theories.

Damrow, Amy (2014), Navigating the structures of elementary school in the United States and Japan.

Damrow, Amy (2014). Navigating the structures of elementary school in the United States and Japan: An ethnography of the particular. Anthropology & Education Quarterly, 45 (1), 87-104.

This ethnographic study focuses on one Japanese boy, “Seiji.” Following preschool in Japan, he spent 5½ years in Michigan attending elementary school (plus a full-day Saturday Japanese school), then returned to Japan. His parents enrolled him in the neighborhood elementary school, not in one of Japan’s special schools for children who had temporarily lived abroad.

Seiji’s years in the U.S. weakened his ability and/or willingness to align his behavior with the values of Japanese education: gambaru (effort towards doing one’s best), kaizen (continuous improvement), and gaman (perseverance, endurance). Seiji’s U.S. teachers had given high priority to “creating a classroom environment where individual students felt comfortable” (p. 96). In Japan, Seiji encountered something else. During lessons, students sat up in their seats with both feet on the floor, and neither moved about the room nor took toilet breaks; they also ate the same lunch together, and tackled “with seriousness and striving” (p. 100) their daily responsibilities such as serving lunch, caring for gardens and animals, and cleaning the school.

After Seiji implied that at his Michigan school, “Lakeview,” he’d been expected to do merely mediocre work, Damrow drew him into reflecting on Japanese belief that effort and practice lead to perfection. He replied, “In sixth grade you have to always [be] perfect on everything. So it’s very hard. Like…when you’re cleaning, you can’t like talk to anyone. You can’t leave dust anywhere. Or maybe, going [on a class trip], you have to be the role models” (p. 100). Damrow also inquired whether, in view of the many short breaks students were given in Japan, Seiji felt critical of Lakeview students’ once-a-day 20-minute break. But Seiji seemed not to feel critical because, as he put it, “Like in Lakeview it’s, like, all break” (p. 96).

Damrow discusses choice at the two schools. In Michigan, students had choices during lessons, such as with whom and where in the room they worked, but outside of class they were monitored and constrained. In Japan, students had few choices during lessons (other than how they would contribute to the discussion) but an almost unlimited range of options during their many breaks, when they were not monitored in any way by teachers or staff. [In my doctoral research comparing U.S. and Portuguese schools, I found a nearly identical contrast. In the U.S.: options during lessons, constraints outside of the classroom. In Portugal: constraints during lessons, options outside of the classroom.]

In Michigan, teachers often spoke of “choice” regarding a student’s behavior, usually in terms of punishment for bad behavior. Damrow notes that while “choosing implies freedom,” in Michigan “the word was…related to control and restraint”; the teachers’ message was that “there are good choices (following the rules) and bad choices (not following the rules)” (p. 98). In Japan, talk of individual freedom to choose was rare. The teacher did discuss behavior, but usually with the entire class. The discussion was framed around “how certain types of behavior were having a negative impact on ningen kankei (human relations) within the classroom” (p. 97).

Another contrast concerns the learning of responsibility. In Japan, students carried out the responsibilities mentioned above – serving lunch, cleaning the school, and caring for animals and plants – with little prompting; “they knew their responsibilities and got to work” (p. 99). At Lakeview, “responsibility” was an often-stated learning objective. But, writes Damrow (p. 99),

Although responsibility is the first trait of [Lakeview’s] Character Counts curriculum…, even after observations and conversations with teachers I did not have a clear sense of how responsibility was woven into the children’s daily experiences. Lakeview students had tasks, but the school day did not depend on their successful execution.

Davin, Delia (1991), The early childhood education of the only child generation in urban China.

Davin, Delia (1991). The early childhood education of the only child generation in urban China. Chinese Education: Problems, Policies, and Prospects, Irving Epstein, ed. Garland Publishing, 42-65.

This article provides a basic overview of trends in China regarding young children during the late 1980s, only about a decade after the Cultural Revolution ended and the one-child policy began. It wasn’t long before Chinese citizens’ attention, spurred on by a sensationalist press, turned to collective worry about the serious spoiling of the only-child “little emperors.”

In Chinese culture, there had been a long tradition of parents, teachers, and other caretakers “consciously [trying] to produce an adult person who is ‘good’ according to the tenets of the dominant ideology, a person who will fulfill an appropriate, socially allocated role” (p. 45). After the Communists took over in 1949, the state joined the attempt to mold model citizens. The one-child policy was about avoiding a population explosion, but it affected how parents dealt with their precious only child. The author notes that the first generation of only-child parents had personally endured the wide social upheaval of the Cultural Revolution, which disrupted their educations and careers. They wanted their child to have a very different future.

Based on interviews in urban areas, the author reports what kindergarten teachers were reporting about only-children. On the positive side, they were seen as bright, quick to learn, and with well-developed language skills. On the negative side, they were possessive, picky eaters (skip the vegetables!), and unable to perform simple practical tasks such as using the toilet and dressing themselves; some couldn’t even feed themselves or brush their teeth.

The subjects taught in kindergartens included language, general knowledge, music, art, and physical education. The main methods were “learning through play” and “role-play.” A few kindergartens tried to teach writing (of characters). Children who showed musical or artistic talent received much help and attention and were expected to perform when parents were visiting. Overt political (Communist) indoctrination was rare. Instead, the emphasis was on “habits of hygienic living” and learning to “be modest, unselfish, tidy, and polite” (p. 55).

Davin views the Chinese child’s move up from kindergarten to primary school as a bigger transition than the one from home to kindergarten. “Primary classes are large, the atmosphere is formal, and discipline is quite strict. [Children] recite much of what they…learn in unison” (pp. 56-7). In addition to which the children were organized to clean their school once a week. And there was homework, lots of it: as much as two or three hours per night. Did the parents complain? On the contrary, some parents pressured teachers to give more homework.

Are only-children becoming monsters? Davin says that from the perspective of an outside observer with long experience of observing youngsters, the answer is “No.” Within their families, the children “seem perhaps a little more assertive than in the past, but most still study hard, are helpful, and accept parental authority easily” (p. 60). A very different impression is gained from reading the Chinese press, and from talking with early education teachers and even parents. Davin adds (p. 62) that the type of generation gap long familiar in the West…

has begun to emerge. Parents and grandparents brought up in an era when poverty, scarcity, and ideology combined to impose extreme economy in consumption feel uneasy at the amount their children now own and at their relaxed attitudes to spending and waste. The children’s confident and individualistic behavior and their lack of deference alarm some adults who see the new type of child as yet one more departure from the moral certainties of the past.

Fan, Lianghuo, & Yan Zhu (2007), Representation of problem-solving procedures: A comparative look at China, Singapore, and U.S. math textbooks.

Fan, Lianghuo, & Yan Zhu (2007). Representation of problem-solving procedures: A comparative look at China, Singapore, and U.S. mathematics textbooks. Educational Studies in Mathematics, 66, 61-75.

The authors explored the manner in which lower secondary grade mathematics textbooks in China, Singapore, and the U.S. approach problem-solving. The textbooks chosen for study dealt with algebra and geometry, and were widely used in their respective nations. In the U.S., the text series was the one developed by the University of Chicago School Mathematics Project.

The texts were explored in two ways. First, the general approach to math problem-solving was assessed in relation to a procedure long known to mathematics educators: George Pólya’s four-stage model: (1) Understand the problem; (2) Devise a plan; (3) Execute the plan; and (4) Look back and generalize to other problems. But as the authors note, in actual problem-solving, specific heuristics are often more practical. They considered 17 heuristics including strategies such as draw a diagram, restate the problem, use an equation, and reason logically. Their article devotes considerably more attention to heuristics than to Pólya’s four-stage model.

The findings of this research are not easy to summarize, but I believe the following overview, while leaving out much detail, is reasonably accurate.

With respect to Pólya’s model, the Chinese textbooks “provided the most explicit tags and identifiable structure in representing different stages in problem solutions” (p. 68), making them probably the easiest for students to follow. The Singaporean textbooks offered the least explicit modeling of problem-solving steps. The American textbooks were the most likely to explicitly name and discuss at least two of Pólya’s four steps – “execute” and “looking back” – and, in general, they put more effort into helping the students “understand the problem.”

With respect to heuristics, the authors counted the number of problems that were solved in each textbook series using any of the 17 heuristics. In both the Singaporean and Chinese texts, only 14.2% of solved problems were addressed via a heuristic; in the U.S. series, the percentage was 25.5%. Viewing all three percentages as surprisingly low, the authors comment that this result “is consistently associated with the fact that the majority of the solved problems were routine and traditional [and] could be solved in a straightforward way” (p. 68).

The Chinese textbooks paid the least attention to heuristics; heuristics were infrequently named and there was no list of heuristics anywhere in the texts. Both the Singaporean and American textbook series were more likely to name the heuristic in use, most often in the Singaporean texts: “In 33.6% of the problems being solved using specific heuristics, the names of the heuristics were clearly given” (p. 71). And while the American texts printed a list of heuristics in the appendices, the Singaporean texts printed such a list in the main text.

The authors noted that “in the Singaporean textbooks, among a total of 30 chapters, 12 chapters contained specific text sections entitled ‘problem-solving,’ some of which were particularly designed for the instruction of problem-solving heuristics” (p. 71). Also, the Singapore series devoted an entire chapter to mathematical problem-solving, a feature with no parallel in either the Chinese or the American textbook series.

So even though the Singaporean texts offered the least explicit modeling of problem-solving steps, a seemingly contradictory finding is that the Singaporean texts “largely treated problem-solving as content in mathematics instruction” [to the point where] “even problem-solving questions appear in the form of drills” (p. 71). The article’s final paragraph questions the wisdom of this because it tends to equate problem-solving with a list of specific heuristics.

Fernandez, Clea, & Makoto Yoshida (2004), Lesson Study: A Japanese Approach to Improving Mathematics Teaching and Learning.

Fernandez, Clea, & Makoto Yoshida (2004). Lesson Study: A Japanese Approach to Improving Mathematics Teaching and Learning. Lawrence Erlbaum, 250 pages.

If you’re like me, you’ve known about “Lesson Study” and thought of it as teachers of the same subject matter meeting to discuss how to better present a lesson on a particular topic. That view is both correct and woefully inadequate, as revealed by this thorough investigation of the common Japanese practice. What makes this book especially amazing is that it focuses on the sustained collaborative efforts of first grade teachers in one Japanese suburban school to ponder and plan how best to teach simple subtraction problems such as 12 – 7 = 5.

They didn’t meet just once or twice. The five teachers had several lengthy meetings over two months that yielded a finely detailed lesson plan that requires nine pages to reproduce (in this book with a small typeface). Its major sections are (a) a 2-page preface that discusses the characteristics of the 19 students in Ms. Tsukuda’s class; (b) a review of the goals for the entire 12-lesson unit on subtraction; and (c) a 6-page, step-by-step statement of the likely “progression of the lesson” with four columns: Learning Activities and Questions; Expected Student Reactions; Teacher Responses to Student Reactions; and Evaluation.

That was the preliminary draft. The next step was for the group to refine the plan, which included consideration of the manipulatives that could help to deepen pupil understanding, items such as gingko tree collages, tiddlywinks boards, flip tile boards, number blocks, and a unique manipulative that the group devised. (How these could be used is illustrated.) Other discussions pondered how the pupils could be encouraged to discuss their work, and how best to conclude the lesson. The refined lesson requires eleven pages to reproduce; additions and revisions are identified. One addition is a chart showing how this unit on subtraction contributes to the growth of the children’s mathematics knowledge and skill from the first grade through the fifth grades. Another addition concerns plans for involving one mildly retarded pupil.

A member of the group (not Ms. Tsukuda) then taught the lesson. Like most “study lessons” taught in Japan, this occurred while all of the school’s teachers observed from the back of the room, each with the lesson plan in hand. (How were all those teachers’ pupils handled during this 45-minute period? They were left alone in their classrooms.) This chapter is illustrated with photographs, some of them annotated to assure the reader’s full understanding.

Soon after, the group reconvened to reflect on how the lesson had unfolded, and to begin working on revisions. (Revising a study lesson is optional.) Their discussions included improving the use of time, redesigning handouts and manipulatives, and revising questions. The lesson plan was revised again, publicly taught again, then discussed again during a full faculty meeting.

This amount of attention to one subtraction lesson might be incomprehensible to Americans, but in Japan it’s business as usual. Lesson study occurs often, not only at the school level but also at the district, region, and national levels. Sometimes a venue must be found where hundreds of teachers can observe a lesson in progress. There are also lesson study open houses, when several lessons are presented in one day, and school-produced lesson study research bulletins.

In most cases, lesson study is integrated into a school-wide effort to help the children attain non-academic qualities and dispositions. Examples include fostering pupils’ expressive abilities, kindling pupils’ desire to learn, etc. Such goals are considered as the lesson is being developed.

Some American educators have come to understand that lesson study is an exceptionally rich and rewarding professional development opportunity for teachers. For more information, visit the websites,, and

Frkovich, Ann (2015), Taking it with you: Teacher education and the baggage of cultural dialogue.

Frkovich, Ann (2015). Taking it with you: Teacher education and the baggage of cultural dialogue. Frontiers of Education in China, 10 (2), 175-200.

The author was associated with a program that, over several years, sent American teachers of English to China’s Jiangxi Province to provide summer professional development courses for rural Chinese teachers of English. The American teachers and the author were all on the faculty of a college-prep, independent school. Identified are ways in which the Americans’ assumptions about teaching, learning, and schooling were contrary to those of their adult Chinese “students.”

Instead of following the author’s organization of this paper, I will simply highlight some of the Americans’ assumptions and behaviors that most mystified and frustrated the Chinese.

Describing her own teaching in Jiangxi, the author writes that her students (p. 184-5)…

sensed my own progressive and “Western”-style teaching and lessons within the first few minutes. I sat on desks. I kneeled at their side when answering certain questions. I sat among them, and I walked behind them. I asked what they wanted to learn and needed to know. I openly eschewed the idea of myself as an authority figure. I was a facilitator, a guide, a well-read colleague partnered with them…

Describing the reigning goal of the American teachers, the author says they all (p. 186)…

wanted their students to have fun and enjoy themselves. As Sarah explained, “I hope they get ideas for how they can be creative. I ask them ‘what fun things do you use to make lessons fun for your students?’” Tim noted, “I was able to make onerous material light and fun.” Candace suggested, “I did things that were loud and fun, with a lot of music.” Their curriculum was built on engaging students actively…

Regarding the correcting of students’ errors, for many of the American teachers (p. 190)…

the need to stress communicative competence over accuracy was an essential reason for withholding error correction; for others, not correcting errors in oral English was to maintain the integrity of their relationships with their students. Other teachers abstained from correction oral English so that their courses were perceived as fun. Sarah noted, “I hope they feel more confident speaking English without being cowed…”

Nonetheless, some teachers used their classes as springboards for opportunities in error correction and [student] redirection.

As I previously stated, these and other descriptions of the American teachers’ assumptions and behaviors mystified and frustrated their “students,” the rural English teachers. The author realizes this. But, in my opinion, she is too cautious in stating the extent to which the Americans were missing the mark. (They were colleagues with whom she worked at their American school.) In the case of the Americans’ reluctance to correct the errors of the Chinese, the author does offer this information, which – except for the “may” – conveys the essential message (p. 191):

The choice to not correct errors may be perceived by Chinese teachers as lazy, or a clear indication that a foreign teacher is not well-trained or experienced. It is often perceived that a teacher is the ultimate authority on the standard of correctness and, as such, must wield her power. This seems to resonate with the course evaluations submitted by the students, who had tremendous praise for teachers that constantly corrected them and worked exclusively for oral language mastery.

Gao, Lingbiao (1998), Cultural context of school science teaching and learning in the People's Republic of China.

Gao, Lingbiao (1998). Cultural context of school science teaching and learning in the People’s Republic of China. Science Education, 82 (1), 1-13.

This article overviews the historical and social background of the values characteristic of the Chinese regarding learning and schooling. The author reaches back to the time of Confucius to underscore the longevity and persistence of these values. Others have made the same points more thoroughly but, for those new to cultural foundations, this article is a good introduction.

With respect to how Chinese teachers conceive of their role, the author writes that (p. 4)…

good teaching means not only educating students in terms of intellectual or academic aspects, but also in terms of conduct or moral aspects. Good teachers should not only perform well in teaching and learning, but also in other aspects of their lives. They should position themselves as models in both academics and conduct, both inside and outside the classroom.

With respect to the emphases in school science teaching, the author contends that (p. 9)…

Confucians only emphasized knowledge related to personal perfection, interpersonal relationships, or social relationships. The ability to do technical work was belittled as a trifling skill. Today, the importance of developing students’ abilities to solve scientific and technological problems is widely recognized. However, the power of Confucian tradition still has impact on school science education. Emphasis is placed on mastery of a well-structured body of theoretical knowledge. The structure and content of school science courses are very similar to university courses. Teachers contend that it would be impossible to give students a firm starting point for further learning by using everyday problems as the basis of school science courses.

Gardner, Howard (1989), To Open Minds: Chinese Clues to the Dilemma of Contemporary Education.

Gardner, Howard (1989). To Open Minds: Chinese Clues to the Dilemma of Contemporary Education. Basic Books, 325 pages (with photo illustrations).

During the 1980s, Gardner visited Chinese classrooms on four occasions to seek “clues to the resolution of the clash between progressive and traditional forces” in the U.S. (p. x). Interested in arts education and the development of creativity, he initially favored progressive approaches in which teachers foster children’s exploration and discovery. He went to China knowing that, while there, he would be an eye-witness to something completely different. He was correct.

Part I reviews Gardner’s pre-China professional development; the lengthy Part II details his day-to-day China experiences; Part III comprises his “reflections.” This annotation reflects the final chapter of Part II and Gardner’s “professional” reflections in Part III. Among his observations:

  • In Chinese classrooms, the emphasis is on performance, both process and product, in a way that exceeds the mere molding of children into expected social roles and behavior. Sensing a link between performance and “face,” Gardner compares the Chinese focus on outstanding performances with our American focus on inquiry-generated analytical understanding.
  • The Chinese view of the arts, including both their mimetic production (i.e., via imitation and mimicry) and their moral value for individual and society, is differentiated from American views highlighting unique visions and prioritizing the development gifted individuals.
  • During children’s early years, the Chinese strive to insure mastery of basic skills for all pupils; here in the U.S., our emphasis is to look for and then encourage creativity in individuals.

For our purposes, Gardner’s insights are most useful when he is discussing (a) the meanings of creativity in the two cultures and (b) the pros and cons of the Chinese emphasis on skill mastery over creativity, versus our emphasis on creativity over skill mastery. Excerpts (pp. 280, 283, 305):

Since the means for acquiring basic skills are well known, the Chinese believe they ought simply to be passed on to a child as efficiently as possible. Should he at some later date wish to introduce modest modifications in his form of attack, that is O.K. This toleration of minor modifications is how creativity is sometimes understood in China: not as a massive dislocation or a radical reconceptualization [typical of Americans] but as a slight-to-modest alteration over time of existing schemes or practices.

Chinese teachers are fearful that if skills are not acquired early, they may never be acquired; there is, on the other hand, no comparable hurry to inculcate creativity. American educators fear that unless creativity has been acquired early, it may never emerge; on the other hand, skills can be picked up at a later date.

Too many efforts in creativity training in China are destined to fail because they are based on a superficial understanding of how to sustain a playful atmosphere and why one must be receptive to new and apparently foolish ideas. In America, too many attempts to institute the training of basic skills falter because proponents underestimate the degree of drill, dedication, and motivation needed on the part of both student and teacher over the long haul.

The skills inculcated in young Chinese allow them, paradoxically, the freedom to create powerful new messages that can be understood by others. In the absence of such skills, Americans are often forced as adults to revert to tricks; or to acquire new skills at a time when it is far harder to do so. On the other hand, the flexibility, adventurousness, and sense of options stimulated in young Americans allow them, paradoxically, to appreciate that their skills can be put to unexpected uses.

Grove, Cornelius (1984), U.S. schooling through Chinese eyes.

Grove, Cornelius (1984). U.S. schooling through Chinese eyes. Phi Delta Kappan, 65 (7), 481-2.

During the 1980s, Grove was employed by AFS, an international student and teacher exchange organization. One program brought English teachers from China to serve as teaching interns in U.S. schools for seven months. Just before a group of Chinese teachers returned home, Grove asked them questions that he believed U.S. educators would be likely to ask.

Grove learned that the teachers would not return home to China singing the praises of the discovery approach. Nothing they observed in the U.S. had shaken their view that the function of teachers is to teach, and the obligation of students is to learn. They recounted the ways in which Chinese students fulfill that obligation not only in their classroom but also outside it, by studying hard on their own and by spontaneously forming study groups.

After seven months here, the Chinese teachers concluded that relations between American students and teachers are friendly, informal…and lacking serious educational purpose. In China, by contrast, student/teacher interactions emphasize formality, mutual respect, and attention to the business of learning.

They did not agree that, in China, student/teacher relations are cool and distant. Their conclusion was that Chinese teachers approach their students with more genuine care than what they had observed here in the U.S. They viewed Chinese teachers as mentors, concerned about not only their protégés’ academic progress but also their overall human development.

Grove, Cornelius (2006), Understanding the two instructional style prototypes: Pathways to success in internationally diverse classrooms.

Grove, Cornelius N. (2006). Understanding the two instructional style prototypes: Pathways to success in internationally diverse classrooms. International Communication Competencies in Higher Education and Management, Siow-Heng Ong et al., eds. Marshall Cavendish Academic (Singapore), 165-202.

In this conference paper, the author’s purpose is to provide teachers anywhere, especially those at the high school and college levels, with understanding of one of the key reasons for the challenges they encounter when students from abroad appear in their classrooms. Students expect teacher behavior that is consistent with deep assumptions about children and learning that are shared within the students’ own home societies.

Grove reveals a wide range of societal assumptions that underlie two instructional styles: Knowledge-focused and Learner-focused. Knowledge-focused is characteristic of East Asian societies; Learner-focused is characteristic of American society.

Aided by six charts, Grove explores the patterned contrasts between these two sets of assumptions. Central to these contrasts are the differences in mindsets and values between agrarian (or communitarian) societies on the one hand, and post-agrarian (or individualistic) societies on the other. Agrarian people are driven by within-group “ligatures” (enduring deep connections) and demonstrations of virtue; post-agrarian people are driven by individuals’ quests for “options” that will aid their sense of uniqueness. (For this analysis, Grove was guided by Robert LeVine & Merry White (1986), Human Conditions: The Cultural Basis of Educational Developments.)

These agrarian/post-agrarian differences are the basis for contrasts in behavior associated with the two classroom instructional styles, which Grove discusses in terms of, among others: Learners’ motivations, Instructors’ responsibilities, Ways of responding to success and failure, Evaluation practices, Student question-asking, The role of memorization, and The sequence of learning activities.

Grove’s article is available to read in full by searching the web for “pub-instructional-styles.”

Gu, Lingyuan, et al. (2004), Teaching with variation: A Chinese way of promoting effective math learning.

Gu, Lingyuan, Rongjin Huang, & Ference Marton (2004). Teaching with variation: A Chinese way of promoting effective mathematics learning. How Chinese Learn Mathematics: Perspectives from Insiders. Lianghuo Fan et al., eds. Series on Mathematics Education, Vol. 1. World Scientific, 309-347.

Several studies have shown that among the characteristics of mathematics teaching in China is that students are provided with a variety of ways for understanding concepts and principles, and a variety of methods for solving most problems. This outcome occurs because Chinese math teachers’ classroom approaches emphasize “conceptual variation” and “procedural variation.”

Conceptual variation means that, to better enable students to grasp a concept (a fact about math), teachers apply two methods. The first is by varying visual or written instances of the concept. To teach “non-coplanar line,” a picture of the cross-section of a steel “I-beam” might be shown, with two non-coplanar edges highlighted, after which similar lines would be illustrated by a drawing to help students transfer concrete to abstract. Or to teach the essence of “equation,” variations might be shown – e.g., 2x=1, 3x+4y=12, x²–1=0 – and the students asked to identify the essential features that characterize all three and other examples.

The second approach to conceptual variation is by contrasting its standard representation with non-standard variations. The height of triangle A is identical to the height of rotated triangle B and other rotated triangles. Here the goal is similar to the one above for teaching “equation”: to offer a variety of representations so that some features can be determined as non-essential while the remaining features are seen as invariably essential to the concept.

Procedural variation means that, to better enable students to better grasp a process (the “how” of solving problems), teachers step the students through both the sequence of solving a problem and the alternatives for solving the same problem. The authors refer to the teachers’ stage-by-stage guidance as “scaffolding,” now a popular term in the U.S. Some scaffolding leads to correct understanding of the concepts employed in carrying out the process, beginning with “x” (the unknown). Most scaffolding involves stage-by-stage guidance through (a) a solution process; (b) alternative processes for solving the problem, including erroneous approaches – this is often the focus of an entire class period – and (c) similar but more challenging problems.

The third coauthor, Ference Marton, is a Swedish educational psychologist who has made major contributions to learning across cultures. Near the end of this article, Marton’s “theory of variation” is presented, i.e., his idea of why teaching with variation is indispensable. Marton holds that we do not notice people, things, or the characteristics of people or things; rather, we notice the differences between what we’re observing and others of the same type (p. 335-6):

We might think that being dark, tall, bright [smart], for example, are characteristics of a certain individual, but what we actually notice is the way in which this particular individual differs from other individuals. If everybody were equally tall, dark, and bright, these qualities would simply disappear.

This is why you can never teach a child what three is, without making him aware of what is not three, e.g., one, two, four, etc. A necessary condition for learning any number in a certain situation is that there is a variation in numbers in that situation.

For any specific capability that we might wish to develop in students, they must experience a certain pattern of variation/invariance in order to develop that capability. If such a pattern is present in the class, it is still no guarantee that every student will experience it. But if it is absent, it is guaranteed that none can possibly experience it.

Hayashi, Akiko, et al. (2009), The Japanese preschool’s pedagogy of feeling.

Hayashi, Akiko, Mayumi Karasawa, & Joseph Tobin (2009). The Japanese preschool’s pedagogy of feeling: Cultural strategies for supporting young children’s emotional development. Ethos, 37 (1), 32-49.

This article offers a supplementary analysis to the findings from Japan reported in Preschools in Three Cultures Revisited (Tobin, Hsueh, & Karasawa, 2009; annotated). It expands the discussion of the “fight” among three girls after Nao snatches the teddy bear, and considers it together with other observations of the typical behavior of preschool teachers (and mothers) such as persuading a child to eat his carrots because “if left on the plate they’ll feel lonely.”

The authors contend that, in Japanese preschools, the emotion most often referenced is that of feeling sabishii, or lonely. This is because preschool teachers know subconsciously that one of their responsibilities, as key agents of children’s socialization, is to encourage youngsters to become social-minded and engage wholeheartedly in the social life of their group (p. 40-41):

The primary developmental lesson to be learned…is not independence, but how to overcome one’s…existential separation and loneliness through interdependency. Amae, the ability to make people want to care for you, is a key component of interdependency; expressions of loneliness…are key components of amae.

Amae…can only function in an interpersonal interaction when it’s reciprocal, omoiyari – the ability and willingness to respond to the needs of others – is present.

Teachers help children become aware of sabishii, the feeling of being left out and lonely, which amplifies the children’s desire for inclusion and thus their public expression of amae, the need for dependency. In turn, other children respond empathically – omoiyari – by drawing in the outsiders, extending and solidifying the group for all members of the class.

Of course, it doesn’t work this neatly every time; after all, the children are just beginning the process of learning to be Japanese. But, say the authors, this three-part model – loneliness, dependence, empathy – is how the process proceeds. And it’s proceeding within a society where sabashii, amae, and omoiyari are as much in people’s awareness as “independence” is in our own U.S.A. That’s why a teacher would refer to “lonely carrots” left behind on a plate (sabashii), thus implying their longing to rejoin their group (amae), which the child can empathically grant by eating them (omoiyari).

But how does Nao’s snatching of the bear confirm to the three-part model? Nao was the newest member of the four-year-old class: an outsider wanting in. Her repertoire for engaging her classmates was limited, but she got their attention by snatching the bear, an immature but nevertheless prosocial expression of amae that signaled her desire for inclusion. The other girls responded aggressively (they physically attacked her), then didactically (they chided her for snatching), and finally with omoiyari (they drew her into their group).

And it all happened without their teacher’s intervention. She explained herself using the phrase machi no hoiku (supporting child development through waiting), which reflects a cultural pedagogical belief that lessons in social skills are better learned from interacting with peers than from didactic instruction or from adult-child dydadic interactions” (p. 44). This helps explain, say the authors, why Japanese schools (preschools, elementary, and secondary) feature large class sizes – so that teachers simply cannot give lots of attention to individual students. [See also Cortazzi & Jin (2001).]

Hendry, Joy (1986), Becoming Japanese: The World of the Pre-school Child.

Hendry, Joy (1986). Becoming Japanese: The World of the Pre-school Child. University of Hawaii Press, 194 pages.

As a participant observer of young children in Japan, Hendry had an advantage: Her older son attended preschool there, so she was included in all activities expected of parents – or, more accurately, of mothers. Becoming Japanese offers the reader a comprehensive look at how the Japanese view children and socialize them. In other words, this book isn’t mainly about pre-schooling; rather, it’s broadly about how infants are guided and molded to become Japanese.

More than any other scholar I’ve read, Hendry illuminates the meaning of the Japanese word shitsuke in the context of child-rearing. [It’s a three-syllable word, she-tsu-ke, but the second is barely voiced]. Like other Japanese words related to children’s upbringing, it lacks an English equivalent (it doesn’t align with our belief that children should become individualists). Shitsuke references a take-charge approach to the very young, one intentionally molding the child in order to insure that he or she will effortlessly fit into Japanese society. Hendry quotes one Japanese source as defining shitsuke as “the putting into the body of a child the patterns of living, ways of conduct of daily life, and a mastery of manners and correct behavior” (p. 11).

What is sought by parents sending a child to kindergarten? Hendry replies that “a child does not disappear as an individual into this new collective entity” (p. 171), and continues (p. 172):

[Parents seek] self-awareness sufficient for the understanding of others [and] self-knowledge in the interest of maintaining harmonious social relations. As Durkheim pointed out long-ago in L’Education Morale, “the attachment to social groups…far from checking individual initiative…enriches personality.”

Hess, Robert, & Hiroshi Azuma (1991), Cultural support for schooling: Contrasts between Japan and the United States.

Hess, Robert D., & Hiroshi Azuma (1991). Cultural support for schooling: Contrasts between Japan and the United States. Educational Researcher, 20 (9), 2-8, 12.

When children first attend school, they encounter an environment requiring them to learn in groups, to which they are unaccustomed. How do societies help children learn in schools? Some societies adapt the classroom environment to the children, overcoming their resistance; other societies adapt the children to the classroom environment, preventing their resistance. Hess & Azuma’s review of research explores these options by comparing the U.S., which adapts the environment to the children, with Japan, where parents and teachers adapt the children to the environment – thus accounting for this article’s main title, “Cultural Support for Schooling.”

The early pages of this article apply to parenting, which is the focus of my book The Drive to Learn (2017). The latter pages apply to teaching and, more broadly, to the overall culture of learning in classrooms: how teachers deliver lessons and think about student motivation.

The typical styles of lower-grade lesson-delivery in the in the two nations could hardly be more different. In the U.S., it is thought wise for the teacher to divide a lesson into small steps (procedures, concepts) so that most students will quickly grasp each one; as soon as they do – usually via short-answer responses – they are rewarded with praise and the lesson jumps to the next small step. Nothing is lingered over, the fear being that pupils’ attention will be lost. The authors quote an American how-to-teach book: “Pacing within specific activities should be brisk, producing continuous progress achieved with relative ease (small steps, high success rate)” (p. 7). To this approach to lessons, Hess & Asuma give the name “quick and snappy.”

In Japan, pupils are commonly expected to linger over issues introduced by the lesson. The teacher probes by asking thought-provoking questions, fielding pupils’ long-answer responses without comment, and often asking pupils to divide into groups to discuss the issues further. The authors’ example is a fourth-grade teacher who devoted two entire classes to considering two haiku, (17-syllable poems), and there are many accounts in the literature of math and other classes being conducted in this way. Hess & Azuma call this approach “sticky probing.”

Sticky probing succeeds with pupils who don’t need instant rewards, aren’t easily bored, and whose mindset enables them to be receptive to their teacher’s requests. Are Japanese pupils cowed into submission by teachers’ towering authority or because they fear the consequences of breaking the rules? No researcher has reached this conclusion. Said one teacher, “I don’t want to create children who obey [just] because I’m here. I want children who know what to do themselves…” (p. 7). In Japan, teachers can count on most pupils’ internalized compliance.

American educational thinkers might say that Japanese pupils are “intrinsically motivated.” So how does the intrinsic motivation of Japanese and American pupils differ? In Japan, most pupils bring with them into the classroom receptivity to teachers’ expectations, a receptivity that, as explained in The Drive to Learn, is largely an outcome of East Asian child-raising practices.

In America, teachers anticipate that most pupils will not be receptive (an accurate expectation because most pupils are being raised in alignment with individualistic values). Teachers believe that they need to induce pupils’ motivation to learn by making the learning process “relevant, exciting, briskly paced, and individualized” so that “curiosity, exploration, and involvement are usually induced by the stimulus, not brought to the situation by the students” (p. 7). In the U.S., so-called “intrinsic motivation” is extrinsically induced!

American teachers are judged not only on their skill in conveying subject matter but also, and often more so, on their cleverness in arousing and sustaining the “engagement” of their pupils.

Hiebert, James, et al. (2005), Mathematics teaching in the United States today (and tomorrow): Results from the TIMSS 1999 Video Study.

Hiebert, James, James Stigler, Jennifer Jacobs, Karen Givvin, Helen Garnier, Margaret Smith, Hilary Hollingsworth, Alfred Manaster, Diana Wearne, & Ronald Gallimore (2005). Mathematics teaching in the United States today (and tomorrow): Results from the TIMSS 1999 Video Study. Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, 27 (2), 111-132.

Too many cooks have not spoiled the broth in the case of this valuable article. It presents an impressive analysis of findings from the TIMSS 1999 Video Study eighth grade math classrooms. The included nations were selected because their math students were achieving more highly than ours: Australia, Czech Republic, Netherlands, Switzerland, and finally Hong Kong and Japan, two especially high achievers. The U.S. was included, too. Here’s a key finding (p. 116):

Teaching in the United States is not different from teaching in other countries because of any one feature. On almost all features, U.S. mathematics classrooms were similar to those of at least one higher-achieving country.

What is a “feature”? An example would be students working in small groups. Another would be reviewing previously learned material. At the level of simply counting the presence or absence of individual features, the research team found that the U.S. did not stand out as different. Yet U.S. students are consistently mediocre achievers. So what is different? (p. 112, italics added):

The results revealed a range of systems of teaching across higher-achieving countries that balance attention to challenging content, procedural skill, and conceptual understanding in different ways. U.S. teachers employed a unique system of teaching – not because of any particular feature but because of a constellation of features that reinforced attention to lower-level mathematics skills.

The U.S. was the only nation whose teaching had this constellation of four characteristics:

  1. Low-level Mathematical Challenge. U.S. classrooms tended to frequently assign routine exercises, practice routine procedures, and deal with relatively elementary content. U.S. teachers avoided discussions about mathematical reasoning and justifications (e.g., “proofs”).
  2. Emphasis on Procedures. Procedures got more emphasis than concepts or connections. The research team’s analysis was impressively penetrating; I will describe it in detail below.
  3. Emphasis on Review. More than 50% of lesson time in the U.S. was devoted to review.
  4. Fragmented Lessons. Lessons in the U.S. were focused on a single topic only 34% of the time, and they were more likely than lessons in most other nations to be interrupted.

Let’s revisit Emphasis on Procedures. The researchers first asked what was the intent of the problems given to students: (a) using procedures, (b) stating concepts, or (c) making connections. At this simple “feature” level of analysis, the U.S. did not stand out from the other nations.

Next the researchers asked how those problems were dealt with by the students, allowing the same three options and adding a fourth: giving results only. In the U.S., 91% of problems were dealt with by either using procedures or giving results only, the two lower-level skills.

Finally, the researchers considered only those problems whose initial intent was “making connections” (i.e., seeing the links between ideas, facts, or procedures, thereby emphasizing mathematical concepts). In the U.S., 92% of problems that initially had focused on making connections were dealt with by students by either using procedures or giving results only.

The above analysis illustrates how on the one hand the U.S. can appear similar to the other high-achieving nations at the simplistic what’s-happening-in-the-classroom level of “features”; while on the other hand a thorough analysis reveals that how the teacher then expects that feature to be handled by students can insure that the lesson focuses only on lower-level skills.

Ho, Irene T. (2001), Are Chinese teachers authoritarian?

Ho, Irene T. (2001). Are Chinese teachers authoritarian? Teaching the Chinese Learner: Psychological and Pedagogical Perspectives, David A. Watkins & John B. Biggs, eds. Comparative Education Research Center, University of Hong Kong, 99-114.

Ho does an exceptionally fine job of explaining the contrasts between Chinese and Western teachers (Ho’s Westerners are Australians). Her goal is to challenge the common perception that Chinese teachers are highly and uniformly authoritarian in their dealings with students.

Ho’s most useful explanation – supporting similar conclusions by others – is that, in China, a teacher’s being authoritarian and directive towards students is understood by everyone (students included) as caring for, nurturing, and supporting them. The context for the teacher’s actions is the Asian assumption that not only parents but also teachers are actively responsible for students’ all-around development into exemplary adults whose behavior is consistent with their group’s norms and moral precepts. (This is a central theme of my 2017 book, The Drive to Learn.)

But how does a Chinese teacher’s authoritarian classroom behavior fit into their being caring, nurturing, and supportive? Western observers’ opinions about Chinese teachers are based almost entirely on classroom visits, which is why the common perception is almost 180° wrong. To grasp the full nature of teacher-student relationships anywhere in the world, one must investigate what’s happening outside of class as well as what’s happening during class.

When one does that, one discovers that there is “much teacher-student interaction outside the classroom with a lot of informal discussions and collective activities,” that “relationships are informal and the social climate [can] be warm,” and that “as soon as class [is] over, the number of Chinese students seeking interaction with the teacher [is] much higher than [in the West]” (p. 108). Having taught in China, I can testify to the accuracy of these statements.

Isn’t the in-class and out-of-class behavior of Chinese teachers contradictory? Yes, it does appear that way – to us Westerners and especially Americans, for whom “integrity” is critically important in judging someone’s character. We focus on the individual as the locus of meaning, expecting one’s unique personality and values to be consistently on display. Not so the Chinese. They focus is on the here-and-now social situation with its unique contextual factors and social expectations, which complexly combine to dictate the roles participants need to be playing. In-class is one social situation; out-of-class is a different social situation. One type of teacher behavior is expected in the former, another type in the latter. Both types – here’s a key point – enable teachers to fulfill their parent-like responsibility to care for and nurture students’ academic prowess and their development as morally upstanding, community-minded adults.

Consider this: Let’s say you have a respectful but warm personal relationship with a neighbor who is 15 years your senior and is a professional actor. During neighborhood events, you often chat with her informally, learning much about the theatre. But when you attend plays in which she is performing, you watch and listen quietly as she, “in role,” interprets her character. Chinese teacher-student relationships are similar, especially in light of the fact that researchers liken the teachers’ lesson deliveries to carefully planned and rehearsed “performances” (see Stigler & Stevenson, 1991; and Paine, 1990). Teacher-student interactions follow Pattern A when the teacher is performing in class, Pattern B when class is over. Here’s Ho’s summary (p. 112):

While Western teachers are…allowed to be themselves (expressing different personalities and values) in all situations, the concept of behaving differently according to different role requirements is…entrenched among [the] Chinese…

Hoffman, Diane (2000), Individualism and individuality in American and Japanese early education.

Hoffman, Diane M. (2000). Individualism and individuality in American and Japanese early education: A review and critique. American Journal of Education, 108, 300-317.

Hoffman’s thought-provoking article arises from her concern over the constant references to “individualism” and “groupism” in comparisons of American and Japanese early education. In her view, these common rubrics oversimplify matters. She holds that “individuality” is much more accurate than “groupism” in descriptions of Japanese culture. The term “individuality” isn’t Hoffman’s creation; it has appeared in cross-cultural treatises since 1961. Hoffman is true to the early distinctions between “individualism” and “individuality.”

Individualism views each human being as separate from all others; as unconstrained by social mores and others’ opinions, except those voluntarily adopted; and as the possessor of “agency,” i.e., the ability to make things happen. Individualism’s ideal “self” is one in which thought, feeling, and behavior are consistent across all social situations, thus demonstrating “integrity,” which implies that one’s personal complexity nevertheless engenders a what-you-see-is-what-you-get integrated whole. [My explanations here expand on those offered by Hoffman.]

Individuality does not view each human as separate. But neither does it view each human as subsumed by others in the groups to which he belongs. Hoffman portrays the Japanese self as layered, with an inner level where personal thoughts and feelings reside, and an outer level that’s responsive to the requirements of social situations. Gaining maturity means developing both levels within oneself. It also means learning how to shift (kejime) one’s self-presentation between (a) behavior with trusted members of one’s intimate groups, when the inner domain presides, and (b) behavior within a range of other social situations, when one’s outer domain presides and recognizes which social norm must temporarily shape behavior.

Focusing on how schools help children develop individuality, Hoffman reviews (p. 308) the

…central themes in a Japanese theory of learning: hardship and perseverance, modeling and ritual, nonverbal modalities, effort over ability, the connection between emotion and cognition, and “warm” authority. What is remarkable from a comparative point of view is the importance that notions of an inside domain…have had in framing Japanese ideas of teaching and learning. Across nearly every context [of schooling] in Japan, …a concern [stands out] for an inner level of self that exists beyond and behind outward behaviors or actions. [italics added]

This realization unlocks the paradoxes of Japanese elementary education. An example is that Japanese whole-class focus, far from neglecting individual needs, is highly compatible with the inspiration of student motivation, contribution of ideas, and divergent thinking. How? The Japanese approach addresses each child’s outer and inner domains by emphasizing (p. 303)

connectedness and warmth between teacher and child, and among children, that acts as the basis for classroom life. [Teachers] stress the need to understand children by entering into their minds/hearts (kokoro) in an empathetic way in order to develop emotional bonding (kizuna) that will permit effective learning.

Hoffman doesn’t explicitly say it, but the clear implication is that children in an elementary school classroom in Japan, together with their teacher, understand themselves to be among trusted members of a group of intimates. Each child feels encouraged to shift (kejime) his self-presentation to allow the candid expression of ideas and feelings that flow when one’s inner domain is presiding. The contrast with American teacher-controlled (although our rhetoric proclaims “child-centered”) and cognitively-focused classrooms is stark.

Holloway, Susan (1988), Concepts of ability and effort in Japan and the United States.

Holloway, Susan D. (1988). Concepts of ability and effort in Japan and the United States. Review of Educational Research, 58 (3), 327-345.

Holloway explores the differences between the U.S. and Japan in how effort and ability are conceived in relation to children’s success in school. She reviews some of the research that established that Americans assume that successful performance as due to ability whereas Japanese attribute it mainly to effort. (My 2013 book, The Aptitude Myth, explored the deep historical origins of Americans’ ability attribution.) Holloway’s principal focus is on effort.

Johnny is asked to “do his best.” Taroo is exhorted to “keep on struggling,” which he will quite likely to do even though he might have just turned in his best performance ever. Why? In Japan, “effort” isn’t only practical; it’s also deeply valued by the community, so that one would do well to keep on demonstrating it. In the U.S., effort is very largely practical; furthermore, an individual’s “best” is an upper limit that the individual himself determines. [My explanation here includes some of my own ideas.]

Holloway distinguishes between two approaches to learning. “Task-involvement” is valued in Japanese homes and schools. It means that the learner both tries to master the material (the task) and values the learning process as morally admirable to self and others. Success is judged in relation to the learner’s own previous level of performance, which means that it depends on his continuing effort.

“Ego-involvement” is more characteristic of Americans. It means that the learner is less focused on mastering the material than on doing whatever is needed to appear smart or at least not stupid; his attention is mainly on himself (his ego). Success is judged in relation to the performance of others; the best performer is assumed to have the highest inborn ability. (More on this topic is found in chapter 3, “Exploring Motivations,” of my book The Drive to Learn.)

Holloway holds that three characteristics of Japanese lower-grade education encourage task-involvement in children. First, teachers almost always organize groups to complete tasks, then reward those groups that perform especially well (or better than previously), which recognizes persevering and cooperative effort. In contrast, teachers in the U.S. often organize tasks to be completed competitively by individuals, which leads to classroom hierarchies stratified by presumed ability. Some research shows that U.S. teachers’ exhortations to greater effort are undermined by the pupils’ assumption that a need for greater effort is a sign of lesser ability!

Second, Japanese children’s working groups in the lower grades are purposefully composed of children at varying skill levels. Teachers attempt to keep all group members working at the same pace, thus discouraging distinctions based on presumed ability. In the U.S., ability-based groups are common; after all, teachers are supposed to tailor instruction to each pupil’s needs, preferences, and strengths. So pupils are implicitly encouraged to make cross-group ability-based comparisons.

Finally, mothers and teachers in Japan rigorously avoid authoritarian control strategies in order to develop and maintain the intense bonds they develop with children. This fosters in each child an understanding of, and emotional commitment to, the adult’s goals rather than to their own preferences. In the U.S., mothers and teachers are far more likely to call attention to their own power and authority, which obviously focuses attention on an individual, not a group.

Holloway, Susan (2000), Contested Childhood: Diversity and Change in Japanese Preschools.

Holloway, Susan D. (2000). Contested Childhood: Diversity and Change in Japanese Preschools. Routledge, 240 pages.

Holloway throws open the doors to the variety of values and beliefs that the Japanese apply to the issue of how best to initiate young children to group life and learning. Their variety of mindsets yields variety in practice: preschools of different types, with different philosophies and readily distinguishable daily programs that appeal to different strands of the Japanese public.

A widely held Western belief about the Japanese that succumbs to Holloway’s research is that of societal homogeneity. Another is that they’ve all but banished individualism in favor of group conformity. Instead, the reader learns about (a) persistent debates among the Japanese about the purpose and methods of preschool education; (b) their deeper concern about which way to tip the balance between individual and group; and (c) the impact of social structures and institutions on parents’ selection of one type of preschool over several available others.

Discussed in separate chapters are three alternative orientations of Japanese preschools.

Relationship-oriented preschools feature large class sizes, carefully prepared special events, much free play, and the goal of “preparing children for enthusiastic participation in group life by focusing on…having fun, learning routines, and forming friendships” (p. 40-1); and by highlighting “the psychological closeness that results from empathy and interindividual attunement” (p. 57).

Child-oriented preschools feature small class sizes, even more free play with plenty of materials, relaxed event preparation, optional art projects, and overt “encouragement for the children to verbalize their thoughts and feelings” (p. 101) via dialogues with their teachers. The goal was “to realize one’s human potential – one’s potential to engage in social relations, that is” (p. 204).

Role-oriented preschools feature large class sizes, no free play, and teacher-led whole-group instruction in math, reading, drawing, gymnastics, singing, and more, accounting for this type’s other name: academic. Children’s preferences are rarely sought. No thought is given to enhancing a child’s strengths; eliminating weakness is the goal. Emphasized is “that effort is associated with self-denial and strict discipline, although it eventually results in the honing and perfecting of the self” (p. 106). Who sends their child to such a place? Working-class parents in droves, for they’re eager to give their child an academic head-start in elementary school.

The three orientations are better grasped as subheads under two rubrics (p. 18): either yasashii (relaxed) or kibishii (strict). The first two above are yasashii. The third clearly is kibishii, which draws on the traditional belief that enduring hardship is needed for a child to become an adult.

And that’s barely half the book! There’s a chapter comparing public and private preschools. There’s another on the impact of social class on preschools, based on Holloway’s visits to starkly different schools in wealthy and poor neighborhoods. Still another chapter compares Shinto, Buddhist, and Christian schools: The Shinto schools tended to be relationship-oriented; the Buddhist ones were all role-oriented; and the Christian ones were mostly child-oriented and – significantly – have served as sites for much prior Western research into Japanese preschools.

Have they anything in common? Yes. Many of the schools’ directors seemed to be “finding their way” towards what works best, neither copying Western ways nor uncritically accepting traditional Japanese models. And all of the schools placed more or less emphasis on explicitly teaching and practicing classroom routines until they are executed with high efficiency, which many researchers have admired because it frees more time for productive learning activities in all subsequent years of schooling.

Holloway’s Contested Childhood is high on my list of especially insightful books about Japanese early education.

Hu, Guangwei (2002), Potential cultural resistance to pedagogical imports.

Hu, Guangwei (2002). Potential cultural resistance to pedagogical imports: The case of communicative language teaching in China. Language, Culture, and Curriculum, 15 (2), 93-105.

This short article is an exceptionally clear and comprehensive statement of the basic differences between the Western (i.e., U.S.) culture of learning and the Chinese (and East Asian) culture of learning. Culture of learning refers to the fact that, within each society, there are certain ways and means for teaching and learning that most people – including the learners themselves – agree on and usually apply. It’s about how people within a society have learned how to learn.

Communicative Language Teaching (CLT) began in Europe during the late 1970s; by the 1980s in Europe and the U.S., it had “acquired the status of a new dogma” (p. 94) among language teaching professionals. It also was being embraced by Chinese language teaching authorities, who began inviting Western language teachers to teach for a year or two at Chinese universities. The university where Hu did his research was seen as one of the most reform-minded in China.

So CLT-committed Westerners were teaching at a CLT-friendly Chinese university. A propitious match, yes? No. What went wrong is less about CLT, more about differences in the cultures of learning of the West and China – not only their classroom practices but, even more so, their assumptions.

Here are excerpts from Hu’s discussion of CLT’s fundamental tenets (pp. 95-6):

Teaching should center on communicative functions rather than linguistic knowledge. Meaning is primary. Effectiveness of communication is sought rather than accuracy. Learners learn the language through using it. CLT is opposed to teacher dominance; the teacher is a co-communicator, needs analyst, organizer of resources, facilitator of activities… Collaborative learning is encouraged; teacher talk gives way to pair and group work. CLT takes the drudgery out of learning and injects entertainment.

Hu details why CLT’s Western-progressive view of learning wasn’t well received in China:

  • The Chinese deeply revere education, which is regarded as a serious matter not associated with light-heartedness or entertainment. Any fun activity is mistrusted as a learning tool.
  • Education isn’t only about intellectual development; it’s equally about cultivating moral qualities – qualities that favor collective (group) orientation while discouraging individualism, concern with one’s own needs, and (especially important in this case) open self-expression.
  • Education is a process of accumulating knowledge rather than of constructing and using it for immediate practical purposes. It’s like “saving money in the bank and spending it later” (p. 97). Students feel little need to foresee how they’ll apply whatever they’re learning.
  • The relationship between teacher and students is openly hierarchical. Equally important is that all interactions be harmonious. Teachers care for students; students revere teachers.
  • Chinese students are viewed as “empty vessels,” and an old maxim states that “to give students a bowl of water, the teacher must have a full bucket of water to dispense” (p. 98). Knowledge is best delivered by an authoritative source via mimetic or epistemic processes.
  • Learners must master the basics before they’re in a position to use what they have learned. “Learn by using” makes little sense to the Chinese. “Learn how to use” is what they expect.
  • A good classroom teacher “knows what is useful and important to the students, has intimate knowledge of the students’ level, carefully prepares lessons, has all the correct answers, and dissects and presents knowledge in a masterly manner to ensure ease of learning” (p. 99).

China’s culture of learning has long been guided by “The Four R’s” – Reception, Repetition, Review, and Reproduction; and by “The Four M’s” – Meticulosity, Memorization, Mental Activity, and Mastery. CLT’s culture of learning is about as far from their R’s and M’s as one can get!

Huang, Rongjin, & Frederick Leung (2005), Deconstructing teacher-centeredness and student-centeredness dichotomy.

Huang, Rongjin, & Frederick K.S. Leung (2005). Deconstructing teacher-centeredness and student-centeredness dichotomy: A case study of a Shanghai mathematics lesson. The Mathematics Educator, 15 (2), 35-41.

The authors believed the dichotomy between “teacher-centered” and “student-centered” classrooms might be inaccurate. Citing other studies, they write: “One interesting observation was made that there are some student-centered features in mathematics classrooms in CHC although the teaching is teacher-dominated” (p. 35). [CHC = Confucian Heritage Cultures]

So they studied the videotape of a 40-minute lesson in a 7th grade classroom near Shanghai. Its topic was “corresponding angles, alternate angles, and interior angles on the same side of the transversal” (p. 36). (Reproduced are many of the diagrams used by the teacher.) To understand how the lesson unfolds, they rely on a framework that focuses on teachers’ use of conceptual variation and procedural variation. [For an overview of these terms, see Gu, Huang, & Marton, 2004.]

Much of this article is a recounting of the lesson’s progress, emphasizing how the teacher mentally and verbally involves the students. The lesson advanced through four main phases:

  1. Reviewing and Inducing, during which procedural variation was involved in the teacher’s revisiting previous knowledge and introducing the new topic.
  2. Exploring New Concepts, during which conceptual variation was employed to aid the teacher’s building, clarifying, and consolidating the concepts of the new topic.
  3. Example and Exercise, during which procedural variation enabled the teacher to further consolidate the new concept and to demonstrate a new method of problem-solving.
  4. Summary and Assignment, during which both procedural and conceptual variation aided the teacher’s review of new concepts and suggestion of a new topic for further learning.

Here’s how the lesson unfolded during the second stage (pp. 38-39, edited excerpts):

After the preceding exercise, the students might believe that they had fully mastered the focus concepts. So the teacher posed Task 3 to test whether they had mastered them. He separated a basic diagram into two [illustrated]. Students were asked to “justify that angle 1 and angle 2 are corresponding angles.” However, on the second diagram, they failed to see that angle 3 and angle 4 are corresponding. Thus a new dimension of variation was opened: example or counter-example of visual judgment.

After solving the above problems through demonstration, the teacher presented a manipulative task, Task 4. Through playing with colored sticks, its first question was solved. Then, based on drawing and reasoning, its second question was solved. During the process of problem-solving, the students’ thinking was shifted in these ways: concrete operation via manipulation (enactive); drawing (iconic); and then logical reasoning (abstract). A new proposition about corresponding angles was operationally experienced. A potential space of learning was opened implicitly.

The authors summarize what they learned from studying this lesson (p. 40):

This lesson unfolded smoothly, strictly following a deliberate design by the teacher. It is likely that it would be labeled as a teacher-dominated lesson from a Western perspective. However, if students’ involvement and contribution to the creation of these variations are taken into consideration, it is hard to say that students are passive learners. This paper intends to demonstrate that the teacher can still encourage students to actively generate knowledge through creating integrated dimensions of variation, although the whole class teaching is under the teacher’s control.

Jin, Lixian, & Martin Cortazzi (1998), Dimensions of dialogue: Large classes in China.

Jin, Lixian, & Martin Cortazzi (1998). Dimensions of dialogue: Large classes in China. International Journal of Educational Research, 29 (8), 739-761.

This article, by the prolific research team Jin & Cortazzi, discusses the ways in which talk and listening mediate learning in large classes in China. The authors’ main contention is that, despite class sizes that often comprise 50 to 60 pupils, Chinese teachers’ techniques of whole-class instruction work because of China’s underlying culture of learning.

In recent decades, Chinese language teachers have felt pressured to adopt “communicative” language teaching methods, in which pairs and small groups of learners talk spontaneously and frequently in the target language during class. The Chinese resisted. Their giant classes usually were shoe-horned into small spaces, and their culture of learning is highly skeptical of trial-and-error methods during class time, which is reserved for the receipt of authoritative knowledge.

Some Chinese language teachers adopted an eclectic variation on the “communicative” theme: Instead of pupils’ talking to each other simultaneously and spontaneously, they talk to each other sequentially and with advance preparation. For example, two pupils might come to the front where one of them, aloud, reads a flashcard, describes a picture, or tells a story; the other is expected to add information or ask a question. Or the two might perform a rehearsed dialogue. It’s all done while the rest of the class listens. When Westerners criticize this process because “it only involves a single pair, they miss the point that the participants believe they learn through listening to the teacher or to a well-prepared delivery by their peers” (p. 743).

When a teacher does try the Western simultaneous/spontaneous method, pupils ask one another, “Why is she doing this? She can’t listen to all of us! How can I learn by talking with my friend? He only knows what I know; I might learn his mistakes. I want to listen to the teacher!” (p. 744).

Even though pupils often know what will be said during prepared performances, they can be seen paying avid attention. Unlike in the U.S., China’s culture of learning is listener-oriented. Why do the Chinese listen so well? In part because deliveries are either prepared performances or involve a teacher-led discussion with one or more pupils, so that The One Who Knows is guiding the exchanges. “They also listen for moral reasons: to listen well is to show respect for the teacher, for their peers, and for learning” (p. 746). The authors continue (p. 746):

Chinese teachers apparently engage in whole-class teacher-pupil dialogue to scaffold the learning of large numbers of individuals, as if they were all at the same level of development. Chinese teachers believe that with few exceptions their pupils are, in fact, at the same level. They see the individual pupil as part of the collectivity. Chinese teachers, and often other pupils, will give extra help to those individuals who need it, thus keeping the majority within the same level.

This table highlights the different trends in communicative and eclectic classes (p. 747):

Pupil involvement Western communicative classes Chinese eclectic classes
Individuals • Talk usually is spontaneous.
• Exchanges usually are short.
• Talk usually is prepared in advance.
• Some exchanges are extended.
Pairs & groups • Speaker involvement in simultaneous speech.
• Tasks are prepared but talk is often spontaneous.
• Listener involvement in sequentially performed speech by others.
• Both tasks and talk are prepared.
Whole class • Class split into pairs or groups.
• Choral speech avoided except in occasional drills.
• Individuals speak simultaneously only during drills.
• Choral responses & reading aloud.
Principles • Speaker-oriented.
• Teacher-facilitated.
• Learner-centered learning.
• Listener-oriented.
• Teacher-controlled.
• Learner-trained learning.
Jin, Lixian, & Martin Cortazzi (2006), Changing practices in Chinese cultures of learning.

Jin, Lixian, & Martin Cortazzi (2006). Changing practices in Chinese cultures of learning. Language, Culture, and Curriculum, 19 (1), 5-20.

Co-authors Jin & Cortazzi deliver an overview of the Chinese culture of learning within the context of learning English as a second language. Their article begins with an account of developments in Chinese universities; it ends with a review of the common challenges faced by Chinese students studying in British universities. (The authors, who are married, live in Britain.) For our purposes, this article’s useful insights are found between its beginning and end sections:

  • The effects of Chinese students’ learning character-writing. Children must learn to understand and write thousands of characters. How? By means of “demonstration, modelling, tracing, repeated copying, and ultimately active memorization of the precise movement, direction, and order of strokes,” leading to notions of learning that comprise “repeated practice and mimetic production of teachers’ models or textbook examples, with the concomitant idea that being creative or artistic can only happen after precise mastery of basic forms” (p. 9).
  • The activity sequence when new material is introduced. Lower grade English teachers use games, songs, rhymes, pictures, and objects. But Western observers won’t see those methods followed by “communicative” or other approaches requiring student spontaneity. Following instead is “teacher-centered and book-based interaction including explanation, demonstration, and choral repetition before pair practice of a text dialogue or performance of an interaction” (p. 10, italics added). In East Asian classes, personal perfection precedes public performance.
  • The roles and responsibilities of teachers vis-à-vis their students. The common Western characterization of East Asian classrooms as “teacher-centered” or “teacher-dominated” has been shown by many researchers to be worse than misleading. Typical teaching “can give learners extended opportunities for one-to-one conversation with the teacher, to which the rest of the class listens carefully and may be asked for comments later” (p. 10). A far better characterization of East Asian teaching is that it is “learning-centered” or “knowledge-centered,” meaning that both teacher and students focus on what is to be learned. To which is added the moral model role of the teacher vis-à-vis students. A common expression for “teach” in China is jiāo shū yù rén, meaning “teach the book [and] cultivate people,” with the latter part being about “the social morality of being a good and caring person” (p. 11, italics added).
  • The effortful processes that Chinese students use to master material. The philosopher Zhu Xi (1130-1200) expressed views on teaching and learning that remain influential. Zhu stated the “proper sequence for learning from any worthwhile text: ‘Study it extensively, question its meaning precisely, ponder it with full vigilance, scrutinize its distinctions with clarity of vision, practice it will all earnestness.’ This Confucian model was linked to continuous effort and fostered a willingness to doubt others’ views as well as one’s own” (p. 13).

The authors also discuss in some detail the changes to classroom practice mandated by the Chinese Ministry of Education in the early 2000s. Known collectively as “Quality Education” [sù zhì jiào yù], and influenced by progressive ideals from the U.S., the changes are trying to make classrooms more participatory by “reforming and simplifying the curriculum, lessening the burden of homework and examinations, and generally developing a more rounded education. Teachers should be less of a ‘performer’ and more of a ‘conductor,’ so that one-third of class time includes active participation by learners. Interestingly, students are also asked to develop ‘a creative spirit’” (pp. 14-15).

Kawanaka, Takako, et al. (1999), Studying mathematics classrooms in Germany, Japan, and the United States: Lessons from TIMSS videotape study.

Kawanaka, Takako, James W. Stigler, & James Hiebert (1999). Studying mathematics classrooms in Germany, Japan, and the United States: Lessons from the TIMSS videotape study. International Comparisons in Mathematics Education, Gabriele Kaiser et al., eds. Falmer Press, 86-103.

Part of the Third International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) was the Videotape Study, which recorded events inside American, German, and Japanese eighth-grade math classrooms. Half of this article describes the challenges of measuring and comparing classroom processes across cultures. The other half reports these findings:

  • Mathematical concepts and procedures can be “stated” by the teacher, or “developed” through examples, demonstrations, and discussions. In Japan, topics were developed in 83% of cases, stated in 17%. In the U.S., topics were developed in 22% of cases, stated in 78%.
  • Tasks assigned by teachers for seatwork were of three types: “practice routine procedures,” “apply concepts in new situations,” and “invent new solutions/think.” In Japan, the plurality of seatwork time was devoted to inventing/thinking. In the U.S., almost no time was devoted to inventing/thinking; practicing routine procedures occupied 95% of time.
  • To determine how advanced the lessons were, the researchers counted “proofs” – an assumption is stated, a quod erat demonstrandum proof is demonstrated, and the assumption is confirmed. In Japan, 53% of lessons included proofs; in the U.S., none did.
  • Teachers’ questioning of students was of three types depending on expected responses: “yes/no,” “name/state,” or “describe/explain.” Japanese teachers asked significantly more describe/explain questions; U.S. teachers asked significantly more yes/no questions.

The authors condense their findings into this comparison: “The Japanese case is more student centered, the German case is more collaborative, and the U.S. case is more teacher guided” (p. 93). [See also Marton, 2000; Becker et al., 1999; and Stigler et al., 1998.]

Kember, David (2016), Understanding and teaching the Chinese learner: Resolving the paradox...

Kember, David (2016). Understanding and teaching the Chinese learner: Resolving the paradox of the Chinese learner. The Psychology of Asian Learners: A Festschrift in Honor of David Watkins, Ronnel B. King & Alan B.I. Bernardo, eds. Springer Singapore, 173-187.

Looking back across his 25 years of research to understand “the paradox of the Chinese learner,” Kember states that the most troubling aspect of the paradox had been that Chinese students appeared to be rote-memorizing. In the West, rote has forever been castigated as a “surface” approach that cannot yield “deep” comprehension. Yet, year after year, these same Chinese students were obtaining the highest scores on the international comparative tests.

Research yielded this explanation: Rarely do Chinese students rote-memorize. Rather, they strive towards deep comprehension using an “intermediate learning approach” that combines surface and deep approaches. Memorization is not an end, but a means to an end. It is related to their practice of repeating new material again and again in order to comprehend and master it.

Much of the research had occurred in Hong Kong, where the formative learning experiences of Chinese students had occurred when, as young children, they learned thousands of Chinese characters. What had enabled them to master all those characters? Constant repetition.

Research showed that, as older students, they sometimes use repetition as a pathway to comprehension; at other times, they seek comprehension first, then solidify it using repetition that leads to memorization. Occasionally, Chinese students do use a surface approach. This happens when contextual factors in their environment – e.g., the all-or-nothing exams for university entry – make more rote-like memorization an adaptive strategy.

Kember also discusses research in which he had been especially active. He and colleagues interviewed two types of part-time university students in Hong Kong. The “novice” interviewees were in their first year of study, attending part-time because they had been unable to gain a place in a full-time undergraduate program. The “experienced” interviewees were older, had completed undergraduate degrees, and were studying part-time towards graduate degrees.

The two interviewee groups were found to hold different ideas about what constitutes good university teaching and learning. The novices held expectations termed “reproductive” because they wanted classrooms where a set body of knowledge was authoritatively and didactically transmitted to them. They also were resistant to active learning and other innovative classroom processes. The experienced or “self-determining” students held learning expectations termed “facilitative/transformative.” They had realized that university teachers are not there to tell them everything, that they themselves must think, analyze, discover, and finally understand. They had accepted that active learning often is desirable. One on them wrote (pp. 182-3):

University exams are not oriented towards memorizing everything. For example, the lecturer will give you a take-home final exam and give you one week to do it. It was very hard. It was harder than writing a [secondary school] exam because there are no right answers. They make you think. You have to think and analyze, and [consider] how you present your thoughts. And in my third and fourth year of my undergraduate course, I learnt to think and present my thoughts. And I wasn’t memorizing anymore. I understood what was happening. Memorizing did not help.

Kim, Terri (2009), Confucianism, modernities, and knowledge: China, South Korea, and Japan.

Kim, Terri (2009). Confucianism, modernities, and knowledge: China, South Korea, and Japan. International Handbook of Comparative Education, R. Cowen & A.M. Kazamias, eds. Springer Science, 857-872.

The author critiques the “Confucian legacies” of the three countries of East Asia. Although Confucius (551-479 BCE) himself was Chinese, his teachings spread over the centuries to Japan and Korea (and to several other countries in Southeast Asia). In that world region, the influence of Confucius’s teachings on people’s values and assumptions became, and remains, huge.

Confucianism is a set of principles for regulating and guiding each person’s private relationships with others as well as the governance of public affairs, notably the method by which a handful of individuals becomes entrusted with public responsibilities and power.

The author’s principal contention is that, during recent times, the cyclical rise and decline of Southeast Asian countries is often attributed by scholars and other pundits to Confucianism. She particularly mentions economic “modernization,” writing that Confucianism (p. 857)

used to be condemned as a major cause for the economic stagnation of East Asian countries in the 19th and early 20th centuries, and then started to be praised as a major constituent in its belated but rapid take-off and sustained industrialization. Interpretations of Confucianism have been written at different times in both positive and negative ways.

But what has not oscillated between positive and negative over time, she says, is wide acknowledgment of the powerful influence of Confucius’s teachings on East Asian pedagogy and education, a “meritocracy epitomized in the tradition of exam-oriented schooling” (p. 858).

In the East Asian mind, Confucianism established a strong association among knowledge, moral virtue, and political power in this way: It is vital that those entrusted with political power be virtuous, which in the Confucian mind means knowledgeable, which means they are highly educated – which means that they gained the highest exam score. In short, the top rung in the social/political hierarchy was available to whomever could survive years of rigorous study, then demonstrate on a massive, grueling exam that his knowledge was greater than that of others. This system is democratic and meritocratic; the only thing that matters is one’s exam score.

In the Confucian system, knowledge per se is not important, nor is its practical applications. Knowledge is important solely because it can guide one’s social conduct vis-à-vis others, which is why knowledge is inherently moral. Armed with knowledge, a person can determine his or her rightful position in the network of social relationships, then learn to behave appropriately for that position. This principle assumes that people are unequal but nevertheless can live together in harmony. Confucianism explains how. It extols humanity, empathy, reciprocity, responsibility, community, civility, and other positive relational virtues.

The foundation of the Confucian system is education, which is equated with moral training. Persevering study is viewed as the diligent acquisition of morality. (This perspective is explored in Chapter 4 of The Drive to Learn.) Prized is the teacher who is both a scholar and a paragon of virtue – both a fount of knowledge in his or her field and a model of exemplary behavior. In this ethical system, the deliberate study of pedagogy – how to teach – is of very little interest.

China, Korea, and Japan do not have identical cultures; historically, they’ve had many armed conflicts. But the way in which people in those countries think about children, learning, teaching, and schooling is very similar.

Kotloff, Lauren (1998), “…And Tomoko wrote this song for us.”

Kotloff, Lauren J. (1998). “…And Tomoko wrote this song for us.” Teaching and Learning in Japan. Thomas Rohlen & Gerald LeTendre, eds. Cambridge University Press, 98-118.

Based on her fieldwork in Japanese preschools, Kotloff discusses how, by means of two parallel efforts, the preschool experience instills in Japanese children a life-long group orientation.

Each child is emotionally bonded to the classroom group. After the first free-play period, teachers facilitate the daily Class Meeting. The group welcomes back anyone previously absent. Projects worked on during free-play are individually presented, then discussed by all in a way that excludes criticism or competition. Advice and ideas are dispensed along with admiration. Failures are discussed, too. Decisions about what the group will do are an outcome of lengthy consensus-building (foundation of the ringi system of management). And the group’s finished projects are elaborately shared with other classes. Teachers told Kotloff that each child’s self-esteem is enhanced through the positive responses of his or her peers, not of their teachers.

Each child’s collective identity is fostered. Contributions, including creative ones, are sought from each and every child, but then it’s the group that decides whether to adopt or amend them, after which they smoothly become incorporated into the collective domain. This article’s title is what Tomoko’s teacher said when her original song was first shared with her classmates. Admired by them, the song became the finale of the class play, presented at an assembly and identified as “the song that we all wrote together.” Observes Kotloff (p. 114, italics added),

When a child’s work was singled out for special mention, the teachers praised [it] in terms of the contribution it made to the group effort…rather than as an individual achievement. [In this way,] children learn to value in themselves what others value in them.

Lan, Xuezhao, et al. (2009), Keeping their attention: Classroom practices associated with behavioral engagement...

Lan, Xuezhao, Claire C. Ponitz, Kevin F. Miller, Su Li, Kai Cortina, Michelle Perry, & Ge Fang (2009). Keeping their attention: Classroom practices associated with behavioral engagement in first grade mathematics classes in China and the United States. Early Childhood Research Quarterly, 24, 198-211.

Research findings have shown that Chinese teachers, when compared with American teachers, use their teaching time more effectively and efficiently to engage their students in inquiry. This team of researchers was interested in more fully understanding why. They decided to look at teachers’ timing of regulatory instructions: Before the task begins? Or after it gets underway?

The team videotaped first-grade mathematics lessons in China and the U.S. Seven teachers in the U.S. (central Illinois) participated; their average class size was 19. Eight teachers in China (Beijing) participated; all of them were math specialists, and their average class size was 40.

“On-task” pupil behavior was defined as occurring when at least 70% of the pupils were engaged for longer than 20 seconds of a 30-second interval; otherwise, that interval was coded as “off-task.” “Engaged” also was defined, including both “active” on-task behavior (answering or asking questions, discussing with classmates) and “passive” (listening, reading, writing).

Teachers’ “regulatory instructions” was defined as verbal or gestural instructions about a task, not about mathematics; examples include “stop,” “pay attention,” and “sit down.” It was noted whether any regulatory instruction occurred before or after the referenced behavior.

When their lessons began, the Chinese and American pupils both showed a very high level of engagement: pupils were “on-task” more than 85% of the time. As the Chinese pupils’ 39-minute classes continued, their level of engagement dropped slightly. As the American pupil’s 35-minute classes continued, their level of engagement dropped sharply to 50% of the time. A related measure was the percentage of 30-second intervals during which engagement (on-task behavior) was observed. For the Chinese, it was 96%, while for the Americans, it was 61%.

With regard to the timing of teachers’ regulatory instructions, the research team found that 51% of the American teachers’ instructions were given after the referenced behavior, whereas 69% of the Chinese teachers’ instructions were given before the referenced behavior. A related measure was the percentage of 30-second intervals during which teachers gave regulatory instructions before the behavior. For the Chinese, it was 33%, while for the Americans it was 11%. Conclusion: The Chinese teachers gave significantly more “proactive” regulatory instructions.

In this excerpt, the team discusses whole-class versus small-group instruction (p. 207):

Classrooms in both countries were more likely to be coded as “engaged” in teacher-directed large-group activities than in small-group activities. Small-group activities challenge behavioral skills, when students must carry out plans with minimal teacher guidance. In China, almost all instruction was spent in whole-group settings.

In this excerpt, the team reflects on its finding about regulatory instructions (p. 208):

The Chinese teachers tried to promote active engagement consistently during whole-class as well as [the infrequent] small-group time by giving proactive instructions. U.S. teachers tended to use the whole-class setting as primarily lecture time, during which reactive [after behavior] regulatory instructions occurred more frequently. Chinese teachers moved lessons from stages of instruction, to guided practice, and then to independent practice. American math teachers have been found [in other studies] to cover many topics in an unsystematic and non-intuitive manner. Regardless of country, reactive instructions were negatively associated with student engagement.

Lee, Shin-ying (1998), Mathematics learning and teaching in the school context.

Lee, Shin-ying (1998). Mathematics learning and teaching in the school context: Reflections from cross-cultural comparisons. Global Prospects for Education: Development, Culture, and Schooling. S. G. Paris & H. M. Wellman, eds. American Psychological Association, 45-77.

“American education reform ideas about mathematics teaching are actualized in East Asian classrooms” (p. 73), concludes researcher Lee. Have East Asians stolen our latest ideas? No, they’ve been teaching this way for a long time. Our cognitive psychologists are playing catch-up.

We’re talking about constructivism. The goal of Lee’s project was to measure the extent to which constructive thinking experiences were actually occurring in grades 1 and 5 classrooms in Chicago, Beijing, Taipei, and Sendai (Japan). The activities measured offer useful insights into what constructivism looks like in actual practice: (a) the extent to which students were learning actively, and (b) the extent to which teachers were facilitating students’ active learning.

The extent to which students were learning actively was gauged in two ways: by observing classrooms, and by measuring the extent to which students (i.e., not teachers) were providing verbal explanations and evaluations. The second is the more important. Compared to Chicago, the percentage of classes in which students provided explanations or evaluations was noticeably higher in both East Asian grades. Amazingly, in Beijing, student explanations occurred in 98.7% of first grade classes and 100.0% of fifth grade classes; in Chicago, 69.7% and 80.4%, respectively. Lee notes that when American teachers invited students to explain or evaluate, they usually called on a volunteer, whereas in East Asia, teachers to call on all students in random order.

The extent to which teachers were facilitating students’ active learning was gauged in four ways. The first was by using a variety of examples to illustrate a principle: word problems, computations, diagrams, manipulatives, etc. Compared with Chicago, the percentage of grades 1 and 5 classes in which a variety of examples were used was noticeably higher in East Asia.

The second was by elaborating on students’ responses. “If students offered a simple or incorrect answer, the teacher would ask them how they solved the problem. When students responded with a correct answer, the teacher would ask them to think of other ways to solve the problem. They often purposefully selected students with different answers [to generate] detailed discussion…” (p. 58). This occurred much more often in East Asia. Lee cites another researcher who compared American teachers with quiz show hosts: teacher asks a question; student answers; teacher rules the answer as right or wrong, then asks an unrelated question.

The third was by relating procedures to concepts. Some lessons focused on procedures, some addressed both procedures and concepts. The latter was much less true of lessons in Chicago.

The fourth was by the teachers’ asking questions that elicited more sophisticated responses from students. Six types of student responses were assessed: (1) numerical, (2) identification of properties, (3) computational steps, (4) fundamental concepts, (5) procedural and conceptual, and (6) logical steps or equation. In all six categories for grades 1 and 5 (one exception), the percentage of Chicago classes in which any kind of student response occurred was less than in East Asia. The largest differences were found regarding the sixth category (logical steps or equation), with Beijing again standing out within the East Asian group. In grade 1, students gave that type of response in 65.0% of Beijing classes, 10.5% of Chicago classes. In grade 5, students gave a category 6 type of response in 71.1% of classes, 7.4% of Chicago classes.

The second half of this article overviews the differences in Japanese and U.S. teachers’ working conditions. One example: Japanese teachers give mutual support; Americans work in isolation.

Lee, Shin-ying, et al. (1998), Teachers and teaching: Elementary schools in Japan and the United States.

Lee, Shin-ying, Theresa Graham, & Harold W. Stevenson (1998). Teachers and teaching: Elementary schools in Japan and the United States. Teaching and Learning in Japan. Thomas P. Rohlen & Gerald LeTendre, eds. Cambridge University Press, 157-189.

In laymen’s terms, the authors contrast Japanese and American elementary classroom teaching:

The research setting

Schools [those extensively observed were in Sendai, Japan, and in Chicago and its suburbs]

Schedule [including supplementary activities, of which there are more in Japan than in the U.S.]

Curriculum [Ministry guidelines for all schools in Japan; state & local autonomy in the U.S.]

Teachers [including a discussion of how new recruits learn to teach, very different from the U.S.]

Teaching mathematics [in both nations, only 1st and 5th grade math classrooms were observed]

Classroom organization

Whole-class instruction [unknown in Japan are ability grouping, tracking, and pull-out instruction]

Attention [why Japanese students were more often found attending to the lesson]

Structure of the lesson

General overview [how individual lessons are developed; how lessons in a series are related]

Student participation [lessons in Japan are naturally constructivist, not teacher dominated]

Multiple activities [teachers seldom lecture, instead employing many other types of activity]

Teaching methods

Concrete objects [often used, including every child’s sansu setto, a kit of math-related objects]

Visual presentations [visuals were used much more by teachers in Sendai than those in Chicago]

Verbal explanations [some Chicago teachers neither gave nor elicited verbal explanations]

Drill [believe it or not, drill was a part of the lesson more often in Chicago than it was in Sendai!]

Conceptual modes of instruction

Types of information [conceptual info occurred in twice as many Sendai lessons vis-à-vis Chicago]

Meaningful context [Japanese teachers used meaningful problem/task far more than Americans]

Different types of problems [varied problem formats used more often by Japanese teachers]

Alternative approaches [Japanese teachers frequently ask students to devise different solutions]

Using students’ answers [Japanese teachers often discuss a pupil’s suggestion, even if it’s wrong]

Relating concrete problems to abstract principles [more often found in Japanese classrooms]

Seatwork [used often in Japan for 5-6 minutes of practice alternating with feedback and teaching]

Evaluation [errors used productively & nonjudgmentally in Japan as index of what is misunderstood]

Individual differences [Japanese teachers worked with individual pupils three times more than in U.S.]

Out-of-class learning [many informal occasions to learn during Japanese schools’ special activities]

Authors’ conclusion: “We found no support for the stereotypes of Japanese [math] teaching practices… Lessons encourage a conceptual, problem-solving approach to learning” (pp. 188-9).

Leung, Frederick (2001), In search of an East Asian identity in mathematics education.

Leung, Frederick K.S. (2001). In search of an East Asian identity in mathematics education. Educational Studies in Mathematics, 47, pp. 35-51.

Leung notes that mathematics educators in East Asian nations have not developed a theory (model) of mathematics instruction. But “even without a theory, teachers in these countries at the classroom level seem to have developed rather distinctive ways of teaching mathematics” (p. 37). He proceeds to explain their ways in terms of six features of their teaching, stating each as a dichotomy that attempts to capture the essence of a basic East-West difference.

1. Product (content) versus process. The emphasis in the East is on students’ acquiring the body of mathematical knowledge. But in the West, the (p. 38)

focus is more on the process of doing mathematics rather than learning the mathematics content itself. Classroom activities such as problem-solving and investigations are highly promoted. This is consistent with a constructivist view, where learning is perceived as a process of active construction by the learner.

2. Rote learning versus meaningful learning. Leung associates rote with the East and meaningful learning with the West. However, he goes on to discuss research (e.g., contributions by John Biggs and Ference Marton) that explain what’s actually going on in Eastern students’ minds as they study, then concludes that “rote as learning without understanding is too simplistic a view” (p. 41).

3. Studying hard versus pleasurable learning. The former is said to be characteristic of the East, and the latter of the West. Here Leung shares his most valuable insight (p. 42):

Although educators in both cultures promote deriving pleasure out of learning, the timing and the level of pleasure or satisfaction differ. Western educators think that it is important that students should experience the pleasure while they are learning. But the East Asian view is that learning or studying is necessarily accompanied by hard work, and a deeper level of pleasure or satisfaction is derived only as an end result of the hard work.

4. Extrinsic versus intrinsic motivations. Leung posits that extrinsic motivation is emphasized in the East, intrinsic in the West. He discusses two sources of extrinsic motivation in the East, examinations and parental expectations. But he states that “For the East Asians, the distinction between intrinsic and extrinsic is not clear-cut and may be complementary” (p. 43). This insight is explored in detail in Chapter 3 of my 2017 book, The Drive to Learn.

5. Whole-class teaching versus individualized learning. Leung points to the “social orientation” philosophy of the East in contrast to the West’s seeing the individual as of prime importance. He notes that because role-modelling by the teacher is of great importance in the East, class size becomes less important. He also voices skepticism about “individualized learning” in the West: His own research reveals that many such programs “simply degenerate into students’ interacting with the learning materials rather than with the teacher most of the time” (p. 44-5).

6. Competence of teachers: Subject matter versus pedagogy. Deeply rooted in Confucianism is the image of the teacher as genuinely a subject-matter expert (a scholar) as well as a facilitator of students’ learning (a pedagogue). Research has shown “that without a solid knowledge of the related advanced mathematics, it is difficult for the teacher to teach even elementary level mathematics well” (p. 45). Although math educators in the East and West affirm that both deep knowledge and pedagogy are important, it is well known that in the West few math teachers are deeply versed in any kind of advanced mathematics. See the entry for Ma, Leping (1999).

Lewis, Catherine (1991), Nursery schools: The transition from home to school.

Lewis, Catherine (1991). Nursery schools: The transition from home to school. Transcending Stereotypes: Discovering Japanese Culture and Education, Barbara Finkelstein, Anne E. Imamura, and Joseph J. Tobin, eds. Intercultural Press, 81-95.

Japanese nursery schools are where children transition from the indulgent child-rearing practices of Japanese homes to the group-focused classrooms of schools. Lewis’s classroom observations explored teachers’ classroom management strategies, which foster internalization of group norms while applying very little coercive pressure. She discusses four strategies:

1. Minimizing teacher control. This isn’t merely impression management. Teachers tolerate all sorts of behavior that would be made to cease in U.S. nursery schools – and the rooms aren’t even “child-proofed”! The teachers explained that the “goal was not necessarily to make children comply but, rather, to make them understand what was proper behavior” (p. 86).

2. Delegating control to children. When misbehavior occurred, even if it included conflict, teachers directly encouraged the other children to deal with it. In fact, in order to induce conflict and thereby provide occasions for the children to learn how to cooperate, teachers deliberately made resources (e.g., paintbrushes) scarce. [But see also Holloway, 2000.]

3. Developing good-child identities. Each day, a different child served as tōban (monitor), a visible leadership and decision-making role that is ceremoniously conferred each morning.

4. Avoiding the attribution that misbehavior is malicious. Instead, children were “forgetting their promises” or “didn’t understand” the correct way. Serious misbehavior elicited from the teacher a gentle, empathy-inducing discussion, not intervention.

Lewis concludes: “Children…receive encouragement to be their brother’s keeper” (p. 93).

Lewis, Catherine (1995), Educating Hearts and Minds: Reflections on Japanese Preschool.

Lewis, Catherine C. (1995). Educating Hearts and Minds: Reflections on Japanese Preschool. Cambridge University Press, 249 pages.

This unusually insightful and inspiring book about Japanese preschool and lower elementary education deserves to be introduced in an unusual manner. So let’s begin with a few quotes.

  • A Japanese elementary school teacher said, “Reward children for good behavior? I think it’s demeaning. Even for a dog, it’s humiliating to do tricks [to get] something for it” (p. 124).
  • A teacher explained that “The fact that there isn’t more fighting among children is considered a problem by many teachers and parents. Teachers plan things so that there will be more fighting – like decreasing the number of toys for 5-year-olds” (p. 129).
  • A Japanese couple “rejected an otherwise appealing childcare center because it had safety gates at the top of the stairs. ‘Children should not be penned in,’ they said” (p. 115).
  • Lewis herself comments, “Elementary school? It often seemed more like Sunday School or a scout meeting. Children spoke earnestly of what they had done…to help others.” (p. 44).

Grounded in her months of observation in 15 preschools, and through her being the mother of sons attending third-grade and preschool in Nagoya, Lewis has given us a book of provocative observations and thoughtful interpretations: Teachers sit passively while (what we would consider) disruptive or dangerous behavior is ongoing, expecting the class members to handle it themselves. Teachers never separate children into ability groups, and never teach anything remotely academic. And during the free-play periods that consume half the day, they do allow the children to run throughout the playground and school, often with no supervision. How can such practices yield, years later, students whom are well known to be focused, rapid achievers?

The answer is that the purpose of the early elementary years is to build a children-managed community by deliberately shaping each child’s sense of responsibility for one another and for the unity and progress of their community. The process is intentionally made uetto (“wet”) – warm, personal, and human – instead of cool, rational, academic-focused, in a word, dorai (“dry”).

What pupils learn is emotional and moral: how to behave in a way that is constantly oriented towards, and actively cares for, the group’s welfare. If teachers were to act in an authoritarian manner, correcting misbehavior on the spot and mediating disputes, the children would have no reason to develop group-focused responsibility. Values are made explicit, not merely on the ever-present banners but more importantly during daily class meetings. Observes Lewis (p. 27):

All preschools I studied had at least one daily class meeting, and it always included time to reflect on the day’s activities. Incidents of fighting, crying, or dangerous behavior inevitably resurfaced in teachers’ comments during these meetings. Teachers made common property out of incidents [such as] Toshiko’s selfish attempt to take home the class’s craft materials or two boy’s fistfight over a wrecked sand castle.

The point of the discussion did not seem to be humiliation – in fact, teachers bent over backward to describe sympathetically each child’s reason for fighting. As they explored the feelings that led to conflict and the attempts of classmates to help solve problems, teachers made clear that the problems, and the responsibility for solving them, belonged to the entire class.

Educating Hearts and Minds is high on my list of best books to read about Japanese preschools. Be aware, however, that it’s probably not the complete story. For an expanded perspective on Japanese preschools, one should also read Susan Holloway’s Contested Childhood.

Lewis, Catherine, & Ineko Tsuchida (1998), A lesson is like a swiftly flowing river: How research lessons improve Japanese education.

Lewis, Catherine, & Ineko Tsuchida (1998). A lesson is like a swiftly flowing river: How research lessons improve Japanese education. American Educator 22 (4), 12-17 & 50-52.

In this short article, Lewis & Tsuchida focus on the Japanese tradition of “research lessons,” which are actual lessons taught by a teacher to his or her pupils while being observed by other teachers. Such lessons usually are planned and conducted to help determine how a particular vision or goal – such as to help students “develop scientific ways of thinking” or “learn how to take initiative” – can best be attained. Each research lesson isn’t only observed; it’s also recorded in a number of ways including videotaping, and then it’s analyzed and discussed at lengthy meetings convened solely for this purpose. Research lessons are a common feature of Japanese education at the school level, the district level, and even at the national level, when teachers travel by the hundreds – or thousands – in order to observe and analyze lessons.

The title was drawn from a teacher’s explanation of the value of these lessons (p. 15):

Research lessons help you see your teaching from various points of view…. A lesson is like a swiftly flowing river; when you’re teaching you must make judgments instantly. When you do a research lesson, your colleagues [record everything that’s occurring]. Your real profile as a teacher is revealed to you for the first time.

The culture and educational practices of Japan provide a context that encourages research lessons. Teachers in Japan routinely collaborate with their fellows in order to tweak lessons into a state of excellence; even the physical design of schools promotes such collaboration, with all teachers’ desks being located in a single non-partitioned room. Also, an honored feature of Japanese culture is hansei, the habit of self-critical reflection with the goal of self-improvement in the eyes of peers (hansei is taught to preschoolers).

Finally, the Japanese have a national curriculum with two important characteristics: It specifies what should be taught but leaves how to teach up to the teachers. Within each mandated course, the topics to be taught are few, enabling each topic to be thoroughly explored and allowing ample time for constructivist approaches. One astonishing example is that eighth grade science textbooks in Japan cover eight topics, compared to an average of more than 65 in American eighth grade texts!

Lewis & Tsuchida’s article is one of many that leave me with this thought: Well, it’s no wonder that Japanese students outperform American students every time!

Lewis, Ramon, et al. (2005), Teachers’ classroom discipline and student misbehavior in Australia, China, and Israel.

Lewis, Ramon, Shlomo Romi, Xing Qui, & Yaacov J. Katz (2005). Teachers’ classroom discipline and student misbehavior in Australia, China, and Israel. Teaching and Teacher Education, 21, 729-741.

The lead author of this paper previously had investigated the relationship between discipline processes and student misbehavior in Australia, and wanted to replicate his work using a cross-cultural sample. Using a questionnaire approach with students in grades 7 through 12, and with their teachers, he and his tri-cultural research team explored six discipline processes:
Punishment. Giving negative consequences of various types to students who misbehave.
Recognition. Praising and rewarding individual students, or the whole class, for behaving well.
Involvement. Asking the class to decide behavioral rules and consequences for misbehavior.
Discussion. Using two-way conversation to try to persuade misbehaving students to improve.
Hinting, Alerting misbehaving students that, in the teacher’s eyes, all is not as it should be.
Aggression. Yelling, embarrassing, using sarcasm, and punishing class for the actions of some.

Compared with students in Israel and Australia, the Chinese students reported significantly less use of Punishment and Aggression, and significantly greater use of Hinting, Recognition, Discussion, and Involvement. (Australian classrooms were found to have the least Discussion and Recognition, and the most Punishment, and Israeli classrooms were largely similar.)

In trying to account for the differences that set the Chinese classrooms apart, the authors explore cultural explanations, none of which will come as a surprise to readers of this book or of The Drive to Learn (2017): Teachers in China are held in high esteem, and they can count on parents to support attentive in-class behavior. Also, it’s possible that what is considered to be “misbehavior” in Chinese classrooms is less provocative than in Australian or Israeli ones.

Li, Hui, et al. (2011), Early childhood curriculum reform in China.

Li, Hui, X. Christine Wang, & Jessie Ming Sin Wong (2011). Early childhood curriculum reform in China. Chinese Education & Society, 44 (6), 5-23.

The Chinese government has endeavored since the 1980s to shift the way educators there think about and deliver lessons to children. The desired shift, which mainly affects the preschool and elementary levels, has been away from traditional values and practices towards Western models such as the Montessori and Reggio Emilia methods, and the HighScope approach. “These reforms are intended to turn classroom practice into children-initiated/teacher-facilitated, play- or center-based teaching and learning” (p. 6). Associated terms include “active learning,” “constructivist,” and “child-centered”; an often-advocated method is teacher “scaffolding” of pupils’ learning.

As many observers have remarked, however, it’s one thing for the government to advocate or even mandate the application of such approaches, and another for the changes to be adopted. This is especially true in the Chinese case, in which “policymakers and advocates have focused more on changing teachers’ beliefs while leaving the questions of how to implement those imported curriculum models for the teachers to explore on their own” (p. 8).

The research team set out to understand the extent to which Chinese preschool teachers have been changing (a) their values and beliefs, and (b) their actual classroom practices. They did so during 2007 by observing in ten Shenzhen kindergarten classrooms serving four- and five-year-olds, and by interviewing the ten teachers and their assistants. Of the five schools where observations occurred, four were publicly operated and one was private.

Classroom practices are discussed first. The data show them to be largely if not entirely in the China’s traditional mode. Whole-class instruction was the most frequent classroom organization; lecturing was the prevailing teacher behavior; direct instruction was the most often used teaching strategy; and teacher talk focused largely on curriculum and learning. All the teachers reported they taught children to read and write Chinese characters, even though such activities were officially prohibited by China’s educational authorities.

(The table reporting the observational findings reveals discrepancies among the practices of the five schools. One example is lecturing, listed above as the “prevailing teacher behavior”; but among the five schools, it was observed from 16.1% to 71.9% of the time. Also notable is that the private school’s practices very largely align with those of the four public ones.)

The teachers’ self-reported beliefs showed that their thinking had been influenced to some extent by the government’s long campaign. For example: Which is preferable, teacher-directed instruction or child-initiated learning? Only 5% responded teacher-directed, while 50% chose child-initiated. But the government’s long campaign had failed in other respects: Why should teachers read books to children? No teacher said “to entertain,” while 90% said its purpose was to develop literacy. None of the interviewed teachers agreed with the government that children should not learn to read and write in preschools; 70% agreed that preschool is an appropriate age to begin literacy learning, and that doing so prepares the children for primary school.

To account for their findings, the authors point out that, as a practical matter, the Chinese language is difficult to learn and requires a huge amount of instruction and practice, and that as a cultural matter, “conformity, discipline, self-control, hard work, and academic achievement are highly valued and intentionally cultivated in Chinese culture” (p. 20).

Li, Jin (2003), The core of Confucian learning.

Li, Jin (2003). The core of Confucian learning. American Psychologist, 58 (2), 146-7.

Author of the excellent 2012 book, Cultural Foundations of Learning: East and West, Li wrote this short article to correct some of the oversights and erroneous conclusions of two other researchers, R.G. Tweed & D.R. Lehman, in an earlier article in The American Psychologist entitled “Learning considered within a cultural context: Confucian and Socratic approaches.” [annotated herein]

It’s contrary to the purpose of this book to get into disagreements among scholars, but I’m annotating this article because it focuses attention on some of the finer points of the Confucian perspective, points often overlooked or misunderstood. (I have high regard for Dr. Li. I was fortunate to have a long conversation with her in May of 2016 at Stanford University. Chapter 4 of The Drive to Learn tells her story and discusses her main findings.)

The first fact about Confucius that Dr. Li emphasizes is that he had little concern for the pursuit of “truth,” nor for the acquisition of any specific skills. These are the concerns of the Western intellectual tradition, which is associated with Socrates (just as the Eastern intellectual tradition is associated with Confucius). “Confucius’s long-lasting influence,” she writes (p. 146)

resides in his fundamental teaching of the concept of ren, that is, a lifelong striving for any human being to become the most genuine, sincere, and humane person he or she can become. This concern of Confucius was not academic, not mind-oriented, but moral in nature. However, because self-perfection is in fact not obtainable, the real meaning of it lies in the person’s commitment to seeking it.

Later Dr. Li adds that the “idea of a love or passion for learning (hào xué) is an end in itself, given that learning was the only pathway toward lifelong moral striving” (p. 147).

Li then turns to a consideration of effort, which is associated with academic success in the Eastern way of thinking, just as aptitude is associated with academic success in the Western (especially American) way of thinking. She argues that effort, by itself, is “not a freestanding value” as Tweed & Lehman implied, but “is intimately related to one’s commitment to the process of self-perfection. This may be why Chinese culture stresses effort regardless of how well one achieves, because [achievement] is not the ultimate purpose of learning” (p. 147).

Li finally takes on the common misperception that East Asian students are docile and obedient in class. This was perpetuated by Tweed & Lehman, who used the term respectful learning to refer to the behavior in question. Li concedes that respect is an important concept in the Confucian model, then explains that respect (p. 147)

does not stem from the notion of obedience but from the concept of humility associated with Confucian ren. The Confucian model regards every person as always in need of improving himself or herself and, ideally, always open and ready to learn from anyone, whether a sage or a person on the street. Asians are respectful not because they are afraid of their teachers or because they have no questions, but because they are brought up with the idea that humility ensures better learning. They are taught to listen attentively and to question only after they have understood others.

Li, Jin (2012), Cultural Foundations of Learning: East and West.

Li, Jin (2012). Cultural Foundations of Learning: East and West. Cambridge, 385 pages.

Jin Li was one of millions denied higher education during the Cultural Revolution (1966-76). Afterwards, she resumed her studies, taught German, then immigrated to Vermont, where she took the only job available to her: substitute German teacher. When she arrived for her first day of teaching, her assumptions about all things educational suffered a profound shock. Her curiosity was awakened, she became a scholar, and in 2012 she gave us this insightful volume. (Her story is told in more detail in Chapter 4 of The Drive to Learn.)

Li’s purpose was to answer two questions: First, what are the cultural learning models that produce the profound differences between students in China and the U.S.? This question is answered by Li’s research into how Chinese and Americans think about learning. Second, why are the Chinese and American learning models so different? The reason is that among East Asians, unceasing personal effort is worthwhile because one’s “self” is assumed to be malleable and thus improvable. (Americans assume the “self” is given at birth and therefore stable and difficult to improve.) Li’s views on malleable vs. stable self-concepts aligns strikingly well with Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck’s insight about why American students with “growth mindsets” outpace those with “fixed mindsets.” (For more about Dr. Dweck’s perspective, consult Chapters 3 of The Drive to Learn).

Light also is shed on other issues including intrinsic and extrinsic motivation, the impact of failure to learn, the roles of activity and passivity in classrooms – and much more. For example, Li discusses a behavior pattern often observed in East Asian classrooms, citing a video study of a preschool in Beijing. The teacher is holding a reading session; every child is looking at a book. The teacher asks, “What is the elephant doing?” Hands go up. She chooses a child, who stands up and answers correctly. Without any word of acknowledgment, praise, or thanks, the teacher asks that child to sit down and immediately asks a different question. Comments Dr. Li (p. 318-9, italics added):

Such focus on learning content rather than on the ownership/authorship of individuals’ ideas practically eliminates the potentially adverse effect of students’ social comparison on each other. This style may underlie the common [East Asian] practice of calling students to display their misunderstanding or weak skills publicly. Children do not display discomfort with this display of errors. When the self is regarded as malleable and improvable through learning, children know that a mistake does not indicate an inherent flaw in themselves, but rather an opportunity to self-improve.

Speaking little does not mean that East Asians are uninvolved. Quite the contrary, East Asians’ little speaking/silence is evidence that they are highly sensitive and attentive to the situation. In settings where one finds oneself in need of speaking little or remaining silent, one pays more, not less, attention to the speaker. For example, it is repeatedly observed that in East Asian classrooms, children show rapt attention even when the teacher does not seem, to the outside eye, that engaging.

Research on Japanese classrooms shows a very high level of participation and active thinking. Despite little verbalization, students’ journals and other written work were full of questions, puzzlements, even disputes with their peers who did speak. Such a form, common in Asian schools, has been dubbed “silent participation” and “listening-oriented learning.”

Li, Yeping (2007), Curriculum and culture: An exploratory examination of mathematics curriculum materials in their system and cultural contexts.

Li, Yeping (2007). Curriculum and culture: An exploratory examination of mathematics curriculum materials in their system and cultural contexts. The Mathematics Educator, 10 (1), 21-38.

Yeping Li examined “curriculum materials” (i.e., textbooks) used to teach eighth-grade algebra in four national education systems: Hong Kong, Singapore, China, and the U.S. For the U.S., five texts were included: one that was algebra-specific and four that were non-algebra-specific. What distinguishes this article from many other textbook studies is that Li attempts – as announced in the title – to link his findings to cultural concepts. Since I have long been a student of culture in the classroom, I’ll report that I think he does this well.

The first several pages are devoted to reviewing the cultural characteristics of the nations that host the four educational systems. Three are similar, being so-called Confucian Heritage Cultures that support the “common values [of] hierarchy, discipline, and a strong achievement orientation” (p. 23). Their educational systems are centralized at the national level. Li notes that there was a long tradition in China of writing examination essays that strongly emphasized abstract knowledge. Practical knowledge was scorned; arithmetic was for lowly shopkeepers.

The U.S., on the other hand, has emphasized diversity, practicality, and new ideas, which has encouraged the invention of fresh perspectives for educational practice. For example, “One popular perspective about students’ learning of mathematics nowadays is constructivism, which emphasizes the process of students’ own construction of mathematics knowledge through their active participation in problem-solving” (p. 24). Other characteristics of the U.S. educational establishment are that it is radically decentralized and that there is no common vision regarding what mathematics knowledge is important. There is relatively little support for students’ understanding mathematics at a deep, conceptual level. Instead, the focus is on practical problem-solving, learned via small, ideally simple, steps.

When Li examines the texts, he finds those cultural characteristics being played out. But before relating his findings, let’s notice two facts. The Hong Kong and Singapore texts are in English, the students’ second language. And the American text that’s algebra-specific is quite similar to the East Asian ones. The four non-algebra-specific texts are very unlike the Asian ones but similar to other common American texts that different researchers have examined. They are colorful and long, with numerous short content sections emphasizing practical problem-solving. See: Fan, Lianghuo, & Yan Zhu (2007); and Park, Kyungmee, & Frederick Leung (2006).

Li’s key findings are these: The Asian texts all address advanced algebra topics; their large (but relatively few) sections begin by presenting a topic in a coherent, logical, and in-depth manner that treats it as pure mathematics. Next come worked examples, and finally come problems for student practice. Comparatively speaking, the American texts address elementary topics and are loosely structured. They present topics in relation to practical matters, avoid in-depth discussions of mathematical knowledge, and employ constructivist approaches that feature worked examples before, during, and/or after the short content discussions. “In theory, the difficulty of learning mathematics can be decreased through breaking content into small pieces, [but it’s challenging] for teachers…to build up central topics from small pieces” (p. 29).

Well-known cross-cultural differences in learning include these: East Asians expect sustained effort to learn by students, while Americans believe they need to make learning tasks small and easy. East Asians expect students to gain an in-depth grasp of a topic before asking them to publicly perform using that knowledge, while Americans often expect public performance before understanding is gained. In this research report, we see these differences being played out in textbooks.

Lim, Chap Sam (2007), Characteristics of mathematics teaching in Shanghai, China.

Lim, Chap Sam (2007). Characteristics of mathematics teaching in Shanghai, China: Through the lens of a Malaysian. Mathematics Education Research Journal, 19 (1), 77-88.

Lim, a Malaysian researcher, studied the characteristics of math teaching in Shanghai, which is famous for turning out worldclass math students. He observed math classes and interviewed educators and students in five Shanghai schools: a preschool, a primary school, a middle school, and two high schools. “These were not elite or selected schools, but ordinary schools with students whose parents came from the middle to lower income groups” (p. 78). Furthermore, all observed lessons were randomly selected. He found that the teaching had six characteristics.

1. Teaching with variation. In parallel with several other researchers, Lim found that the math lessons made frequent use of both conceptual variation and procedural variation. Both examples and assigned exercises varied in connotation and difficulty level, and teachers often expected students to come up with more than one process for solving the same problem.

2. Emphasis on logical reasoning, mathematical thinking, and proofs. Getting correct answers from students wasn’t the teachers’ main goal. They frequently asked why, why not, how, what if, and how do you know. A question in a high school class was, “Is this a function? If yes, give reasons. If not, give reasons.” A question in first grade was, “Why couldn’t we build the truck’s wheels using rectangular shapes?” This “promoted much verbal discussion and interaction between the teacher and students as well as between the students themselves” (p. 83).

3. Emphasis on the use of precise and elegant mathematical language. Shanghai teachers insisted that students communicate with precision about math concepts and processes (p. 83):

When a student stated the definition of a perpendicular bisector to the whole class, the teacher was not satisfied with the explanation although it was deemed reasonably correct. The student was asked to state it again using the least number of words. In another case, a middle school mathematics teacher emphasized the precise format of writing an algebraic expression.

4. Order and serious classroom discipline. Lim joins many others in remarking on the focus and concentration of students in East Asian classrooms. “Even in the primary school, when the students were given tasks to discuss with their peers, focused discussions rather than off-task talk predominated. The teacher was able to restore order quickly by clapping her hands” (p. 84).

5. Teacher-student rapport. Not only did student-teacher relationships appear to be “close and affirming,” but teachers often used encouragement such as “Be brave and say what you think. If it is wrong, we can change” (p. 84). Getting things wrong didn’t embarrass students (p. 85):

Interviewer: What would happen if you answered [a question] incorrectly?
Student: Incorrectly? Just sit down and the teacher would ask another student.
Interviewer: How do you feel then?
Student: Nothing. This time wrong, next time it will not be wrong anymore.

6. Strong collaborative culture among mathematics teachers. One of East Asian teachers’ most impactful practices is their constant collaboration with each other. Here’s what Lim observed (p. 85):

Every school in the study had assigned an afternoon per week for the mathematics teachers to meet and discuss the lessons planned to be taught the following week. In addition, it was common practice for mathematics teachers to observe their colleagues teach and exchange comments during ‘open class’ teaching.

Linn, Marcia, et al. (2000), Beyond fourth-grade science: Why do U.S. and Japanese students diverge?

Linn, Marcia C., Catherine Lewis, Ineko Tsuchida, & Nancy B. Songer (2000). Beyond fourth-grade science: Why do U.S. and Japanese students diverge? Educational Researcher, 29 (3), 4-14.

This article is one of the best to read for an overall picture of the reasons why Japanese students become significantly better academic performers than their U.S. peers. TIMSS findings for science show that Japanese and U.S. fourth graders perform similarly, but by the seventh grade the Japanese students are ahead of the Americans by almost a full grade level. Why?

The article begins with an examination of the “science activity structures” that were found to be characteristic of all ten videotaped lessons, which included fourth- through sixth-grade instruction in several domains of science. These are highly congruent with model programs here in the U.S., so that there’s no point in repeating them here. That leaves unanswered the question of why the Japanese students outpace their U.S. peers. The authors see three reasons:

1. Emphasis on student character and attachment to school. Much of A Mirror for Americans is devoted to the features discussed in this section of the article. Beginning in preschool, strong emphasis is given to children’s social and ethical development, including their capacity to share responsibility for the efficient progress of each lesson without teacher-administered rewards or sanctions. Children’s need for belonging and contributing is fostered by the occurrence of many activities in heterogeneous, family-like, empathy-oriented groups of four known as han.

2. Organization of schools for student and adult learning. With respect to student learning, the authors note that the Japanese school day consists of five or six 45-minute class periods that (a) are never interrupted by announcements or “pull-outs,” and (b) are all separated by recess periods of 10 or 20 minutes. Regarding teacher learning, the authors discuss teachers’ routine collaboration and the tradition of frequent “research lessons” (a.k.a. Lesson Study).

3. The course of study established National Guidelines and textbooks. Japan’s “National Curriculum,” which sounds ominous, “actually exists in one slim volume of general goals for elementary education, and an additional slim guide for each subject area” (p. 9). A textbook, to be approved, must cover all content laid out in its subject area volume. Textbooks translate the national curriculum into classroom lessons – yet they, too, are astonishingly slim. (The fourth-grade electricity unit of 10 class periods is covered in merely 13 pages, including many illustrations.) A key characteristic of the Japanese curriculum is that it’s narrowly focused: eighth-grade science covers eight topics, compared to 65 for U.S. eighth-grade texts! This means that there’s plenty of time for thoughtful, inquiry-based consideration of each topic. The authors note that (p. 11):

Japanese teachers encourage students to express their agreement or disagreement with other students, and use a slow-paced “sticky-probe” approach that uncovers inconsistencies and avoids early consensus. Sharing mistakes appears to be common in Japanese instruction, so that Japanese students are likely to become comfortable expressing an idea that eventually turns out to be wrong. Lively discussions may be supported by children’s belief that one’s ideas will be treated with respect…

By the way, the Japanese teachers whose classes were videotaped were surprised by the team’s interest in their instruction, “which they saw as heavily influenced by Western approaches including the work of John Dewey and Jerome Bruner, discovery learning and inquiry-based approaches…” (p. 12). More significant is the reactions among the American educators who later viewed the videotapes, who pointed out “the many similarities between Japanese practices and U.S. model science programs,” and who then added, “That kind of instruction could never happen here” (p. 13).

Ma, Liping (1999), Knowing and Teaching Elementary Mathematics: Teachers’ Understanding of Fundamental Mathematics in China and the United States.

Ma, Liping (1999). Knowing and Teaching Elementary Mathematics: Teachers’ Understanding of Fundamental Mathematics in China and the United States. Lawrence Erlbaum, 232 pages. As reviewed by Roger Howe (1999), Notes of the American Mathematical Society, 46 (8), pp. 881-7.

Liping Ma interviewed 23 elementary school teachers from the U.S. and 72 from China. The U.S. sample included both beginners and seasoned teachers. The Chinese sample came from schools reckoned to be both strong and weak, and representing both urban and rural areas.

Each interview included four questions that probed the teachers grasp of fundamental math as well as how they would teach the topic to their students. The first question, about place-value decimal notation, was assumed to be easy; after that, questions became more challenging. The final question, potentially involving “very deep issues” of mathematics, was this (Howe p. 882):

A student comes to you excited by a new “theory”: the area of a closed figure increases with perimeter. As justification, the student provides the example of a 4 x 4 square changing to a 4 x 8 rectangle: perimeter increases from 16 to 24, while area increases from 16 to 32. How would you respond to this student?

The American teachers all held bachelors degrees; several had masters degrees. The Chinese teachers all were graduates of the ninth grade and had attended normal (teacher training) school for three years, so each had more or less the equivalent of a U.S. high school diploma.

I’ll spare you all the embarrassing details regarding how superior the Chinese teachers were to the American ones. In no respect did the Americans even come close to the Chinese in their grasp of fundamental mathematics. Except that I cannot resist sharing one quote (Howe p. 883):

The four interview questions were presented to a group of Chinese ninth-grade students from an unremarkable school in Shanghai. They all (with one minor lapse) could do all the calculations correctly and knew the perimeter and area formulas for rectangles. [Some of the American teachers had done calculations incorrectly and had not known those formulas.] Over 60% found a counterexample to the student’s claim about area and perimeter. These Chinese ninth-grade students demonstrated better understanding of the interview problems than did the American teachers.

As noted by Ma and echoed by Howe, the book reviewer, the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics in the U.S. has called for “teaching for understanding.” How is that going to happen when many American math teachers themselves do not grasp the fundamentals of mathematics?

Howe, a professor of mathematics at Yale University, notes that NCTM Standards put much more emphasis on teaching methods than on the teachers’ understanding of fundamental math. He writes that, “In K-12 education, the tendency is to emphasize knowing students over knowing subject matter” (p. 885).

How did this state of affairs come about? It’s a fascinating story that begins back in the time of Pythagoras around 600 BCE. I’ve told that story in my 2013 book, The Aptitude Myth.

Makihara, Kumiko (2018), Dear Diary Boy: An Exacting Mother, Her Free-Spirited Son, and Their Bittersweet Adventures in an Elite Japanese School.

Makihara, Kumiko (2018). Dear Diary Boy: An Exacting Mother, Her Free-Spirited Son, and Their Bittersweet Adventures in an Elite Japanese School. Arcade, 218 pages.

In this informative non-academic book published in 2018, American journalist Makihara tells the story of her experience in Tokyo as the parent of a 5-year-old son whom she enrolled in an elite private school attended by children of parents in the upper echelons of society. Her son, Taro, had been adopted at a very early age at a hospital in Kazakhstan, where his birth parents abandoned him.

Dear Diary Boy is a memoir punctuated by quotes from Taro’s own diary entries; unlike Chu’s Little Soldiers [annotated herein], it’s not a commentary of on the state of global education. Makihara recounts her experiences starting with her herculean efforts – including the hiring of several specialized juku – to prepare young Taro for the multifaceted entrance examinations required of applicants. Said one juku teacher to a group of mothers, “Remember that these children have only been in this world for a short five years. If they fail, please blame yourselves” (p. 31).

The private school itself is unlike the Japanese schools described in this book; two stand-out differences are that the children did not clean the school each day, and did not dish out lunch in their classrooms. Of the three types of school overviewed in Chapter 2, Taro’s school almost certainly was “role-oriented or academic;” Makihara calls it “traditional” (p. 118)

The most memorable aspects of Dear Diary Boy are the relationships among the mothers of the pupils in Taro’s class, and Makihara’s frustrating efforts to cope with Taro’s “free-spirited” behavior, medically diagnosed in the U.S. as ADHD. In fact, one of Taro’s teachers becomes so annoyed by Taro’s behavior that (against school policy) he slapped him, inducing a bloody nose.

Beginning in seventh grade, Taro is sent by his mother to a boarding school in Massachusetts, leading to this comparison of how students are dealt with in Japan and the U.S. (p. 205)

The most striking contrast was the amount of positive reinforcement doled out in the U.S. Taro’s first report card at the boarding school praised his progress and happiness without referring to any of his grades. The teacher wrote, “Taro is showing improvement and greater understanding in his classes. He seems to enjoy what he is doing, and he has a positive attitude.” Could this be the same boy beaten for insolence in Japan? In the U.S., there was a constant attempt to look at things from the bright side. Criticism came couched in what seemed like a desperate attempt to keep the tone upbeat by avoiding the negative form, like in the wording of the following evaluation of Taro’s art work: “Neatness, attention to detail, accurate glass-cutting skills, productive use of class time, all came with some resistance.”

And then there’s this comparison of the academic demands on the students (p. 207):

In seventh grade at the U.S. school, Taro had four or five academic subjects such as English, math, and science, and several non-academic subjects like art or chess. In Japan, he had struggled with a heavy load of fourteen classes. At the U.S. school, the non-academic classes were decidedly relaxed and often graded on a pass/fail basis. In the Japanese school, all of the subjects were graded with homework and project requirements. Taro’s American teachers patiently tailored his instruction to his level instead of leaving it up to him (and me) to try to catch up to the class average as we were expected in Japan. In fact, the U.S. school’s motto was “to meet boys where they are.” It sounds great, but I wondered, does that mean a boy might stay at that level?

Marton, Ference (2000), Some critical features of learning environments.

Marton, Ference (2000). Some critical features of learning environments. Invited keynote address, The Bank of Sweden Tercentenary Symposium on Cognition, Education, and Communication Technology. Stockholm, March 30–April 1.

In this conference presentation, respected Swedish scholar Ference Marton posits that a key difference between math classes in China and Japan on the one hand, and math classes in the U.S. on the other, is a “the pattern of variation.”

East Asian math classes typically are organized around one complex problem, “the problem of the day.” With minimum teacher explanation, the students are given a challenging problem at the beginning of the class, then are left to figure out how to deal with it. After a while, they come up with a variety of solutions. Then, under the teacher’s guidance, their various methods of solution are compared, which enables the teacher (a) to draw the students’ attention to the various features of the day’s problem, and (b) to provide yet another example of the fact that, for many math problems, multiple paths to a correct solution are possible.

In American math classes, the teacher often introduces a certain type of problem together with the preferred path for solving problems of this type. After the teacher demonstrates several examples of that path to solution, the students are given many problems of the same type and use them to practice the preferred solution.

Result: American students learn to repeatedly apply one pre-digested approach for solving all similar problems. East Asian students learn, on their own, to creatively generate and attempt to apply an assortment of approaches for solving a problem. So East Asian students learn to grapple with a higher degree of complexity – and learn to creatively generate solutions.

This conference presentation is not available via normal channels, so I relied on an overview in another publication: Ida Mok et al. (2001), Solving the paradox of the Chinese Teacher? Teaching the Chinese Learner: Psychological and Pedagogical Perspectives, David A. Watkins & John B. Biggs, eds. (p. 177).

Regarding Marton’s insight, Mok and her (nine!) co-authors point out that similar “patterns of variation” can be found in East Asian classrooms devoted to other disciplinary subjects. [See also Kawanaka et al., 1999; Becker et al., 1999; and Stigler et al., 1998.]

Mok, Ida Ah Chee (2006), Shedding light on the East Asian learner paradox: Reconstructing student-centeredness in a Shanghai classroom.

Mok, Ida Ah Chee (2006). Shedding light on the East Asian learner paradox: Reconstructing student-centredness in a Shanghai classroom. Asia Pacific Journal of Education, 26 (2), 131-142.

In this article, Mok skillfully questions the meaning of both “student-centered” and “teacher-dominated,” implying that East Asian classroom experiences demonstrate that these Western terms are narrowly culture-bound. She argues that “what seems to be a teacher-dominated lesson may actually be interpreted as an alternative forms of student-centeredness” (p. 131).

Mok participated in the Learner’s Perspective Study, a major effort to understand classroom differences worldwide. The LPS videotaped continuous sequences of lessons taught by one teacher rather than isolated lessons. This paper focuses on one mathematics lesson, one of a sequence of 15 lessons taught to students aged 13-14 in Shanghai by an experienced teacher. Its object of learning was “the method of elimination by adding or subtracting equations” (p. 135).

Over the entire sequence of 15 lessons, 67.1% of class time was whole-class interaction, 21.6% was individual work, and 11.3% was small group or pair work. Whole-class interaction usually meant that the teacher asked questions and the students answered. There were very few instances of students raising their own questions. The body of this article follows the course of the lesson: First, there was a “situational question” intended to engage the students’ interest; then a “trial activity” provided an exploratory experience; finally, the “summary” enabled the students to make their own observations and reach conclusions. “As seen in the lesson video, the students were consistently attentive and followed the teacher’s instruction. There were no instances of either inattentiveness or off-task behavior” (p. 134).

Post-lesson interviews were part of the LPS. This lesson’s teacher explained that he drew on his understanding of how his students think to develop a “framed exploratory experience” for them. Everything that happened followed his plan, and each part of the lesson had a student-oriented rationale. The teacher valued his students’ participation, commenting that “I let the students investigate,” “I let them try,” and “I give them questions to think about” (p. 139).

To Western eyes, this lesson was “teacher-dominated.” On the other hand (p. 139)…

The teacher’s objectives included helping students develop a certain capability, motivating them to work on a certain task, letting students try out their skills, and providing a foundation for further work. He also gave serious consideration to the students’ abilities, thinking, and participation. In this sense, the teacher’s design of the lesson is “student-centered,” [in a way that is] different from Western models, where the teacher’s role is that of a facilitator and students are encouraged to express a diversity of meanings during lessons.

Focused interviews with two students revealed that, throughout the lesson, both were mentally present and active. Physically passive and verbally quiet, they listened intently and gained in mathematical skills. Other student interviews showed “evidence of keenness, active thinking, and a consistent concern for learning the lesson” (p. 140).

Mok’s article confronts us with the question of what we in the West mean, in behavioral terms, by “student-centered” learning. Our emphasis is largely on what is going on physically in the classroom. We evaluate “student engagement” on the basis of what observers see and hear. We assume that there’s a link between students’ physical activity and their mental focus on lesson content. But one’s degree of visible activity is not an accurate gauge of one’s mental engagement with new content, which is far better promoted by quiet concentration. How “engagement” is evaluated is an impactful difference between education East and West.

Mok, Ida, & Paul Morris (2001), The metamorphosis of the "virtuoso": Pedagogic patterns in Hong Kong primary mathematics classrooms.

Mok, Ida A.C., & Paul Morris (2001). The metamorphosis of the ‘virtuoso’: Pedagogic patterns in Hong Kong primary mathematics classrooms. Teaching and Teacher Education, 17 (4), 455-468.

This paper reports on research carried out in Hong Kong to determine to what extent the “virtuoso” conception of teaching is being modified there by the introduction of reforms. The virtuoso conception of teaching originated from a 1990 research article by anthropologist Lynn Paine [annotated herein], which portrayed teaching in China as similar to the ways in which accomplished solo musical performers train, prepare for concerts, and perform on stage.

During the early 1990s, the government of Hong Kong introduced the Target Oriented Curriculum, or TOC, which was “an attempt to shift teaching and learning away from a behaviorist approach towards one based on a social constructivist (Vygotskian) perspective on learning” (p. 455). The behaviorist approach was viewed as teacher-, text-, and test-centered; as emphasizing drilling and the products of learning; and as didactic and prone to assign “exercises” of the type 24÷8+7. The TOC, despite its name, made few changes in the curriculum. Instead, it focused on bringing about less didactic teaching strategies; more use of teaching aids employing physical representations of ideas; more opportunities for students to handle materials; more emphasis on the process of learning and interactions among students; and increased use of “tasks” that provide a problem (or exercise) with a real life context, e.g., buying candies at the local shop.

In order to find out to what extent the TOC was having the intended impact, data was collected regarding the time devoted to various classroom activities during over 100 Primary One (first grade) lessons. Besides quantifying the overall moment-to-moment activity during each lesson, two randomly selected pupils also were specifically observed throughout. This data-gathering process was repeated across three school years, then charted and compared.

The data revealed some changes in the direction intended by TOC. For example (Table 1):

  • Teachers, during the first of the three years, were engaged in “explaining/supervising tasks and related activity” 19.7% of the time; during the third year, that percentage had increased to 32.5%. And during the first year, they were engaged in direct instruction 33.7% of the time; during the third year, that percentage had declined slightly to 29.5%.
  • Pupils, during the first year, were involved in “answering the teacher’s question or engaging in activity specified by the teacher” 15.1% of the time; during the third year, that percentage had increased to 36.1%. Also during the first year, pupils were “listening to, looking at, or waiting for the teacher, other pupils, or resources” (probably a measure of physical passivity) 56.4% of the time; during the third year, this percentage had declined to 42.1%. And the measure of “non-participation, distraction, or being disciplined” declined from 12.1% to 4.8%.

Also measured were patterns of classroom organization, including instances of whole-class teaching without interactions (the old, undesirable pattern) and with interactions (the hoped-for pattern). Significantly, during the first of the three years the without-interactions figure was merely 10.5% while the with-interactions figure was 89.5%. So, upon inspection, the hoped-for pattern was found to already exist! Subsequent change in the hoped-for direction was slight indeed.

I must note that the authors claim that “a notable feature was the extensive and increasing use of group/pair work” (p. 461). This is contradicted by a nearby chart, which reveals that during the first year, group/pair work already was high at 57.9%, then declined to 53.6%.

Considering these and other data (some of it ambiguous), the authors conclude that whole-class teaching was still predominant. But “the role of the teacher that emerges from this study is one of a conductor orchestrating between activities rather than a virtuoso performer” (p. 467).

Ng, Sharon, & Nirmala Rao (2008), Mathematics teaching during the early years in Hong Kong.

Ng, Sharon S.N., & Nirmala Rao (2008). Mathematics teaching during the early years in Hong Kong: A reflection of constructivism with Chinese characteristics? Early Years, 28 (2), 159-172.

This study was conducted during the period when Hong Kong’s educational authorities were beginning to implement reforms that reflected progressive thinking. The authors’ aim was to determine to what extent preschool and lower primary teachers were making reform-oriented changes in their classroom practices in the introduction of mathematics to 4- to 8-year-olds.

The authors state that “an appreciation of teachers’ beliefs is essential for understanding their classroom practice,” and that “educational reforms often aim to influence teachers’ beliefs” (p. 161). Their findings about teachers’ beliefs and practices are separately discussed.

With respect to their beliefs, the teachers were found to have shifted in accord with the new teacher training they had been receiving. For example, many agreed that it was more important to help children gain a “mathematical disposition” instead of isolated concepts and skills. They also believed it was desirable for math lessons to involve real objects and pictures related to daily life. But in other ways their earlier beliefs remained steady: They thought that “early mastery of impulse control was a major concern,” that “children were expected to be silent in class,” and that “children should be prepared to endure hardship in learning” (p. 165).

With respect to classroom practices, this article includes seemingly contradictory findings. For example, the authors report that “the idea that knowledge is socially constructed was not evident from classroom observations. Children were not given opportunities or materials to prompt discussion, or to encounter and interpret knowledge at a social level” (p. 164).

But in discussing how math was taught in the preschools, the authors report that (p. 166)

teachers aimed at fostering learning through directing the use of manipulatives and activities to promote discovery learning. As Vygotsky proposed, active involvement of children in structured activities with guidance, support, and challenges of peers and adults did take place, and teachers were scaffolding children’s learning. Throughout the learning process, children were having hands-on and minds-on activities, actively constructing “meaningful knowledge.”

Constructivist methods seemed confined to preschools. At the lower primary level, math teaching employed few manipulatives and hands-on activities. Videotapes showed that (p. 168)

repeated drilling of verbal counting skills and manipulations of abstract numerals on the blackboard were evident. Much time was spent doing pencil and paper work. Games and activities were introduced but very little time was spent on them. Teachers said their methods were not exactly the ones they should use but that they had to resort to teacher-directed methods because of time constraints and large class size.

The authors conclude that, while training was shifting Hong Kong teachers’ beliefs toward relatively progressive perspectives, their practice retained distinctively Chinese characteristics, especially at the lower primary level (as distinguished from the preschool level). Emphasized was practice, impulse control, academic achievement, and the getting of high marks, all in accord with traditional Chinese beliefs and the teachers’ own childhood experience of learning math.

Parents were identified as a significant factor in teachers’ retaining the older ways. They “expected children to achieve a high level of mathematical competence, and teacher-directed approaches are felt to be efficient for transferring information to students” (p. 169).

Orlick, Terry, et al. (1990), Cooperation and conflict within Chinese and Canadian kindergarten settings.

Orlick, Terry, Qi-ying Zhou, & John Partington (1990). Cooperation and conflict within Chinese and Canadian kindergarten settings. Canadian Journal of Behavioural Science, 22 (1), 20-25.

This unusually short article reports research that was intended to confirm or correct the many impressionistic accounts by visitors to China that, virtually without exception, report children there as being well-behaved, socially-minded, cooperative, other-directed, self-disciplined, etc. Could this be true?

So the authors went to great lengths to devise a research effort that, in the terms of social science, was respectable from every perspective. It used rigorous observational methods to compare the cooperation and conflict behaviors of 5-year-old Chinese kindergarteners with those of 5-year-old Canadian kindergarteners. Much of this article explains the team’s preparations, definitions, methods, analyses, and effort to avoid erroneous data gathering. Here is what the team discovered (this is my table, not one copied from the article):


Acts of Cooperation

Acts of Conflict







The authors then ask, “What explanation is there for such clear cultural differences?” (p.24):

A different socialization process is evident within the Chinese kindergarten setting with great emphasis placed on helping and sharing [e.g.] guided role play activities,… cooperative games,… cooperative content in children’s books, stories, and drawings,… regular reminders and encouragement,… and excellent use of peer role models…. Chinese children also live together for longer periods of time,… eat their meals together, clean up together, take their naps together, wake up together, wash up together, all within an environment which values and teaches cooperation.

Ouyang, Huhua (2003), Resistance to the communicative method of language instruction within a progressive Chinese University.

Ouyang, Huhua (2003). Resistance to the communicative method of language instruction within a progressive Chinese University. Local Meanings, Global Schooling: Anthropology and World Culture Theory, Kathryn M. Anderson-Levitt, ed. Palgrave Macmillan, 122-140.

This article conveys the emotional impact on students of the differences between Western and traditional Chinese styles of teaching. Most academic articles maintain a cool, objective stance vis-à-vis research findings. Ouyang quotes Chinese university students’ own words about their reactions to Western teachers who have come to teach them English in the Western progressive manner.

The Western teachers practiced Communicative Language Teaching (CLT), an approach that requires constant student-generated English speaking in class. The site of this research was a Chinese university where the English Department had embraced CLT in line with government efforts to reform education. But in practice, that meant CLT as applied by Chinese teachers. When Western teachers applied CLT, about 60% of them drew student criticism of several types:

  • Westerners provided little systematic organization and linearity to lessons. Said a student, “Most of them only speak, speak, and speak instead of writing something on the blackboard. They are not orderly or systematic. It is an obstacle for students to take notes” (p. 128).
  • They treated students like children. “The foreign teachers usually treat us like kindergarten kids, making us sing, dance, and interact like children in oral classes while we are wondering what on earth is happening” (p. 129). Ouyang says this is the “fun” style of teaching, involving game-like activities, personal anecdotes and jokes, and active student contributions, methods that led students to conclude that the foreigners were “not serious.” [During the 1970s, my own research explored the reaction of immigrant Portuguese students to American high schools. I discovered exactly the same comparison: “fun” teaching in the U.S. versus “serious” teaching in Portugal.]
  • They failed to correct students’ errors. “They like to give us praises as remarks to our written work, such as ‘excellent,’ ‘very interesting,’ and ‘fascinating’; it seems to us that all they look for is enjoyment for themselves as readers.” But from the students’ perspectives, “correction of mistakes is an indispensable means for them to improve their learning” (p. 130). Ouyang notes that CLT emphasizes fluency over accuracy. [And my question is, “What, then, does fluency really mean?]
  • They used self-made, unsuitable, materials. “They use materials composed from only-they-know-where, in bits and pieces, and we get worried about what can be learned from them since most don’t seem to have a coherent or consistent theme or subject. In fact, very often they are just what the foreign teachers are interested in themselves” (p. 131). In China, where curriculum is tightly set and exams control lives, teacher-cobbled-together materials frighten students.
  • They apply subjective grading criteria. “Some foreign teachers regarded highly those works they think of as ‘creative,’ ‘with individual opinions,’ or ‘interesting’ according to their own views. Students who usually achieve high marks in Chinese teachers’ classes because of their good language and structure were labeled as ‘lack of opinions’ or ‘not critical enough’” (p. 132).
  • They don’t behave like teachers. “It is shocking for us to find that our foreign teachers don’t like us to ask them questions during the class break time or after class – they indicate that we take advantage of their private time – ‘exploiting them,’ as one of them said. This is especially disappointing if you contrast it with the kind of warm and encouraging faces they show us during their teaching time; some of us suspect they’re putting on an act…” (p. 133). Ouyang adds: “Their habit of going to bars to make casual friends, dating local girls, wearing casual clothing, sitting on desks in class, etc., could possibly convey a negative impression to students, who hold strict standards for their teachers’ proper behavior as citizens” (p. 134).
Paine, Lynn Webster (1990), The teacher as virtuoso: A Chinese model for teaching.

Paine, Lynn Webster (1990). The teacher as virtuoso: A Chinese model for teaching. Teachers College Record, 92 (1), 49-81.

Paine first describes her time as a student of Chinese brush painting. Students spent countless hours learning to paint simple objects (e.g., a rock) in exactly the same manner as their teacher. Finally, Paine grasped her teacher’s rationale: “Only after mastering the form could we begin to express our creativity; through structure we would be able to achieve freedom” (p. 49).

Years later she returned to China as an anthropologist of teaching. Recalling her days learning to paint, she was “struck by the similarity of instructional style, the role of the teacher in demonstrating, and the obligation of the students to follow the teacher’s model. The focus in teaching was on performance, the goal to produce a virtuoso performance” (p. 50).

In discussing how the Chinese conceive of learning and teaching, Paine makes these points:

  • Learning is viewed as a systematic process that advances through stages: (1) perceptual knowledge of the content, (2) understanding the content, (3) solidification of that knowledge, and (4) application of it. Teaching is the planned leading of students through those stages.
  • All students are assumed to be able to learn the content. Similarities among the learners are more important than their differences, so differentiation of one’s teaching style isn’t needed.
  • A class is an audience. “Teaching involves much of the dynamic of actor, stage, and audience. The excellent teacher is one who performs for the class as a whole and is able to reach the whole group. The virtuoso impresses and affects the audience” (p. 53).
  • Learning to teach, then, is like learning to become a virtuoso solo performer of music. Subject mastery and technical wizardry is indispensable, of course. But the virtuoso also contributes a part of him- or herself, which the Chinese consciously recognize and refer to as “heart.”
  • The virtuoso conception of teaching is labor-intensive. The majority of the labor is devoted to preparation; this is so for veteran as well as novice teachers. Elements include observation, study, practice, collaboration, and research. Consequently, teaching loads in China are light.
  • Elaborate preparation of each class presentation is inspired and impelled more by the content to be taught than by the personalities or needs of individuals in the class. No attention is paid to possibilities for interaction among class members (who, after all, don’t know the content).
  • Driven by their degree of virtuosity, teachers form hierarchies. Nevertheless, teaching in China is inherently collaborative, with extensive peer coaching, observation, and feedback.
  • Teachers don’t view themselves solely as masters and presenters of their academic field; there’s also a second dimension of teaching: being a mentor, guide, and second parent to each student. The Mandarin phrase is jiāo shū yù rén, “to teach book [and to] cultivate people.”

Perhaps aware of the growing pressure from the Chinese government for teaching to evolve towards a more Western model, Paine notes that challenges to the above image of teaching tend to be coöpted and assimilated, not adopted. Calls for independent thinking and active learning, for example, have not resulted in teachers’ giving up their key role, but rather in their increasing extracurricular activities, using more audiovisual aids, beginning classes with a puzzle, etc. The Chinese think dialectically. “What we in the West typically dichotomize, the Chinese have blended. They acknowledge the contradiction, affirming rather than denying each approach” (p. 76).

A journal article written a decade after this one revisits the question of whether the virtuoso conception of teaching still prevails. It reports that, at least in Hong Kong, the musical virtuoso conception is giving way to one that’s more in the direction of an orchestra conductor. See Mok, Ida, & Paul Morris (2001). But in Chapter 7 of this book, I question the applicability of the “conductor” label.

Park, Kyungmee, & Frederick Leung (2006), A comparative study of the mathematics textbooks of China, England, Japan, Korea, and the United States.

Park, Kyungmee, & Frederick Koon Shing Leung (2006). A comparative study of the mathematics textbooks of China, England, Japan, Korea, and the United States. Mathematics Education in Different Cultural Traditions: A Comparative Study of East Asia and the West. F.K.S. Leung et al., eds. Springer, 227-238.

Park & Leung compares the 8th grade mathematics textbooks of China, Japan, and Korea on the one hand with those of Britain and the U.S. on the other. Differences at many levels are found, making for fascinating reading. But more examples from the texts would have added to clarity.

Texts in the two sets look different. The American one stands out because it is far larger and longer than any of the others, including the British one. Both the American and British texts have many full color illustrations; the Asian ones have few illustrations, all black-and-white.

The focus of the East Asian texts is mathematical content – propositions, hypotheses, proofs – with no attempt to present this information in a “real-world” context. The overall approach is deductive, meaning that each section begins by stating the abstract concept, i.e., the math fact to be learned (e.g., a property of an isosceles triangle). Following this no-frills statement of the concept, worked examples are given, followed by problems to be solved. That’s it!

The Western texts proceed down a different path: They begin with various often-lengthy relating of real-world situations; these are intended as “scaffolding” to enable the students to “familiarize themselves with the new concepts step by step in a rather easy and natural manner” (p. 232). This approach has been termed “inductive”: examples precede and provide a context for the abstract concept. But the concept isn’t always effectively related to the concepts (p. 235):

Such an approach may distract or mislead students when the scaffolding process, with various introductory activities, is only vaguely connected to the main content of mathematics. Sooner or later, students will have to face the hard mathematics that is concealed under the comfortable fancy outlook [that might] draw students’ interest momentarily. But…a continuing interest in mathematics is mostly acquired through earnest efforts to understand essentially difficult mathematical concepts.

With no irony intended, the authors characterize the East Asian approach to mathematics as Platonic because math is treated as absolute truth in the realm of ideas that, ultimately, does not depend on real-life examples or applications. Math needs to be learned on its own abstract terms, and everyone understands and accepts that great effort will be required on the part of the learner.

In contrast withPlatonic, the authors term the Western approach as fallibilist because it treats math as just another human endeavor complete with limitations and errors. Born out of human activities, math needs to be learned in human context. A key motive for this approach is that educators believe they need to make students’ path to learning math as motivating and effortless as possible.

The authors also contrast the approaches as naked in East Asia versus dressed-up in Britain and America to cater to individual interests and needs. They conclude (p. 236-7):

The East Asian culture believes in orthodoxy, and students are expected to adhere to the orthodoxy despite their individual differences. In Western culture, however, the individual is of paramount importance. Hence the curriculum has to adjust to the needs of the individual rather than the individual adjusting to an orthodox curriculum.

Peak, Lois (1991a), Learning to Go to School in Japan: The Transition from Home to Preschool Life.

Peak, Lois (1991a). Learning to Go to School in Japan: The Transition from Home to Preschool Life. University of California Press, 210 pages.

Peak’s valuable book asks this question: How are young Japanese children, who are famously “indulged” and lightly disciplined at home, brought through the veritable metamorphosis that transforms them into group-oriented, readily cooperative pupils. Does the metamorphosis occur primarily because of their home upbringing, or because of how they’re dealt with by their preschool teachers? Peak shows us the answer: It’s all about their preschool teachers.

One of the most valuable portions of Learning to Go to School in Japan occurs near its end, when Peak contrasts the types of behavior that are regarded as worrisome “problems” by American and Japanese preschool teachers. She begins with two American-defined problems. The first is pupil hyperactivity. In Japan? Not a problem. Boisterous enthusiasm actually is viewed as a source of character strength. It is true that, from an American’s perspective, Japanese preschools seem impossibly chaotic and noisy. Here’s Peak’s memorable comment (p. 157):

Teachers regard even the most fidgety and hyperactive children with an affectionate amusement similar to what Americans feel for adventurous, gamboling puppies.

Preschoolers aren’t expected to control themselves except during a few brief, routinized, and carefully practiced daily rituals, such as morning greetings and lunch. What preschoolers learn is the classic Japanese skill of kejime, quickly switching to behavior that is appropriate for the social situation. How kejime is inculcated into the previously “indulged” youngsters by their teachers gets much attention from Peak, who details their techniques. (The teachers don’t regard what they do as “techniques.”) It’s all applied with warm patience and infinite perseverance.

The second American-defined problem is hitting. In Japan? Not a problem. Fights are a normal demonstration of social immaturity. But shouldn’t the “victims” be protected from “aggression”? Shouldn’t hitters be isolated? No! Consider Satoru, who was hitting just about everyone – including Lois Peak! His teacher said, “Satoru’s problem is that he doesn’t know how to relate to others. He’s not a bad child. He needs more social contact, not less” (p. 163, italics added).

The first Japanese-defined problem is overreliance on the teacher. These little ones have been heavily relying on their mothers; preschool is where they learn self-reliance. Teachers give only minimal assistance, working tirelessly to help rebellious pupils “understand.” Peak gives a verbatim account of one teacher’s 9-minute effort to get sobbing Katsuaki to put on his traveling smock, which ends when Katsuaki triumphantly proclaims, “I can do buttons, too” (p. 172).

The second Japanese-defined problem is nonparticipation in group activities in the forms of either passive withdrawal or refusal to stop playing and transition to another activity. Peak reports that nonparticipation is particularly threatening to Japanese preschool teachers. One of their strategies in this case is to tell the child that “the group will proceed without you!” But the group doesn’t; instead, it’s common for all of the other children to be kept waiting until one recalcitrant child is cajoled into joining. After providing another verbatim account of a lengthy effort to get Satoshi to participate, Peak likens his teacher’s technique to aikido, a traditional Japanese form of nonviolent self-defense.

In the chapter on “Opening Ceremony,” Peak notes that the children aren’t trained to only adopt the proper posture, but simultaneously to feel the appropriate sentiment: “The…word taido, which is often used in this context, refers to both posture and mental attitude” (p. 123).

Peak’s revealing insights and memorable vignettes lead me to conclude: If you want to understand how the Japanese learn to be Japanese, put Learning to Go to School in Japan high on your must-read list.

Peak, Lois (1991b), Training learning skills and attitudes in Japanese early education settings.

Peak, Lois (1991b). Training learning skills and attitudes in Japanese early education settings. Transcending Stereotypes: Discovering Japanese Culture and Education, Barbara Finkelstein, Anne E. Imamura, and Joseph J. Tobin, eds. Intercultural Press, 96-108.

Peak describes how young Japanese children are trained to become skillful learners by using the months-long initial stages of the Suzuki piano-teaching method as her main example.

To build capacity for listening attentively, novices participate in minarai kikan, attentively watching others performing the skills to be learned. Then, to instill the proper form and context for learning, novices are guided in repeatedly practicing skills such as responding to a teacher’s entrance, arranging items on one’s desktop, and sitting properly.

To develop concentration skills, novices are coached to precisely execute physical movements such as orienting the body, using the hands, and focusing the gaze. And to instill self-monitoring of one’s own performance, novices are trained to observe a period of thoughtful evaluation after simple actions (initially, playing one note).

Peak concedes that such explicit, drawn-out training in the beginning seems rigid and authoritarian, but thereafter it reduces the amount of control and authority that Suzuki teachers need to exercise on a daily basis. Subsequently (p. 106, italics added),

[The tiny child] displays an almost unbelievable ability to concentrate. In the manner of a serious adult, he or she responds quickly and accurately to the teacher’s instructions, with eyes never leaving the keyboard. Both teacher and student are completely absorbed, and the lesson is surprisingly businesslike, with a minimum of the fun and games and sugar-coated sweetness Westerners usually associate with the training of preschool children. The enjoyment [the children] derive is the personal satisfaction of competent execution and growing ability.

Perry, Michelle (2000), Explanation of mathematical concepts in Japanese, Chinese, and U.S. first- and fifth-grade classrooms.

Perry, Michelle (2000). Explanation of mathematical concepts in Japanese, Chinese, and U.S. first- and fifth-grade classrooms. Cognition and Instruction, 18 (2), 181-207.

This paper explores both the frequency and the type of teacher explanations to pupils in 1st grade and 5th grade mathematics classrooms in Japan, Taiwan, and the U.S. Its findings are useful for our grasp of why Japanese students perform spectacularly well in math.

The data were acquired by trained observers taking notes during lessons in each nation: 40 each in Japan and Taiwan, and 80 in the U.S. (Chicago area). Many types of classroom activity were recorded, but the focus was on “extended” and “brief” mathematical explanations, with the dividing line being one minute. Perry wanted to know how many whole-class explanations occurred? And what were they about?

At the 1st grade level, Japanese pupils participated in significantly more lessons including at least one extended explanation. They also were exposed to significantly more brief explanations per lesson; in this case the averages were 2.18 brief explanations in Japan, 1.76 in Taiwan, and 1.02 in the U.S. (An intriguing finding reported in Table 1 is not discussed: Taiwanese pupils often were observed to engage in “mental calculation”; Japanese and U.S. pupils never did this.)

In all three nations, most explanations in the 1st grade were about addition and subtraction. What differed was that the Japanese children heard far more explanations about multidigit addition and subtraction. The totals for extended and brief multidigit explanations were 131 for the Japanese, 23 for the Americans, and 5 for the Taiwanese. Perry points out that the American 1st graders were hearing (brief) explanations about a much wider variety of topics than their Asian peers, including fractions, time, money, measurement, graphs, and calendar.

Another table compares types of addition and subtraction explanations given to 1st graders, with the main distinction being between (a) explanations generalizing beyond the specific problem, and (b) explanations focused on one specific problem. In Japan, 84% were of the generalizing type, and in Taiwan 95% were of the generalizing type. In the U.S., 58% of all addition and subtraction explanations were of the specific type, while 36% were generalizing.

Finer distinctions also were made among the explanation types. Perry concludes that “the Japanese and Chinese [1st graders received explanations] that seemed to be consistent, straightforward, and useful methods for solving addition and subtraction problems” (p. 196), including decomposing and recomposing numbers to 10 for the Chinese, and place-value explanations for the Japanese. The American pupils received explanations “that were either difficult to understand or difficult to generalize to more difficult problems” (p. 196), including a family metaphor (which the adult coders couldn’t understand) and counting on one’s fingers!

Perry briefly discusses the findings from the 5th grade observations. One stands out: The average number of extended explanations per lesson was 3.35 in Japan, 2.90 in Taiwan, and 1.50 in the U.S. Multiplying those averages by the average durations of extended explanations reveals that the Asians received far more mathematical explanations than the Americans.

Perry’s most interesting finding was this: She recalls that some people speculate that Japanese math teachers move through the material comparatively rapidly. The 1st grade data reveal the opposite: The Japanese teachers actually moved slowly and covered fewer topics per lesson. “The average number of topics in the Japanese classrooms was 2.35, the average number in the Chinese classrooms was 3.55, and the average in the U.S. classrooms was 4.17” (p. 193), a finding that yielded an unusually high level of statistical significance: p = .0004.

Perry, Michelle, et al. (1993), Asking questions in first-grade mathematics classes.

Perry, Michelle, Scott W. VanderStoep, & Shirley L. Yu (1993). Asking questions in first-grade mathematics classes: Potential influences on mathematical thought. Journal of Educational Psychology, 85 (1), 31-40.

These three researchers were among many others trying to figure out why East Asian students routinely bested their American peers in comparative measures of math performance. In this case, the purpose was to examine differences in the degree to which first grade teachers in Japan, Taiwan, and the U.S. used questions to encourage students’ higher-order thinking. Their method was classroom observations focused on the types of questions teachers were asking and the frequency with which each type was asked. Six question-types were considered:

  1. Computation or rote-recall [place-value, yes-no, multiple choice, “What is 7 + 5?” etc.]
  2. Rule recall [“What’s the rule for two-digit addition?” and similar questions]
  3. Computing in context [teacher embeds a math question in a realistic story]
  4. Make up a problem [students are asked to embed a math question in a realistic story]
  5. Problem-solving strategies [“how” questions, e.g., “How did you arrive at that answer?”]
  6. Conceptual knowledge [“why” questions, e.g., “Why isn’t that method useful in this case?”]

No significant differences were found in the frequency with which types 1, 2, and 4 were asked; in fact, types 2 and 4 were seldom used anywhere. Type 3 questions (computing in context) were asked more frequently in Japan and Taiwan than in the U.S., and the East Asian teachers were good at coming up with contexts and materials that were familiar to the pupils.

Statistically significant differences were found in Types 5 and 6 (“how” and “why” questions), with East Asian first-grade teachers asking these two types of questions far more often than their American peers. Type 6 (“why”) questions were scarcely asked at all by the American teachers!

In reflecting on their research experience, the three authors offer these thoughts (p. 38, italics added):

Most notably, the Asian teachers (especially the Japanese teachers) behaved as though they expected their students to be able to deal with complex conceptual questions, whereas the U.S. teachers did not. What we learned…is not only that [U.S.] teachers act as though they hold different beliefs [vis-à-vis their Asian peers] about the level of thought of which first graders are capable, but also that first-grade children are capable of being engaged in conceptual and abstract mathematical thought.

Pratt, Daniel, et al. (1998), The social construction of Chinese models of teaching.

Pratt, Daniel D., Mavis Kelly, & Winnie Wong (1998). The social construction of Chinese models of teaching. Adult Education Research Conference (San Antonio, TX), unpaginated.

In this short but useful conference paper, the authors consider “the ways in which cultural and social contexts determine acceptable roles for both teacher and learner” (p. 1). They begin by reviewing the legacy of Confucius, whose views on education and related topics continue to influence Chinese values and behavior. With the exception of “friend-friend,” the five principal relationships delineated by Confucius are all straightforwardly hierarchical, with the senior member having a range of prerogatives and authority vis-à-vis the junior. In return, the junior member behaves with respect and obedience (“filial piety”) towards the senior.

Senior members should exercise their authority in a way that demonstrates benevolence, caring, and “heart” as well as responsibility. The purpose of this “should” is not so that the junior will love or even like the senior, but rather because empathic approaches are viewed as desirable. That being said, seniors such as a husband, a father, or the emperor have virtually unlimited authority over their respective juniors; exercising it is their duty. How the junior member feels about the senior and his or her methods simply doesn’t matter.

Chinese teachers, male and female, take as their model the Confucian expectations of fathers (parents), fulfilling their duty towards their students without worrying about whether they are liked. “This contrasts sharply with many Western societies in which affection is [a] complicating element in the father-son (parent-child) [and] teacher-student relationship,” leading to “a tendency to deny one’s authority over others” (p. 4) and focus instead on being liked. As the authors note, this is a major source of confusion for immigrant Asian students.

The authors also discuss another variation between East Asian and Western behavior, one usually referred to as “public vs. private self.” Although Westerners, and especially Americans, are steeped in individualistic values and behavior, they also are members of groups and can exhibit group-mindedness when it suits their purposes. Their easy movement back and forth is not found in East Asia. In China, the purpose of education is (p. 6) not to develop and perfect…

an ego-driven, private self but a collective and relational self. The very definition of self is always in relation to, rather than apart from, one’s family and kin. Thus, the focus of education in Chinese society is on the development of the “public” self, that is, the roles one is expected to take within one or more of the principal relationships.

Because education in Asia is viewed as developing the “public” selves of students, there usually is consistency between what teachers expect of students and what parents expect of children. In the West there’s more likely to be a mismatch between the expectations of the school and the home. (For deeper inquiry into the values, expectations, and behaviors of East Asian parents, consult my 2017 book, The Drive to Learn, especially Chapters 5 and 6.)

The authors conclude by overviewing the three models of teaching that are active in China – teacher as master, as virtuoso, and as coach – and by listing four contrasts between the Chinese models and the models of teaching found in the U.S. In all three Chinese models (pp. 7-8):
• There is profound respect for the foundational knowledge of one’s art, craft, or discipline.
• Teacher-learner relationships are consistent with expectations about other relationships.
• Learning begins with in-depth understanding; there is no rush to critical thinking or creativity.
• Successful learning is attributed to effort, rather than to inborn ability.

Available at

Pratt, Daniel, et al. (1999), Chinese conceptions of "effective teaching" in Hong Kong.

Pratt, Daniel D., Mavis Kelly, & Winnie S.S. Wong (1999). Chinese conceptions of “effective teaching” in Hong Kong: Towards culturally sensitive evaluation of teaching. International Journal of Lifelong Education, 18 (4), 241-58.

With unusual clarity, this article explains the differences between East Asia (specifically, Hong Kong) and the West in what university instructors and students believe to be the characteristics of an effective teacher. Discussed is a study in which Hong Kong-based Western instructors and Chinese students responded to a survey and open-ended questions about effective teaching. The students had never been away from China; the instructors, despite working in Hong Kong, knew little of Chinese culture. Their expectations about good teaching differed sharply:

  • Foundational knowledge in one’s field of study. The Chinese viewed knowing the basics as very important, with the instructor being the master who guides students to deeply internalize this essential material. But Westerners saw the basics as peripheral, less important than critical thinking and problem-solving, and as the students’ responsibility to learn on their own. They believed that the central work of a teacher is to elaborate, extend, critique, and apply basic knowledge.
  • Student-teacher relationships. The Chinese expected these relationships to adhere to their culture’s senior-junior pattern, with teachers’ being protective of and close to students, mixing stern guidance with understanding and caring (“heart”), like a parent. The Western instructors expected an egalitarian relationship but were wary of becoming too close because that could undermine their objectivity. They expected to act similarly in-class and out-of-class, whereas the students expected authoritative formality in class and warm informality out of class.
  • Process of teaching. Chinese students wanted teachers to be personal guides who insure, via well-structured lessons and critical feedback, that each student’s comprehension becomes flawless, and to whom they can go with personal problems. They also expected their teachers to know them well, thus enabling his or her lessons to be planned and delivered on the basis of the students’ level of understanding: “Teachers should be able to manipulate the structure of their content, to adjust their pace and sequencing, when students do not understand something” (p. 253). On the other hand, Western instructors viewed themselves as “facilitators” who encourage learning, open discussions, and critical thinking in classes “a-buzz with activity” (p. 249), and who expect not to be judged on the basis of their expertise or care in preparation.
  • Perception of Chinese learners. The Chinese students saw themselves as effective learners because of hard work, not inborn aptitude. Western instructors viewed Chinese students as needing spoon-feeding, lacking skills, and being incapable of thinking – in a word, lazy. The Western instructors’ views, say the authors, resulted from their wrongly “interpreting a wide range of student behavior such as asking for a copy of their teacher’s notes; pressing the teacher to find out what exactly should be studied; taking a quiet, receptive, deferential attitude during class; and lack of questioning of the authority of the text or teacher” (p. 250).
  • Responsibility for perceived teaching effectiveness. Some of the Chinese students held a traditional belief about responsibility for the teacher’s effectiveness, namely that it’s the students who are responsible because it’s up to them to work hard. Other students held the opinion that teachers and learners shared responsibility for teaching effectiveness. The Western instructors saw things differently: They accepted sole responsibility for whether or not they are effective. Add the authors: “In the West, it is not uncommon for teachers to accept a large portion of responsibility not only for their effective teaching, but also for student learning” (p. 251).

My key takeaway: In China, an effective teacher behaves like a parent toward his students.

Rao, Nirmala, et al. (2009), Preschool pedagogy: A fusion of traditional Chinese beliefs and contemporary notions of appropriate practice.

Rao, Nirmala, Sharon S. N. Ng, & Emma Pearson (2009). Preschool pedagogy: A fusion of traditional Chinese beliefs and contemporary notions of appropriate practice. Revisiting the Chinese Learner: Changing Contexts, Changing Education, Carol K. K. Chan & Nirmala Rao, eds. Comparative Education Research Centre, 255-279.

This is one of many articles in which researchers have explored the impact on Asian educational practices of new ideas flowing in from the West, especially from the U.S. Was this a case of Western imperialism? Not completely. Chinese authorities invited the new ideas because, rightly or wrongly, they had come to believe that traditional approaches were inadequately preparing Chinese students for the globalized knowledge economy.

The authors posit that in the West, the dominant educational trend had been behaviorism, identified with the English philosopher John Locke (17th century) and with B. F. Skinner, which emphasized instructivism, i.e., knowledge transmission. They see the new trends as constructivism or cognitive-development, identified with Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget; and social constructivism, based on the Sociocultural Theory of the early 20th century Russian psychologist Lev Vygotsky.

In this article, the focus is on preschool education in Hong Kong. Even though Western (British) influence there was heavy for over a century, educational practice had been strongly driven by traditional Chinese values – until, that is, the new trends caught the attention of the Beijing government. The outcome in Hong Kong was that teacher-training programs began to “reflect Western emphases upon child individuality, child-centeredness, and learning through play.” However, thanks to the influence of teachers as well as parents (p. 259),

Pedagogical objectives at the pre-primary level have tended to focus on preparing children for the highly performance-oriented, structured learning environment that children experience at the primary level. This is done by ensuring that children achieve formal literacy and numeracy skills through direct instruction.

Most preschools had half-day sessions, described as following a “fairly rigid timetable” that “limits time available for free play activities” (p. 266). In sharp contrast to Japanese practice, children were expected to “keep silent and behave well” (p. 267) in accord with traditional values.

The authors also state that Western thinking was having some impact on preschool practices. Less emphasis was given to explicit teaching of Chinese characters; instead, preschools (p. 267)

were focused on providing literacy-rich environments and embracing “informal” skills that helped promote the more formal abilities of reading and writing… Children were read to, and encouraged to interact with books, and to share stories with their teachers. Enquiry-based approaches such as the Project Approach were also observed.

Similar practices were found in preschool math instruction, in which (p. 268)

a variety of resources [were used] to enhance children’s participation and to help them learn through direct manipulation of physical objects. [Nevertheless,] teachers emphasized proper procedures, and the importance of obtaining the correct answer. Paper and pencil exercises [were] still part of the learning process.

In my view, an especially significant comment made by the researchers is this (p. 274):

Despite the emphasis on discipline, the classroom atmosphere tends to be friendly and warm, with numerous interactions between teachers and children, and among children.

Rao, Nirmala, et al. (2013a), Teaching in Primary Schools in China and India: Contexts of Learning.

Rao, Nirmala, Emma Pearson, Kai-ming Cheng, & Margaret Taplin (2013a). Teaching in Primary Schools in China and India: Contexts of Learning. Routledge, 202 pages.

This unusual book compares primary school education in China and India by focusing on Primary 3 and 5 math and language instruction in a representative region of each nation. In China the region is Zhejiang Province (just south of Shanghai), where both urban and rural schools were observed. (This annotation discusses the entire volume; the following annotation focuses on Chapter 5.)

Classroom Activities. Similarities between China and India include that both cultures view the teacher as a transmitter of knowledge, that whole-class instruction is the norm, and that lesson structures feature much sequential questioning. But they diverge, too (p. 147, italics added):

In India, interactions were completely teacher-initiated; teachers did most of the talking and thinking. In China, it was the children who did a large proportion of both talking and thinking. While the classes were teacher-directed, there was a focus on the learner’s being responsible for learning. Even though teaching centered on the textbook, teachers encouraged their students to construct their own interpretations.

The authors provide details about the patterns observed during lessons in China (p. 148 & 149, italics added):

The interactive techniques were effective, for example sequential dialogue between two children while others listened, and using children’s errors to elicit corrections from other students. It was quite common for questioning to be directed at one student, even for as long as 12 or 13 minutes, with the rest of the class listening to this interaction and reportedly learning from it. The teachers’ questions were at a deeper level [than in India], including many “how” and “why” questions, and children were encouraged to use statements such as “I feel…” and “In my opinion…”

In the urban schools there were examples of overt correction and analysis of students’ responses being made by classmates, and teachers frequently asked their classes whether the students answering the questions were correct. In both math and language classes, the Primary 5 children were given responsibility for doing the thinking. In math lessons, the Primary 3 children were seen being trained to solve problems in front of the class, and those in Primary 5 were encouraged to explain the rationales for the mathematics procedures they used.

Collectivist Approach to Education. China and India have a collectivist approach to education, focusing on collective identities over individual needs, moral obligation to excel academically, and social hierarchies including a high teacher authority. But the differences are significant:

Throughout India, belief in karma, or “natural order,” provides a blueprint for people’s lives pre-determined by birth, including social roles and moral obligations that form the basis for group and individual identity. Embracing one’s natural order involves submission to an elder guru, which in turn leads to almost total student reliance on the guidance and approval of their teacher.

Throughout China, there is no expectation that one will passively submit to a teacher. Rather, “respectful learning” means that humility leads to better learning. In line with Confucian tradition, learning involves a process of attentive listening to the teacher, followed by questioning that leads to deeper understanding.

The hierarchical relationship between teachers and students is not about an Indian-style ‘natural’ hierarchy between them. Compared with Indians, Chinese parents and students have a greater sense of agency regarding learning, and children’s engagement and personal investment in learning is as important as their respect for the teacher. [The authors credit this analysis of the Chinese view of learning to Jin Li (2003), annotated herein.]

Rao, Nirmala, et al. (2013b), The classroom context: Teaching and learning language.

Rao, Nirmala, Emma Pearson, Kai-ming Cheng, & Margaret Taplin (2013b). The classroom context: Teaching and learning language. Teaching in Primary Schools in China and India: Contexts of Learning. Routledge, 80-97.

This unusual book compares primary school education in China and India by focusing on Primary 3 and 5 math and language instruction in a representative region of each nation. In China the region is Zhejiang Province (south of Shanghai). This annotation focuses on Chapter 5, which describes the common features of 14 Chinese language lessons in urban, semi-urban, and rural schools.

All 14 lessons, for both Primary 3 and 5, involved careful reading of stories that are well known in China; titles included “Wonderful Stones on Mountain Huang,” The Child with Two Pens,” and others. It’s highly likely that the Chinese would call these lessons “intensive reading.”

Following the stand-up greeting by the pupils of their arriving reading teacher – in this school, the teachers taught different subjects – a common lesson structure was observed: The teacher (1) reviewed the previous lesson, (2) introduced the topic of the day, (3) took the pupils through three to five paragraphs of the story, (4) assigned classwork, and (5) summarized the lesson and assigned homework. Step 3, the body of the lesson, consumed over than half of the lesson time.

The body of the lesson was devoted largely to whole-class, teacher-directed instruction, but what occurred definitely was not a lecture. It consisted mostly of the teacher’s posing questions for the pupils, to which they responded either with answers or by selecting and reading aloud a passage of the story. The teacher’s questions were either directed to the whole class (in which case those who wished to respond raised their hands), or to a particular pupil. Most of the questions were open-ended, and “irrespective of grade level or school location, there was a strong preponderance of higher-level questions such as Why? How? Anything else?” (p. 82).

The pupils “appeared very enthusiastic about learning” and “were involved actively and frequently in decision-making” [not further described] (p. 82). They were encouraged in their question responses to use ‘I feel’ statements or ‘In my opinion….’ When the children read aloud, the teacher placed much emphasis on developing their skills to evoke appropriate emotion.

In one Primary 3 class, the teacher asked the children to look at pictures of rocks and invent imaginative names for them, then encouraged them to think more deeply about those names. The authors describe the teachers as asking “probing questions” to get the pupils to think more deeply and imagine more broadly: “What else? Why do you say that? Does anyone else have any views about this sentence? What was [character] thinking about?” One teacher said, “Why always the same students? Anybody else? Have a try!” (p. 85). The authors summarize (p. 83):

The teachers promoted understanding through probing deeper and deeper with their questioning to ensure that the students’ feelings about the passages were invoked and that they were able to express these feelings and to defend their ideas and actions. There was very little evidence of repetition or chanting of words or rhymes.

During the classwork section of the lesson, “much use was made of children sharing selected readings in pairs to find answers to questions set by the teacher. In one class, the teacher asked a child to be a ‘little teacher’ to explain something to the others” (p. 85).

The teachers provided feedback for the quality of the pupils’ answers; in some cases they offered praise. Comments on the quality of children’s reading included suggestions to improve by, for example, reading with more expression, or faster, or louder. In some cases, children were invited to comment on how well their classmates read and how they could improve.

The authors say that the teachers’ constructivism could be due in part to the recent reforms.

Rohlen, Thomas P. (1997), Differences that make a difference: Explaining Japan’s success.

Rohlen, Thomas P. (1997). Differences that make a difference: Explaining Japan’s success. The Challenge of Eastern Asian Education. William K. Cummings & Philip G. Altbach, eds. State University of New York Press, 223-248.

If you’d like to understand the reasons underlying Japan’s impressive success in educating its youth, this is an excellent article for you to read. While providing a comprehensive overview, Rohlen does not gloss over those aspects of schooling in which Japan has not done so well, nor where its challenges pale in comparison with ours here in the U.S.. Among the latter is Japan’s handling of diversity.

In terms of racial and ethnic variation, Japan’s population is nearly homogeneous, so it faces few hurdles. But within that population the range of mental abilities is similar to ours; so how do they deal with that? They think differently from us. They don’t worry about individual students at the margins (the gifted and learning-disabled); instead, they insure that (a) the average achievement level is high, with little variation between the better and poorer performers, and that (b) attention to the arts, social studies, and interpersonal skills nearly matches that given to reading and STEM subjects. Those objectives are very largely realized.

Rohlen addresses head-on the perception of many Americans that Japanese high schools are essentially dismal factories turning out competitive exam takers. He frames this stereotype in Japan’s cultural and educational context (e.g., most students don’t attend the college-focused academic high schools), then offers this thoughtful discussion of “cramming” (p. 228):

Are there better kinds of learning? Of course. But the issue remains: Compared to what? If we make some ideal form of learning the alternative, cramming looks impoverished, but if our comparison is with the reality of little study at all or a superficial kind of achieved glibness, then even the cramming Japanese students do seems quite positive. It is an intense engagement with facts and ideas; it teaches concentration and sets a high standard of meticulousness; it lifts the student’s capacity for self-discipline…

So what are the differences that make a difference? They are too many to overview here, but three that stand out in Rohlen’s deeply-informed analysis are (in no particular order):

  • Cultural values. Admired character traits in Japan include perseverance, self-discipline, task-focus, academic mastery… “To be a good student is analogous to being a good athlete in the U.S. – everyone is pleased, and a kind of social grace is bequeathed” (p. 229).
  • National standards. These are realized through Ministry-set curricular guidelines, general goal statements (not lesson plans) that address both moral and academic learning. Standards yield practical benefits for classroom teaching, staff development, and textbook production.
  • Early socialization to classroom learning. A child’s first year or two in school is focused on acclimating him to participate in orderly group-learning procedures in which the teacher is a facilitator instead of the authority. This initiates “a chain of virtuous effects” (p. 235) such as larger class sizes, constructionist methods, far more time for in-school teacher preparation…

Rohlen asks whether we find in Japan’s experience any confirmation for our own favorite reforms, e.g., smaller classes, parental choice, community involvement, more money, monetary incentive systems, more computers, the end of tenure, greater focus on the individual child (p. 245), to which list I’ll add privatization. The answer in every case is “No.”

The history and values of Japan are vastly different from ours, leading to different ways of thinking, feeling, and behaving in homes and classrooms. It’s Japanese differences in cultural values that make the difference.

Rohlen, Thomas P., & Gerald K. LeTendre (1998a), Introduction: Japanese theories of learning.

Rohlen, Thomas P., & Gerald K. LeTendre (1998). Introduction: Japanese theories of learning. Teaching and Learning in Japan. Thomas P. Rohlen & Gerald LeTendre, eds. Cambridge University Press, 1-15.

This thoughtful introduction to the authors’ co-edited book of readings offers readers a useful perspective on how the processes of learning evolve during a Japanese person’s life cycle.

The very young child, usually the central focus of his mother’s life, experiences his first transition upon entering preschool. Here he is socialized to feel comfortable, and to conform, as a member of a larger group that is consciously being trained to smoothly perform a wide variety of classroom routines. [For details, see entries for Lewis, Peak, Hendry, and Kotloff.]

The authors assure us that group subordination does not strip the child of his nascent individuality. The Japanese believe that “children up to the age of 10 develop best when allowed to follow their own inclinations” (p. 6). Contrary to stereotype, “spontaneous expression generally receives much toleration in elementary schools” through “a facilitative role for teachers and considerable student-student interaction” (p. 7).

Throughout the lower grades, the child encounters increasing demands, but always within a group context in which cooperative learning and classroom management routines are givens. The new demands are driven largely by exam competition for places in desirable middle schools. There, classroom routines are solidified. Exam pressures reoccur when students compete for places in desirable high schools. Echoing an observation of other researchers, the authors note that “the basic routines established in K-9…make possible the subsequent, rather dramatic change in academic teaching style at the secondary level” (p. 7).

It is indeed dramatic: rarely facilitative, constantly didactic. Students – at least those in university-oriented high schools – are challenged to master large quantities of material. We must understand this as a character-building challenge in the long-honored Confucian tradition of seeking self-perfection through persevering work, suffering, and spiritual maturation. Then come the grueling university entrance exams…

Training and learning is a feature of adult and “silver set” life in Japan, much of it neither required by employers nor driven by practical needs. Tea ceremony, ink painting, and Noh acting are examples. “This final stage of adult advancement begins to replicate, in style and philosophy, the spontaneity…of early childhood education. In line with Confucian and Shinto views, mastery of life gives license to experiment and create, to circle back to the playfulness of childhood” (p. 11).

Rohlen, Thomas P., & Gerald K. LeTendre (1998b), Conclusion: Themes in the Japanese culture of learning.

Rohlen, Thomas P., & Gerald K. LeTendre (1998b). Conclusion: Themes in the Japanese culture of learning. Teaching and Learning in Japan. Thomas P. Rohlen & Gerald LeTendre, eds. Cambridge University Press, 369-376.

This short but perceptive chapter overviews the foundational themes and values of the Japanese culture of learning. Rohlen & LeTendre offer brief, insightful explanations such as these:

  • Play. Along with the notion of just letting a child grow, the Japanese believe that a child’s early years should be devoted to play. Shinto ritual treats play as an unstructured, renewing activity.
  • Energy. The notion of vitality, expressed in things such as curiosity and energetic play, is central to the Japanese understanding of children’s learning. This vitality should not be inhibited.
  • Brightness. Teachers and parents often speak of “brightness” in both classrooms and children, meaning a lively, positive atmosphere in the classroom, in children’s faces, and in their interactions.
  • Group lifestyle. From preschools to corporations, social organizations, and “silver set” learning, the Japanese ideal is group living (shūdan seikatsu) and learning as a collaborative experience.
  • Mutuality. As a collective process, learning needs full participation of all group members. Ability differences are ignored because they are divisive. The ideal is for everyone to continually advance.
  • Imitation. In Japan, imitation is not inferior to creativity. On the contrary, it is the highest form of praise as well as a powerful road to mastery, which must be gained before creativity is possible.
  • Mastery. Mastery has nothing to do with domination. Rather, it is a process of adapting oneself to the material, not of subordinating the material to oneself. Potters say they learn from the clay.
  • Form. Almost every kind of learning – traditional and martial arts, all school levels, etc. – begins with a set form (kata), and training in that form must be repeated again and again. The form, not the teacher, is the highest authority. Forms have been honed and perfected by generations of teachers; as the essence of accumulated experience, forms transcend the individual learner.
  • Repetition of basics. The Japanese think of the learning process as “entering through form.” In all learning situations, there’s a consistent emphasis on mastery of the basics via repetition.
  • Experience. Learning involves the whole person – cognitive, physical, emotional – and thus is a matter of experience. Transmission of knowledge is more about experience than about talk.
  • Teachers’ authority. Teachers are those who have the authority of experience, i.e., mastery of the basics of the form. Loosely, it is anyone senior with at least some qualities of a master.
  • Effort. Effort, especially self-disciplined effort, is the concept that unites the ideal of equality with the expectation of competition. Ability alone does not engage the learner in the learning process.
  • Struggle. A pervasive expectation in learning situations is that the learner will “tough it out,” “not give up,” etc. (gambaru). Without experiencing hardships and trials, nothing can be achieved. Learning is never fun or easy. Surmounting the challenge leads to commitment and character.
  • Perfectibility. Perfectibility (kaizen) might never be fully attainable, but in many Japanese realms it is viewed as worth striving for. There is a continual search for improvement via a slow and painstaking process. Lifelong learning is normal because there’s no final end point.
Russell, Nancy Ukai (1997), Lessons from Japanese Cram Schools.

Russell, Nancy Ukai (1997). Lessons from Japanese Cram Schools. The Challenge of Eastern Asian Education. William K. Cummings & Philip G. Altbach, eds. State University of New York Press, 153-172.

Russell gives us a broad overview of the so-called “cram schools” in Japan as they existed during the mid-1990s. The general Japanese term for them is juku, but there are several different types (each with its own Japanese term) including one that specializes in cultural and hobby-type lessons such as piano, swimming, and calligraphy, and another offering correspondence courses.

Russell’s account focuses on the academic juku, and especially on the type known as yubikō that’s attended by “full-time crammers” – rōnin – who failed to get into a prestigious university on their first try and are devoting an entire year to “cramming” for another attempt. Juku have in common that they are private firms not bound by ministry requirements for compulsory education, that attendance is voluntary and fee-based, and that they enjoy great flexibility regarding class size and composition, subject matter, student tracking, teacher employment, classroom methods, etc.

Juku must remain responsive to student needs and preferences because they cater to parents and students, “savvy consumers who comparison shop” (p. 165). Teachers, especially of the rōnin in the yobikō, need to be well-liked by their students, and top juku companies – Kumon is one of them – routinely monitor and evaluate their teachers. Disliked teachers are fired; the most successful become wealthy celebrities!

A handful of first graders can be found attending juku, and from that point the percentage increases until it peaks at 70% in children’s ninth grade year, then drops off sharply. What this means is that, at least during the mid-1990s, gaining admission to a top high school was deemed the most desirable indicator of a student’s success.

In practical terms, juku students attended class an average of 2.5 times a week, sometimes remaining as late as 10:00 PM. They devoted up to five hours a week to juku study – which is on top of their regular school homework.

Russell observes that “juku are not dark dens of cramming and memorization” but “create a homeroom-type atmosphere” that the youngsters find “socially exciting, with the trading of notes, flirting, and the opportunity to meet students from other schools” (p. 158, 161). She quotes a Japanese author who wrote that juku serve children as a “neighborhood hangout spot more than one might expect” (H. Komiyama, 1991). Looks like American stereotypes need revision.

For a student-eye view, see this bibliography’s entry for Tsukada, Mamoru (1991).

Salili, Farideh (2001), Teacher-student interaction: Attributional implications and effectiveness of teachers’ evaluative feedback.

Salili, Farideh (2001). Teacher-student interaction: Attributional implications and effectiveness of teachers’ evaluative feedback. Teaching the Chinese Learner: Psychological and Pedagogical Perspectives, David A. Watkins & John B. Biggs, eds. Comparative Education Research Center, University of Hong Kong, 77-98.

In this article, veteran researcher Salili explores teacher-student interactions in Hong Kong through her own and others’ research. Her objective is to make the case that culture has a profound impact on how teachers give feedback to students, and the extent to which their feedback motivates the students to learn. This article is useful mainly because it discusses traditional Chinese patterns of teacher feedback. Western reforms such as the student-centered Target Oriented Curriculum for elementary schools (introduced in 1995) seem not to have altered those patterns greatly.

In Chinese tradition, children rarely get praised in private or public, but they are frequent recipients of directive guidance, criticism, negative feedback, and punishments. (To understand the cultural context of these facts, see Chapter 8 in my 2017 book, The Drive to Learn.) This pattern continues in classrooms. Salili found that Hong Kong students placed very high value on public praise, which teachers give only for exceptionally outstanding academic performance. Public praise sometimes takes the form of the student’s being appointed to serve as a monitor or prefect.

In contrast to academic performance, good in-school behavior virtually never brings praise; it’s the norm and is expected. Badly behaving students – yes, there are some – are referred to the headmaster or discipline teacher, and is likely to result in demerits, writing lines on the blackboard, standing in class, or extra work.

Poor academic performance is likely to result in negative feedback from the teacher. “If not excessive and if it is followed by appropriate explanations and guidance, [it] may have a positive effect of motivating students to work harder” (p. 88).

Sato, Nancy (2004), Inside Japanese Classrooms: The Heart of Education.

Sato, Nancy E. (2004). Inside Japanese Classrooms: The Heart of Education. Taylor & Francis (Routledge), 325 pages.

Nancy Sato’s Inside Japanese Classrooms is a thorough revelation of life and work, process and product, and values and emotions within two Tokyo fifth-grade classrooms during 1987-88. One school was in a working-class district, the other was in a district where every pupil was university-bound.

Sato begins by noting that “the most profound goal of [Japanese] education is to develop one’s heart” (kokoro) (p. 1), a theme she develops throughout. Her supporting themes include:

  • Learning communities. Each pupil is tested as an individual, but that’s the only activity without a pervasive, mutually supportive group focus. Sato highlights the multiple ways in which academic learning, extracurricular activities, and even classroom management are shared by shifting yet cohesive combinations of pupils and teacher.
  • Extracurricular activities. These are not “extras.” They’re central to schools’ heart- and community-focused mission. Far more time and effort is devoted to numerous non-academic activities, including meticulously planned whole-school events, than in the U.S. And every pupil, without exception, is included in planning and participating in each event.
  • Moral education and the goal of ningen. The Japanese understanding of “self” highlights interpersonal relations. Parents’ and teachers’ shared goal is to develop ningen, “human beings,” the two characters of which mean “amidst people.” Moral Education is a mandated course with a textbook. But moral education informally pervades all aspects of school life.
  • Learning how to learn. Teachers promote understanding with one’s entire body; learnings are absorbed via immersion including “repetition that engrains the basic skills as part of one’s body, freeing the mind to achieve greater levels of creativity and accomplishment.” The path to mastery begins by “entering through form”; Sato cites mi ni tsuku: literally, “to attach to one’s body,” meaning “to know something so well it becomes automatic” (p. 19).
  • Tolerance for chaotic behavior. At first, Sato was alarmed by the noisy chaos whenever formal learning was not occurring. “Students scream, yell, laugh, kick, wrestle, play tag, and roughhouse…, and adults rarely interfere.” Equally astonishing is that substitute teachers are never used; if a teacher is absent, “students [are] given work, told what to do, and left on their own” (p. 67-8). It works; pupils have been taught to self-supervise since preschool.
  • Teachers’ roles & responsibilities. Compared with the U.S., the school year in Japan is far longer. Teachers teach the usual subjects plus calligraphy, art, music, moral ed., phys. ed., and home economics. They help pupils learn to “do handsprings, swim backstroke, play and sing melodies in F major and D minor, and carve a woodblock” (p. 52). Teachers’ have parent-like oversight of pupils’ personal habits and relationships inside the school and within the community – not to mention overseeing pupils’ study plans for their vacation time!
  • University admission and juku. Fifth grade is when upper-class families begin worrying about those career-shaping exams for high school and university admission. Many pupils’ out-of-school routines shift to less play, more study, and juku (cram school) attendance. Teachers find that some pupils already know what they’re about to teach. Many Japanese are dismayed by all this, but it’s a way of life seemingly impervious to change.

Sato’s Inside Japanese Classrooms is high on my list of clear, insightful books to read about Japanese elementary education and its value-laden underpinnings.

Sato, Nancy, & Milbrey McLaughlin (1992), Context matters: Teaching in Japan and the United States.

Sato, Nancy, & Milbrey W. McLaughlin (1992). Context matters: Teaching in Japan and the United States. Phi Delta Kappan, 73 (1), 359-66.

This article is the best single overview of the numerous differences in Japanese and American teachers’ responsibilities and daily work. Among the headings are Social Context, Governance, Professional Context, School Context, Physical Layout, and Classroom Context. Covered are not only their formal obligations but also their respective society’s expectations.

The article is based on findings from surveys of elementary and secondary teachers in Japan and the U.S., jointly carried out by researchers at Stanford and the University of Tokyo. Surveyed were teachers’ goals, use of time, roles/responsibilities, professional development, relations with students, and more. Statistical data are omitted. This is a straightforward listing, with brief discussions, of the numerous differences between teachers’ work between Japan and the U.S.

For example, in terms of time devoted and roles carried out, Japanese teachers were far more involved in their profession, in their schools, in their classrooms, and in each student’s overall development than were American teachers. Consider responsibility for students’ overall development: Japanese teachers reported being actively responsible for each student’s hygiene, appearance, personal habits, use of vacation time, and behavior on and off campus. Community members concurred: If a child misbehaved outside of school, witnesses were more likely to report the misbehavior to the child’s school than to the parents.

The cultural context for teachers’ broad responsibility is that, in Japan, gaining academic prowess is merely one of many components of developing ningen (human) attributes in students. The result is a holistic view of development – aesthetic, moral, social, emotional, interpersonal, physical and, yes, cognitive – all of which are the concern of Japanese teachers.

Schleppenbach, Meg, et al. (2007), The answer is only the beginning: Extended discourse in Chinese and U.S. mathematics classrooms.

Schleppenbach, Meg, Michelle Perry, Kevin F. Miller, Linda Sims, & Ge Fang (2007). The answer is only the beginning: Extended discourse in Chinese and U.S. mathematics classrooms. Journal of Educational Psychology, 99 (2), 380-396.

The authors begin their thorough and revealing research report by noting that mathematics educators have long believed that a key to children’s math mastery is developing a conceptual, or higher-level, understanding of math. Knowing how to solve a specific type of problem is good, but grasping the abstract concepts and principles behind those solution steps is much better.

One way in which a conceptual understanding is built in classrooms concerns the nature of teacher-student (and student-student) discussions during a lesson. A common instructional sequence is: the teacher asks a question, a student responds, and the teacher evaluates that response. If it’s correct, the teacher gives praise and/or moves on to the next thing, ending this sequence. If it’s not correct, the teacher asks a follow-up question, extending this sequence.

It’s believed that children’s conceptual grasp of math is enhanced when a correct response is not followed by praise and a new topic but rather by further follow-up questioning, especially by “how” and “why” questions regarding the student’s response. When students “discuss their conjectures, their underlying thinking is revealed, which helps the students to clarify their ideas and perhaps see mathematical connections they might otherwise have missed” (p. 382). The authors use the term “extended discourse” to refer to these longer discussion sequences.

Earlier research had suggested that discussion sequences in Chinese math classrooms are different from those in the U.S. So the research team videotaped lessons about equivalent fractions in Chinese and U.S. fourth- and fifth-grade classrooms. (The authors state without comment that the average class size in the U.S. was 22 students, while in China it was 55.)

Their basic findings were that extended discourse occurred in 37% of the Chinese lessons, and in 21% of the U.S. lessons, and that the average number of extended discourse events in China was 16.4, while in the U.S. it was 8.6. Both differences were highly significant (p < .001).

Great effort was put into determining the types of statements used by teachers; much of this article concerns how various types were defined and compared. The Chinese teachers’ statements were more frequently requests for procedures (How was the answer arrived at?), requests for reasoning (Why was a certain procedure appropriate?), requests for rules (What was the governing rule?), and checks for understanding. The American teachers’ statements were more frequently requests for computation (What is the result of that calculation?) and explanation. “The Chinese students were prompted to answer with rule or reasoning statements, whereas the U.S. students were prompted to answer with computation statements” (p. 390).

Probing even deeper, the researchers found two additional subtle differences between the two groups. One was that the Chinese teachers were more likely to use classroom discussions to promote students to think about underlying mathematical rules, something as simple as this: Teacher: “Is this one true?” Students: “False.” Teacher: “Why false?” (p. 391).

The other subtle difference is related to the fact that Chinese teachers put emphasis on rules. And they did so by insisting on formal language, as here: Teacher: “What’s your rationale?” Student: “It’s based on…consistent quotient.” Teacher: “Can you say that in detail?” Student: “The quotient will stay consistent if…” (p. 391).

But the American teachers allowed their students (a) to discuss rules without formally stating them, and (b) to view “a rule as part of solving a problem, not as a separate, formal entity,” which “created very different classroom norms about the kind of language that constitutes an acceptable mathematical argument” (p. 392).

Sekiguchi, Yasuhiro, & Mikio Miyazaki (2000), Argumentation and mathematical proof in Japan.

Sekiguchi, Yasuhiro, & Mikio Miyazaki (2000). Argumentation and mathematical proof in Japan. International Newsletter on the Teaching and Learning of Mathematical Proof, January/February issue. 7 pages (unpaginated).

The authors point out that traditional Japanese culture places restrictions on individuals’ communicative activity in ordinary circumstances. An underlying goal of communication is the maintenance of harmony (wa) among the participants, regardless of what differences of opinion they might have. In public, people carefully avoid explicit expression of disagreement. They try to put their opinions ambiguously, avoiding full logical or emotional explanation, so that they can withdraw or change their views easily if others state their disagreement.

This strong cultural value creates a barrier to the discussion of a mathematical or geometrical “proofs” because its format is straightforwardly argumentative. How do Japanese teachers handle this conflict between the cultures of formal mathematics on the one hand, and of Japan on the other? The authors’ answer is worth quoting at length (p. 5; italics added):

Children sometimes directly express opposition or disagreement in classroom talks, and may endanger class harmony. The teacher plays an important role here. The teacher expresses respect to individual children’s ideas, whether they are wrong or not. The teacher tries to use a conflict between children’s claims as a good opportunity to deepen children’s understanding of the issue in question. That is, the teacher handles the conflict not just as a problem between involved children but instead frames it as a problem facing the whole class: The conflict is shared among the classroom participants and becomes “our problem.” The teacher encourages the whole class to think about it and give suggestions. All the class members are supposed to work together towards resolution of the problem, so that the reached resolution produces a recovery of harmony in the classroom community.

[Regarding the challenging “problem of the day,” typically posed at the start of each math class:] Because the problem is difficult, children often make wrong conjectures and procedural mistakes. Also, they may produce several different solutions. The teacher encourages them to compare their ideas and solutions with each other. Counterexamples may be found, and counterarguments may occur. The teacher intentionally uses such opportunities to stimulate children’s thinking. Japanese traditional morality places great emphasis on reflecting (hansei) on one’s own mistakes and on appreciating the contributions of others, so that it encourages cooperation among children. Although discussion may eventually conclude which solution is better, correct, more efficient, more elegant, or whatever, competition among children is generally discouraged. Therefore, in principle, no winner or loser exists, unlike the Western-style argumentation.

Shimahara, Nobuo K., & Akira Sakai (1995), Learning to Teach in Two Cultures: Japan and the United States.

Shimahara, Nobuo K., & Akira Sakai (1995). Learning to Teach in Two Cultures: Japan and the United States. Garland Publishing, 259 pages.

The authors used ethnographic methods to contrast the experience of beginning first- and fifth-grade teachers in a U.S. East Coast suburban district, with that of beginning teachers of the same grades in Tokyo. (The Japanese fifth-grade teacher was male.) A rich trove of detail emerges as the teachers’ daily classroom activities and overall contextual setting is explored.

One page of this book goes far in capturing many of the fundamental differences between Japanese and American elementary education: page 142, on which appears a table entitled “Total Time Spent Weekly for Each Activity in Fifth Grade.” The number of minutes per week spent in “Academic classes” – defined as all the usual ones plus art, gym, health (U.S.), home economics (Japan), computer (U.S.), and music (Japan) – was almost equal, with slightly more in the U.S. The table’s second category, “Non-academic classes,” also shows nearly equal amounts of time, but how that’s defined in the two nations begins to reveal significant differences. In the U.S., it’s merely “activity period, open time.” But in Japan, it’s “moral education, student committee, extra period, club activity, homeroom activity,” about each of which I could write a paragraph because each is a school-sponsored, teacher-monitored event with learning goals – non-cognitive learning goals. With the exception of moral education (a formal course about which I could write several paragraphs!), each is largely driven by the pupils themselves.

The table’s next category is “Lunch.” We can’t just skip over this because the only thing that elementary school lunches in the two nations have in common is this: the pupils eat food. Lunch in Japan is taken in the classroom, with food fetched and served by pupils, with the teacher eating alongside the pupils. In Japan, lunch has written, non-cognitive learning goals. [See also Tsuneyoshi (2001).]

Next is “Breaks and recess,” with the Japanese pupils having significantly more time. But the larger difference is that Japanese pupils are not supervised. You may take that literally: they are not supervised during breaks & recess! Yes, sometimes teachers are on the playground, but it’s to join their charges in play so that their relationships can be strengthened.

Finally come two very significant categories: “Cleaning” and “Assemblies, meetings, and reflections,” together totaling 235 minutes per week in Japan, zero minutes in the U.S. Pupils in Japan clean their school, their whole school, every day, during a cooperative activity that has formal learning goals. And they participate in frequent whole school assemblies, classroom meetings, and periods for reflection (hansei). As amply documented by others, whole school events, meticulously prepared and involving virtually every individual associated with the school, are a feature of Japanese elementary education with few parallels in the United States.

The quantitative bottom line is that Japanese pupils spend much more time each week in school than American pupils. They also attend school during many more weeks each year.

The qualitative bottom line is that Japanese-U.S. differences in the philosophy, culture, and practice of elementary education are broadly dissimilar. Shimahara & Sakai emphasize that American teachers focus on developing their pupils’ cognitive skills, and that their relationships with the pupils, though directed to each individual child in turn, remain emotionally detached. Japanese teachers are focused on developing close, trusting, nurturing relationships with each child, leading to (a) kizuna, a “touching of the hearts”; (b) attention to children’s social, moral, physical, aesthetic and, yes, cognitive development; (c) molding of their charges into a largely self-governing, smoothly cooperating unit; and (d) academic learning – all while virtually never employing individualized instruction!

Finally, how beginning teachers in the U.S. and Japan learn their craft also differs broadly: the Americans are very largely isolated while the Japanese are mentored.

Shimizu, Yoshinori (1999), Aspects of mathematics teacher education in Japan: Focusing on teachers' roles.

Shimizu, Yoshinori (1999). Aspects of mathematics teacher education in Japan: Focusing on teachers’ roles. Journal of Mathematics Teacher Education, 2, 107-116.

Teacher education in Japan, especially the mentoring of beginning teachers, is one of the main topics of this short article, but more valuable is what’s related about how the teachers teach.

First, the organization of a typical 45-minute primary school math lesson is discussed. It usually is presented in four stages: (1) presentation of the problem of the day; (2) attempts to solve the problem by pupils as individuals and in spontaneously convened groups; (3) whole-class discussion about the pupils’ various solution methods; and (4) summing up by the teacher.

Japanese math teachers plan each lesson by working on a grid something like this (p. 113):


Main learning activities

Anticipated pupil responses

Remarks on teaching
1. Posing a problem

. . .

. . .

. . .
2. Pupils’ problem-solving

. . .

. . .

. . .
3. Whole-class discussion

. . .

. . .

. . .
4. Teacher’s summing-up

. . .

. . .

. . .

Most important, in my view, is the column headed “Anticipated pupil responses.” Here the teacher draws on his or her training and experience, and on collaborative lesson planning, to forecast how the class as a whole will respond to each main learning activity. What knowledge do the pupils already have? How is this activity pushing the boundaries of that? What aspects are likely to be misunderstood? What do I need to do next to address that misunderstanding?

Second, the author states and defines five Japanese terms that describe teachers’ key roles:

  • Hatsumon. This term means asking a key question to appropriately provoke pupil thinking at a critical point in the lesson. For example, “What connections do you see among these approaches?”
  • Kikan-shido. This term means instruction at pupils’ desks. It includes purposeful scanning by the teacher of the pupils’ individual problem-solving efforts while the teacher moves about the classroom as pupils are working on a problem. Not implied is that the teacher helps struggling pupils there and then (although hints may be given). Instead, kikan-shido means the teacher observes and makes mental notes to guide the whole-class discussion that soon will follow.
  • Neriage. This word describes the dynamic and collaborative nature of whole-class discussions. Neriage means “kneading” or “polishing.” The teacher kneads the pupils’ thought processes. For example, it’s common to call on pupils to come to the board one at a time to present their solution methods. But the order isn’t random. The order in which they’re called is important, and the teacher often decides the optimal order based on his or her kikan-shido observations.
  • Matome. This means “summing up.” This fourth and last stage, for Japanese teachers, is indispensable for a successful lesson. During matome, “Japanese teachers tend to make a final and careful comment on students’ work in terms of mathematical sophistication” (p. 111).
  • Kyozai-kenkyu. This term, applicable during a teacher’s lesson-planning efforts, refers to an analysis of the lesson’s objectives, and to the possible ways of moving the pupils towards those objectives. What are the connections between today’s topic, recently covered topics, and near-future topics? What do I anticipate as the pupils’ approaches to solving the problem of the day, and to the other main activities of the lesson? And based on all that, what’s my best course of action?
Singleton, John (1989), Gambaru: A Japanese cultural theory of learning.

Singleton, John (1989). Gambaru: A Japanese cultural theory of learning. Japanese Schooling: Patterns of Socialization, Equality, and Political Control, J. J. Shields, ed. Pennsylvania State University Press, 1-8.

Singleton was a participant-observer in Japanese junior high schools as both a parent and a social scientist. The latter role enabled him to accompany teachers on their annual visits with parents, during which an intense discussion topic was invariably the child’s chances for admission to a selective high school.

What most impressed Singleton was the widely shared assumption that gambaru (“to persist, to hang on”) was widely accepted as every pupil’s path to academic success. For example, in response to the parents’ concern about what might be done to insure that their child attains a top mark on the high school entrance exam, the teachers typically responded, Mō sukoshi gambaru hō ga ii to omoimasu (“I think a little more persistence would be good”).

One of Singleton’s observations has endured in my memory since I first read it (p. 121):

The teachers had no problem reciting the students’ school grades, scores on their last practice entrance exams, their study habits, and other details. When I asked about their IQs, even in rough terms, however, they inevitably referred me to the student files that were kept in the school office. They know that the IQ scores were on file, but the scores themselves were not an item of teacher interest or concern. Gambaru could be measured by test scores achieved. Persistence is the secret; effort, not IQ, is the Japanese explanation for educational achievement.

This short article is also available in Transcending Stereotypes: Discovering Japanese Culture and Education, edited by Barbara Finkelstein et al. (1991), pages 109-118.

Stevenson, Harold, & Shin-ying Lee (1990), Contexts for achievement: A study of American, Chinese, and Japanese children.

Stevenson, Harold, & Shin-ying Lee (1990). Contexts for achievement: A study of American, Chinese, and Japanese children. Monographs of the Society for Research in Child Development, 55 (1-2), Serial No. 221. Wiley, 119 pages.

Stevenson and Lee undertook this multiyear study of hundreds of first- and fifth-graders in Japan, Taiwan, and the U.S. (Minneapolis) to determine if East Asian academic superiority could be found as early as the first grade, and to explore the full range of factors that accounted for East Asian students’ consistently higher performance. Because East Asian first graders were found to be outpacing their American peers, the study put its emphasis on looking for differences in how East Asian and American parents regarded education and raised their children.

Out-of-school variables, including time spent in preschool and the extent to which parents had taught academic skills to their children, were found to have little power to explain East Asian first graders’ academic edge. What did matter were the assumptions about learning and schooling that were held by parents, other family members, and teachers. These assumptions and the child-rearing methods they engender are the focus of my 2017 book, The Drive to Learn.

Of interest to the readers of this book are the scores that first- and fifth-grade pupils in the three national samples received on the reading and math tests. The math tests “contained items that involved application of mathematical principles to the solution of word problems, and items requiring only calculation” (p. 18). In both the first and fifth grades, the American pupils’ math scores were unambiguously inferior those of their Chinese and Japanese peers.

The reading tests in each nation were “based on detailed analyses of the vocabulary, grammar, and content” of the most-often used reading textbooks in that nation. The tests contained “three types of items: sight-reading of vocabulary, reading of meaningful text material, and comprehension of text” (p. 14).

The scores received on the first- and fifth-grade reading tests are less clear-cut than the scores on the math tests. First grade Chinese pupils scored highest on all three types of reading items; first grade Japanese pupils scored the lowest, and the Americans scored quite low as well. At the fifth grade level, the results are complicated; however, in terms of students scoring between 90% and 100% correct responses, the Japanese children proved best, followed by the Chinese, then followed by the Americans.

This publication focuses less on what goes on in schools than on what goes on in homes. But in the relatively short section on schools and teachers, the authors write as follows (p. 31):

Western visitors frequently comment about the rapt attention and intense concentration of children in Chinese and Japanese classrooms. This ability to focus on academic activities may be due in part of the opportunity for vigorous play provided by the between-class breaks. The school day in Taiwan and Japan included 40-45 minutes of class followed by a 10-15 minute break. Japanese and Chinese teachers found it unbelievable that the children in Minneapolis had only one or two recesses a day.

Researchers Stevenson & Lee were the driving force behind a fascinating half-hour videotape made in first- and fifth-grade math classrooms in Japan and Taiwan during 1988. Its purpose was to give Westerners an opportunity to see what is behind the legendary math achievement of East Asian students. It’s entitled The Polished Stones, and is available on YouTube (hidden among many videos on how to polish rocks). Or contact the Center for Human Growth & Development at the University of Michigan, 1-734-764-2443, and ask for The Polished Stones DVD. $35.00 and worth it!

Stevenson, Harold, & Shin-ying Lee (1997), The East Asian version of whole-class teaching.

Stevenson, Harold W., & Shin-ying Lee (1997). The East Asian version of whole-class teaching. The Challenge of Eastern Asian Education. William K. Cummings & Philip G. Altbach, eds. State University of New York Press, 33-49.

These two veteran researchers begin by citing the stereotype of East Asian classrooms: “tense, robotlike children and a stern, demanding teacher who stresses mechanical learning and rote memory [so that their students] lack creativity and problem-solving skills” (pp. 33-4). However, “Westerners whom we have accompanied to classrooms in East Asia are shocked… (p. 34)

by the frequency with which the teacher calls upon students for their opinions or explanation of a problem and then seeks the reaction of other students to what has been suggested. Visitors who understand the language are impressed by the skill with which teachers guide students through the lessons. [An East Asian teacher] does not assume the role of lecturer but acts as an informed guide who knows that teaching is most effective if students participate in the lesson and if students realize that they may be called on during the course of the hour for their opinions and reactions.

This chapter dissects the ways in which Japanese teachers carry out whole class instruction, which the authors defend as the approach that “gives the largest number of children the greatest amount of their teacher’s time” (p. 36). Whole-class instruction characterizes 95% of Japanese lessons. And this is in classrooms with 40 to 50 children who are not tracked or ability-grouped, and where slow learners and the gifted rarely receive special attention. So how do they do it?

First, lessons are exceptionally well-planned. Lessons “follow a well-organized, coherent sequence. As in a good book, the lesson consists of an introduction, development of ideas, and a final period in which all the information is brought to some kind of conclusion” (p. 37).

Math teachers typically begin a lesson by presenting a word problem and asking the students to discuss its meaning and solution. After a time, the teacher asks several students – not volunteers – to present their approaches. Other students are called on to analyze the proposed approaches. The teacher summarizes, clarifies, elaborates… Now the main body of the lesson can begin.

The main body typically consists of the presentation of new information (for which the initial word problem provided the lead-in), an opportunity to practice what was learned, and feedback about the correctness of the students’ solution efforts. Sometimes the children are put into small groups – han – to work cooperatively on problems. Han are deliberately made as diverse as possible; especially, slower and faster learners are always grouped together. Note this, too (p. 41):

In contrast to many interpretations of cooperative learning that leave children to discover the basic concepts on their own, activities of the han are organized by, and remain under, the close surveillance and guidance of, the teacher.

In Japan, seatwork is an integral part of the lesson. The problems aren’t necessarily solvable by application of what has just been learned; rather, they often require novel approaches. The most lopsided figure in this chapter (Figure 2.4) graphs the percentage of lessons in which the teacher did not provide feedback regarding seatwork. In Japanese 1st grades it was 8%; in Japanese 5th grades it was 2%. The corresponding figures for the U.S. were 37% and 49%!

American teachers tended to divide the class period into two parts, the first for delivering new information, the second to seatwork practice – and an opportunity for the teacher to rest. Why? Because, when compared with Japanese teachers, American teachers are heavily overburdened with classroom teaching responsibilities.

Stevenson, Harold, & Roberta Nerison-Low (2000), To Sum It Up: Case Studies of Education in Germany, Japan, and the U.S.

Stevenson, Harold W., & Roberta Nerison-Low (n.d., 2000?). To Sum It Up: Case Studies of Education in Germany, Japan, and the United States. National Institute on Student Achievement, Curriculum, and Assessment, U.S. Department of Education, 148 pages.

One component of the Third International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) project was the Case Study Project, which yielded five publications. This monograph is one of the five; it summarizes the other four, which addressed case studies carried out in Germany, Japan, and the United States, and reviewed contemporary educational research in those three nations.

TIMSS used quantitative procedures such as tests and questionnaires to measure various countries’ approaches to teaching. Case studies using qualitative methods, write Stevenson & Nerison-Low, “help us understand the context and relationships that lie behind the quantitative data,” which is “especially useful in research involving international comparisons” because they help “bridge the perspectives of insider and outsider” (p. 4). The Case Study Project investigated four topics: (a) education standards, (b) how educators deal with differences in ability, (c) the place of school in adolescents’ lives, and (d) the training and working conditions of teachers.

The resulting monograph, addressed to the general public, is easy to read and relatively short. The following differences in Japanese and American education, among those discussed by Stevenson & Nerison-Low, seemed especially noteworthy for us.

The first concerns how Japanese and American educators respond to “the fact that all children do not learn with equal ease and effectiveness” (p. 51). The gap between the two nations’ philosophy and approach is huge. Americans begin to “stream” students into “tracks” from the moment they enter school, even preschool. The Japanese make no distinction among students who learn with greater or lesser ease at the preschool, elementary, and middle-school levels (except those with profound learning disabilities, a fact not noted in To Sum It Up). There are no tracks, pull-outs, ability groups, or gifted programs in Japan. For example (p. 54):

The Japanese student…absorbs the view that no special natural talent is necessary in order to do well in school. In fact, many teachers and students were quick to redefine individual differences as differences in gakuryoku (acquired academic ability). Success in mathematics was perceived by students to be dependent on the slow and steady accumulation of knowledge and skills.

The second important difference is in the method used by Japanese elementary and middle-school teachers to deliver whole-class instruction. Far from taking the role of the authority found to be characteristic of American teachers, Japanese teachers rely on the students as the major source of information and the initial evaluators of the effectiveness of their peers’ input.

The third difference is that in Japan a distinction is typically made between “homework” and “studying.” The latter term refers to self-initiated reviews of previous lessons and preparation for anticipated lessons. Also noted was American students’ tendency to complete homework at school, which left them feeling free from any learning effort after leaving the campus.

Finally, there are the many differences in the ways in which new recruits learn to teach. In the U.S., the emphasis is on credentials gained in university classrooms. In Japan, new teachers are overseen during their first year by a mentor, a master teacher with a reduced teaching load so she or he can help the fledgling respond to real-life opportunities and challenges as they occur.

This entire publication is freely available at

Stevenson, Harold, & James Stigler (1992), The Learning Gap: Why Our Schools Are Failing and What We Can Learn from Japanese and Chinese Education.

Stevenson, Harold W., & James W. Stigler (1992). The Learning Gap: Why Our Schools Are Failing and What We Can Learn from Japanese and Chinese Education. Simon & Schuster (Touchstone), 237 pages.

Of the hundreds of books and articles on the same topic as A Mirror for Americans, Stevenson & Stigler’s 1992 book has probably been the most-read by the general public, and with good reason. Writing in a style accessible to the lay reader, the authors discuss the findings that emerged from their comparative research within elementary classrooms in Sendai (Japan), Beijing, Taipei, and Minneapolis. Their goal was to “explore ways in which the United States might improve its educational system by learning from the successes of other cultures” (p. 9).

Alternating between generalizations about national-level differences (often illustrated by simple bar charts), and moment-by-moment accounts of observed events in classrooms, their findings gradually coalesce into what, for many, will be two lasting impressions: Just about every stereotype we ever believed about primary education in Asia is wrong – often 180° wrong. And there’s no longer any mystery to why Asian children consistently outperform ours.

Among the topics dealt with are how children relate emotionally to schools, how they spend their time at home and in school, how parents think about childhood and support children’s learning, how teachers relate to children and use classroom time, how children are socialized to behave, how failure is dealt with and success is accounted for, and more: curriculum, tracking, textbooks, teacher training, lesson coherence, and who is responsible for children’s learning. And please don’t miss the chapter entitled “Effort and Ability.” This short yet comprehensive, often-cited study is well worth reading although more than a quarter of a century has passed.

Following are just three of this book’s many insightful revelations (pp. 91, 166, 195):

American teachers are more likely than Asian teachers to assume personal responsibility for judging what is correct and what is not. Generally, we have found that American teachers and other adults are more reluctant than Asians to transfer responsibility from themselves to children. By failing to do so, they lose one of the most powerful sources of motivation available for children: peer acceptance or disapproval.

We asked teachers in Beijing and Chicago about the attributes most important for a good teacher to have. The attributes chosen more often by the Americans were sensitivity and patience. These choices are in line with the American emphasis on individual differences and the high priority on building children’s self-esteem. Sensitivity and patience were chosen by fewer than 10 percent of the Chinese teachers. Their most frequent emphasis was on factors more directly relevant to the process of teaching subject matter: the ability to explain things clearly and to be enthusiastic. Fewer than 10 percent of the Americans chose clarity of explanation.

Teachers ask questions for different reasons in the United States and Japan. In the U.S., the purpose of a question is to get an answer. In Japan, teachers pose questions to stimulate thought. They consider a question to be a poor one if it elicits an immediate answer. One teacher we interviewed told us of discussions she had with her fellow teachers on how to improve. “What do you talk about?” we wondered. “A great deal of the time,” she reported, “is spent talking about questions we can pose to the class – which wordings work best to get students involved in thinking and discussing the material. One good question can keep a whole class going for a long time; a bad one produces little more than a simple answer.”

Stigler, James, et al. (1998), Cultures of mathematics instruction in Japanese and American classrooms.

Stigler, James W., Clea Fernandez, & Makoto Yoshida (1998). Cultures of mathematics instruction in Japanese and American classrooms. Teaching and Learning in Japan. Thomas P. Rohlen & Gerald LeTendre, eds. Cambridge University Press, 213-247.

This informative article results from detailed analysis of videotapes of math lessons in two Japanese and two American fifth-grade classrooms. In one pair, the topic was the area of a triangle; in the other, the topic was equivalent fractions. The differences are major, ranging from details of classroom process to teachers’ epistemological assumptions. Two examples:

What questions are asked. After examining all questions asked by the four teachers, the researchers assigned them to four types: (a) Name/identify, (b) Calculate, (c) Explain how or why, (d) Check-status. The first two are known-answer questions; the third invites a pupil to think; the last monitors class members’ understanding.

Ask yourself: If you wanted to guide pupils to understand math at the conceptual level, which types would you ask more often? The type asked most often by the Japanese teachers was Explain, followed by Check-status and Name/identify; they asked zero Calculate questions! The American teachers asked numerous Name/identify questions, relatively few Calculate and Explain questions, and no Check-status questions.

How generalizations are taught. Do you need to know a triangle’s area? There’s a formula for that, a generalization that’s applicable to all triangles. If pupils anywhere are going to gain math competence, they must learn the same generalizations. How does their learning occur?

In Japan, the teacher begins a lesson by stating “the problem of the day” and, without further input, allows the pupils to work for up to 15 minutes to find possible solutions. The students may work alone or in spontaneous groups. The teacher reconvenes the whole class and calls on one pupil after another to come to the board and demonstrate his solution. After each demonstration, the teacher asks the class to discuss its viability. The teacher never states her own evaluation of any solution. After up to ten pupils have presented, the teacher directs everyone’s attention to all the solutions: Do they notice any kind of pattern? She waits while the class agrees on the unifying pattern, that is, the generalization, in this case the formula for a triangle’s area.

Here’s how an American teacher introduced his pupils to the same generalization (pp. 223-4):

Having pointed out this problem [difficulty of counting square units in a triangle], the teacher then introduces a solution, giving a demonstration that involves fitting two pre-cut right triangles together to make a rectangle… The demonstration itself is accomplished quickly, within seconds, and there is virtually no response – either questions or discussion – on the part of the students. The teacher then gives a second demonstration… Again, he receives no feedback… He then tells the students the formula for the area of a triangle…[then] poses three problems and has the students apply the formula. He then starts them on [their homework].

These examples merely scratch the surface of what this article reveals. The researchers conclude that the key difference between Japanese and American elementary school math teaching is “the emphasis placed on students’ thinking and problem-solving during instruction” (p. 220). [See also Marton, 2000; Becker et al., 1999; and Kawanaka et al., 1999.]

In short, the message is: Americans talk constructivism, Japanese do constructivism.

Stigler, James, & James Hiebert (1997), Understanding and improving classroom mathematics instruction: An overview of the TIMSS video study.

Stigler, James, & James Hiebert (1997). Understanding and improving classroom mathematics instruction: An overview of the TIMSS video study. Raising Australian Standards in Mathematics and Science: Insights from TIMSS (Conference Proceedings), Australian Council for Educational Research, 52-65.

This valuable conference paper overviews the findings of the TIMSS video study, which involved analysis and comparison of eighth-grade math teaching in Germany, Japan, and the United States. In this review, I’ll emphasize the study’s findings from Japan and the U.S.

Stigler & Hiebert emphasize that teaching is an everyday event, a cultural activity (p. 52):

We have developed norms and expectations for teaching that are widely shared and passed along as one generation of students becomes the next generation of teachers. Because our models of how teaching should look are so wide and so familiar, they become nearly invisible. When we observe teaching in other countries, these accepted and unquestioned practices are brought to light, and we see that we teach the way we do because we choose to teach this way.

With Germany and Japan as the points of comparison, what does the TIMSS video study discover about how Americans choose to teach? Well, it’s not anything to be proud of:

  • The difficulty level of math studied in the 8th grade, measured against the TIMSS average of 41 nations: The level in Japan is early 9th grade; the level in the U.S. is middle 7th grade.
  • Instances of deductive reasoning – i.e., drawing logical conclusions from premises – were found in 62% of Japanese lessons and 0% of U.S. lessons.
  • Mathematical concepts and procedures simply stated by the teacher, or developed through examples, demonstrations and discussions: Japan 82% developed; U.S. 22% developed.
  • Among the types of seatwork were “practice procedures” and “invent solutions, analyze problems, & generate proofs.” In Japan, 40% of seatwork was found to involve practice, 44% involved invent. In the U.S., 94% of seatwork involved practice, while only 2% involved invent.

Japanese teachers were found to be more active and directive during class than American teachers. They “control the direction of the lesson in subtle ways. For example, to begin a lesson, they often select problems that can be solved by modifying methods that were developed during the previous lesson” (p. 58).

Stigler & Hiebert posit that lessons in any given nation follow a “cultural script.” In the U.S., eighth-grade math lessons usually proceed through two phases: acquisition, then application. In Japan, lessons often focus on a challenging problem. It’s challenging because the students haven’t yet learned how to solve it. As noted above, the path to solution lies through the previous lesson. The students work on the problem for a while, then share their approaches. Discussion ensues. The teacher highlights key features of the students’ methods. Time for practice might occur. As class ends, the teacher summarizes the day’s major point. Homework is rarely assigned. By the way, the researchers “never observed calculators being used in a Japanese classroom” (p. 61).

The authors doubt that Japanese methods can be broadly imported into the U.S. (p. 61):

The Japanese system of teaching is enmeshed within Japanese culture – the social and behavioral norms; the expectations and involvement of parents; …outside educational activities such as juku…; values of education held by students, parents, and the public. [These support] the kind of teaching we see on the videotapes.

Stigler, James, & James Hiebert (1999), The Teaching Gap: Best Ideas from the World’s Teachers for Improving Education in the Classroom.

Stigler, James W., & James Hiebert (1999). The Teaching Gap: Best Ideas from the World’s Teachers for Improving Education in the Classroom. The Free Press, 210 pages.

On the basis of the 1995 TIMSS Video Study’s findings, the authors set out to convince the public that the quality and outcomes of teaching can improve. Note the word “teaching.” The Video Study convinced the authors that the critical factor in successful education is not the teachers but the teaching. In other words, while well qualified teachers always are welcome, learning depends primarily on what they actually do in classrooms.

What a teacher does in a classroom is largely governed by the “cultural system” in which she is operating. A teacher’s cultural system is informed by her mental images of teaching, learned implicitly as she came up through grades K-12. So familiar within each nation are these images that their fundamental patterns are below the conscious awareness of almost all teachers.

The authors’ research team repeatedly viewed the 1995 TIMSS videotapes that were taken in Japanese, German, and American 8th grade mathematics classrooms. Gradually, they became conscious of the below-awareness instructional patterns in each nation. It comes down to this:

  • In the U.S. and Germany, it was the teacher who did most of the conceptual reasoning about mathematics as she explained and demonstrated new topics in front of the class.
  • In Japan, the students did much of the conceptual reasoning about math because each time a topic was introduced (almost daily), the teacher assigned the students, with no prior guidance, a representative problem for which they were expected to develop their own solutions.

Here is one of the comparisons that the authors make between Japan and the U.S. (pp. 91-2, italics added):

Japanese teachers believe students learn best by first struggling to solve mathematics problems, then participating in discussions about how to solve them, and then by hearing about the pros and cons of different methods and the relationships between them. Frustration and confusion are taken to be a natural part of the process, because each person must struggle with a situation or problem first in order to make sense of the information he or she hears later. [The process] is thought be require time to explore and invent, to make mistakes, to reflect…

U.S. teachers feel responsible for shaping the task into pieces that are manageable for most students, providing all the information needed to complete the task and assigning plenty of practice. Teachers act as if confusion and frustration are signs that they have not done their job. When they notice confusion, they quickly assist…

In the year this book was published, 1999, the authors began an expanded TIMSS Video Study that included more high-achieving nations. Although the classroom practices used in these nations differed, there was one basic sameness with Japan. In the Afterword of the 2009 edition of The Teaching Gap, they discussed this critically important finding (pp. 186, 188, italics added):

Although teachers in the high-achieving countries employed a variety of strategies and routines, in every case these strategies were used to achieve a common learning experience. Czech teachers might lecture, and Dutch teachers might not, but their varied approaches all accomplished the engagement of students in active struggle with core mathematics concepts and procedures. It was this feature of teaching that we found common to the high achievers and missing in the United States.

It is clear from this [1999 TIMSS Video Study] that in order to improve the teaching of math in the United States, we need to engage students in exploring mathematical relationships and wrestling with key mathematical ideas.

Stigler, James, & James Hiebert (2004), Improving Mathematics Teaching.

Stigler, James W., & James Hiebert (2004). Improving Mathematics Teaching. Educational Leadership, 61 (5), 12-17.

This short, jargon-free, clearly written article is the best one in this bibliography for those who want to grasp the key features and findings of the TIMSS Video Studies of both 1995 and 1999.

The authors first overview the 1995 study, which examined 8th grade math classes in Japan, Germany, and the U.S. The greatest challenge for the research team was to decide on a precise meaning of commonly used terms. In fact, it wasn’t until the 1999 video study that agreement was finally reached on the meaning of “problem” as applied to math classes! They note that the absence of precise, widely agreed-on meanings is a major barrier to the dissemination of professional knowledge.

The main conclusion from their 1995 video study was that (p. 13)…

Teaching is a cultural activity: learned implicitly, hard to see from within the culture, and hard to change. We were struck by the homogeneity of teaching methods within each country. Even in the United States, a country with great diversity and an education system controlled by local governing boards, the nationwide variation in 8th grade mathematics teaching was much smaller than we had expected.

The TIMSS 1999 Video Study included the U.S. and six countries that had performed much higher than the U.S. on the TIMSS 1995 math achievement test for the 8th grade: Japan, Hong Kong, Netherlands, Switzerland, Czech Republic, and Australia.

The team’s first conclusion was that teaching methods in Japan were significantly different from all the others. For example, Japanese students spent an average of 15 minutes working on their own on a challenging math problem, largely because teachers expected them to develop their own solution procedures for unfamiliar problems. But – this is a key finding – because Japan wasn’t the only high-performing nation, it’s not necessary for the U.S. to adopt uniquely Japanese methods such as beginning each class with a challenging, unfamiliar problem that the students are left to solve.

Japan also ranked far higher than any of the other nations in terms of the types of math problems presented in classes: 54% were intended to direct students’ attention to “making connections,” i.e., to “rich mathematical problems that focus on concepts and connections among mathematical ideas” (p. 14), which many believe is a sure pathway to high performance. But again, the data belie that conclusion because, for example, in Hong Kong merely 13% of the problems presented in class were of the “making connections” type.

So what do the high-achieving nations have in common? The 1999 Video Study coded each classroom problem twice: once to characterize the type of problem presented, and again to capture how that problem was then implemented. This second coding revealed the pattern by which the high-achieving countries are similar: Problems presented about “making connections” are implemented in terms of “making connections.” In other words, during implementation, “making connections” questions are not allowed to degrade into hum-drum questions concerning low-level procedural skills.

Near the end, the authors reveal their “most striking finding of all” (p. 15 and 16):

In the United States, teachers implemented none of the making connections problems in the way in which they were intended. Instead, the U.S. teachers turned most of the problems into procedural exercises or just supplied students with the answers to the problems.

Our research indicates that the lower achievement of U.S. students cannot be explained by an overemphasis on concepts or understanding. In fact, 8th graders spend most of their time in mathematical classrooms practicing procedures. They rarely spend time engaged in the serious study of mathematical concepts.

Stigler, James, & Harold Stevenson (1991), How Asian teachers polish each lesson to perfection.

Stigler, James W., & Harold W. Stevenson (1991). How Asian teachers polish each lesson to perfection. American Educator, 15 (1), 12-21, 43-47.

This article is a short condensation of the authors’ landmark 1992 book, The Learning Gap [annotated]. Stigler & Stevenson begin with examples of the appalling gap between the math skills of American and East Asian elementary students. Here’s one: Fifth graders were asked how many members of a 24-member stamp club collected foreign stamps if five-sixth of the members did so. Of Beijing children, 59% got the correct answer. Of Chicago children, 9% got the correct answer.

Like other researchers who have received less attention from the public, Stigler and Stevenson hope to correct the American stereotype of East Asian teaching. At the elementary level (if not necessarily at the secondary level), the stereotype is 180° upside-down from the observed facts. Here are excerpts from their basic characterization of East Asian math classes (p. 12):

Classes consist of coherent lessons presented in a nonauthoritarian manner. Teachers rely frequently on students as sources of information. Lessons are oriented toward problem-solving rather than rote mastery of facts and utilize many different types of materials. The role of the teacher is that of a knowledgeable guide, rather than the prime dispenser of information. There is frequent verbal interaction as the teacher attempts to simulate students to produce, explain, and evaluate solutions.

To illustrate the difference in the American and East Asian approaches, they compare a typical way in which a teacher in the U.S. and Japan might present a lesson on fractions.

An American teacher might begin by stating that today’s lesson concerns fractions. She defines fractions, writes some on the board, names the numerator and denominator, and checks comprehension by asking, “What do we call this? And this?” She then spends the rest of the period teaching how to apply the rules for forming fractions.

In Japan, a teacher might begin by placing on a desk a large beaker with colored water, then asking how many liters of “juice” it contained. Several students offer guesses. The teacher pours the juice into two one-liter beakers. Horizontal lines divide each beaker into thirds; the juice fills the first beaker and comes up to the first line (⅓ liter) in the second one. A similar process with different juice and different beakers brings the juice up to the middle line (½ liter) in the second beaker. The teacher writes the fractions (1⅓ and 1½) on the board, then asks the pupils to figure out how to represent two parts out of three, two parts out of five, etc. Near the end of the lesson, he finally mentions the terms “fraction,” “numerator,” and “denominator.”

In other words, American teachers tend to jump right into abstract concepts. East Asian teachers begin with demonstrations and experiences, eventually arriving at abstract concepts.

Other fundamental differences are that (a) an American teacher serves as evaluator of what is correct and incorrect, whereas in East Asia this is very largely the pupils’ role; (b) teacher-posed questions in the U.S. usually are closed-ended (yes-no or short answer), whereas in East Asia they are open-ended (to elicit reasoning or provoke thought); and (c) teachers’ responses to answers in the U.S. usually are to ignore incorrect answers and praise correct ones, while in Asia teachers often use incorrect answers to illustrate and analyze common misunderstandings (p. 47):

For Americans, errors tend to be interpreted as an indication of failure. For Chinese and Japanese, they are an index of what still needs to be learned. These divergent interpretations result in very different reactions – embarrassment on the part of the American children, calm acceptance by Asian children.

Stimpfl, Joseph, et al. (1997), A garden in the motherland: A study of a preschool in China.

Stimpfl, Joseph, Fuming Zheng, & William Meredith (1997). A garden in the motherland: A study of a preschool in China. Early Child Development and Care, 129 (1), 11-26.

In this not-quite-academic paper – few footnotes, no bibliography – the authors describe what they observed as they conducted a case study of a preschool in southern China. The preschool was closely associated with an unnamed university. It was large and included much modern equipment. Most of the parents were on the university’s faculty and staff (when quoted, they are shown to be well educated). In short, this was a not-quite-typical Chinese preschool.

The body of the article walks the reader through a typical day in a classroom for four-year-olds. The guidelines of the National Education Committee of China are closely followed; they specify what to teach but not how to teach it. Pupils are expected to comport themselves in an orderly manner – for example, upon arriving in the morning, they sit and wait for the others.

The morning is devoted to 20-minute periods of “academic activities” such as “math, language, music, painting, story-telling, and knowledge about nature” (p. 14). A language class is described: The teacher reads a story, explains the pictures in the book, and writes new words from the text on the board. “Then the children, as a group, are required to read the story sentence by sentence after Teacher Li. Teacher Huang assists those having difficulty…” (p. 14). The teacher asks questions – e.g., “How many children are in the picture?” – and encourages the children to also ask questions. “The teachers in the preschool are now paying more attention [implied: than in the past] to asking the children questions or encouraging the children to ask questions with the aim of developing their thinking” (p. 15).

Lunch is brought into the room and served by adults; pupils are expected to sit patiently, begin eating together, and finish all their food (no “finicky eaters” allowed). The children are expected to help clean up. Lunch is followed by a two-and-a-half hour nap. The afternoon is devoted to organized games and play, indoor and outdoor, with each activity being part of “the ‘theme-centered’ method…intended to merge different subjects regulated by the national curriculum into a game so that the children can learn various things and develop different kinds of merits” (p. 19).

Through these observations and the authors’ associated commentaries, we learn that…

  • the teachers use comparisons, emulation, and rewards, encouraging competition among the pupils; e.g., “Now, let’s see who is the most obedient little friend” (p. 18);
  • everyone seems to agree that a major purpose of preschool education is to enable the children “to quickly adapt to the learning environment of the elementary school” (p. 22);
  • amidst their largely collective approach and its emphasis on developing community spirit, curiosity about a more individualistic pedagogy is beginning to take root; and
  • teachers have started to group the children by ability for some subjects, never hinting anything about this to the children – nor to their parents. “In this way,” notes teacher Huang, “a student with many abilities will not get bored, and those who are of lesser ability will not be overwhelmed by too many demands” (p. 17).
Tang, Degen, & Doug Absalom (1998), Teaching across cultures: Considerations for Western EFL Teachers in China.

Tang, Degen, & Doug Absalom (1998). Teaching across cultures: Considerations for Western EFL Teachers in China. Hong Kong Journal of Applied Linguistics, 3 (2), 117-132.

The authors, from Hong Kong and Australia respectively, explain the cultural differences that underlie the dissatisfaction and criticism often felt by Western EFL teachers in China. Western teachers often assume that a major reason they’re in China is to share the new, “progressive” approaches to language instruction with backward and therefore grateful Chinese EFL teachers. (This a fine example of cultural imperialism.) They never notice that, long before they arrived, Chinese students of English were attaining a remarkably good command of their new language – which is exactly what I discovered when I taught in Beijing during the spring of 1986.

This article positions Chinese EFL teaching within its cultural and historical context, a context unrecognized by many Western “foreign experts.” The authors explain that the (p. 123)…

cultural supports of traditional pedagogy include Chinese attitudes to knowledge and the roles of the teacher and the student. The role of the teacher is to transmit knowledge, wisdom, culture, virtue, respect for learning, and obedience to authority. The role of the student is to master the knowledge that the teacher presents, and to learn by following the example of the teacher.

A widely respected concept of intelligent behavior in China emphasizes learning by copying, not by making mistakes. More value is placed on reticence and humility, rather than on the Western practice of guessing out loud or demonstrating individualism in learning style.

Later, the authors list the cultural characteristics of the Chinese educational system, the system that has long supported and sponsored traditional Chinese pedagogy (p. 125):
• a centralized structure of authority;
• the pivotal role of the written text;
• the intellectual and moral authority of the teacher;
• skepticism re the trial-and-error aspects of the inquiry method of learning;
• skepticism re language teaching focused on function [getting ideas across] instead of form [grammar];
• the over-arching functions of a prescribed national curriculum; and
• the authority of the national competitive examination system.

The authors argue that “one cannot thoroughly learn a foreign language without learning its cultural context” (p. 126). They advocate that Western EFL teachers in China should introduce into their classes some of the values, beliefs, and attitudes that are typical of English-dominant cultures so that students will gain a social context for their new language.

Teddlie, Charles, & Shujie Liu (2008), Examining teacher effectiveness within differentially effective primary schools in the People's Republic of China.

Teddlie, Charles, & Shujie Liu (2008). Examining teacher effectiveness within differentially effective primary schools in the People’s Republic of China. School Effectiveness and School Improvement, 19 (4), 387-407.

One of the subfields of educational research focuses on school and teacher effectiveness, and most of its research has been completed in the U.S. and Western Europe. This study aimed to right that imbalance by investigating school and teacher effectiveness in China. It’s useful for us because it identifies, vis-à-vis Western norms, unique characteristics of Chinese classroom teaching.

I’m going to leapfrog ahead to this study’s most astonishing finding, which concerns “interactive time-on-task.” It is a measure of the percentage of a class period during which teacher and pupils are actively interacting regarding the subject matter to be learned. (There is also a “total time-on-task” measure.) Here’s the finding:
• 81% – Interactive time-on-task in Chinese primary schools
• 44% – Interactive time-on-task in American primary schools

If you’re thinking that the Chinese research must have been carried out in Shanghai’s elite schools, it wasn’t. It occurred in Jilin Province, which is northeast of Beijing and whose southern border is the Yalu River across from northern North Korea. Observations were carried out in both urban and rural schools. The American data, from past studies, came from observations in 125 schools (not further identified).

This finding decisively refutes the popular stereotype of Chinese classrooms: A teacher is lecturing to 30 to 50 students who passively listen and never ask questions. Actually, one phrase in that stereotype is correct, about the number of students…although primary schools in Jilin Province had 50 to 60 students (p. 398). There’s far more teacher-pupil interaction regarding the topic to be learned in Jilin Province than in typical American primary school classrooms.

The authors proceed to offer possible explanations for their finding:

  • Whole-class interactive teaching. Extremely large class sizes in China encourages teachers to proceed interactively vis-à-vis the entire group, including asking topic-centered questions and calling on pupils to respond, but not including student-centered one-on-one interactions. Teachers very rarely employ small group work (p. 398).
  • Uniform teaching behaviors. “A typical teaching sequence is: review of previous content, introduction of new content, and summary of new knowledge. Examples and exercises are frequently involved in the process. Students rarely present their projects in class” (p. 398).
  • Maximization of instruction time. The findings support the perception that instruction is exam-driven. Pupils’ test scores are a key metric for evaluating their teachers’ performance, which in turn often impacts each teacher’s salary calculations. So on-task teaching is the rule.
  • Occasional top-pupil preference. In a few of the observed schools, some teachers preferred having their high-performing students answer questions in class, largely ignoring the others.
  • Emphasis on discipline. “Teachers often remind their students to sit appropriately, which means sitting straight and putting their hands behind their backs” (p. 399).
  • The role of the bānzhŭrèn. A bānzhŭrèn is a “homeroom teacher” or “class director” who is “responsible for overseeing the learning and growth of a class of pupils, including their studies, behaviors, extracurricular activities, ethics education, health, and safety,” and “responsible for contacting parents and coordinating with other teachers.” Bānzhŭrèn “even sacrificed their weekends to help students with their studies and felt uneasy if their students’ grades were bad. They felt very tired and were under a lot of pressure…” (p. 400)
Tobin, Joseph, et al. (1991), Forming groups.

Tobin, Joseph J., David Y.H. Wu, & Dana H. Davidson (1991). Forming groups. Transcending Stereotypes: Discovering Japanese Culture and Education, Barbara Finkelstein, Anne E. Imamura, and Joseph J. Tobin, eds. Intercultural Press, 109-118.

If you were wondering why Japanese educators allow such a large number of pupils to fill their yōchien (preschool) classrooms – Ministry of Education guidelines permit up to 40! – then this short article will provide the explanation. It turns out that large classes are thought to be best.

Best for the children, not necessarily for the teachers. When the researchers showed some yōchien teachers videotapes of American classrooms in which there were merely eight pupils, a typical comment was, “I envy the way the American teacher in the film plays with the children in such an uninhibited, ‘barefoot’ way.” The researchers inquired whether the yōchien teachers really were saying that small classes were better. They replied (pp. 110-111):

No, we didn’t say better. Well, sure, better for the teacher, but it wouldn’t be better for the children, would it? It seems to me that children need to have the experience of being in a large group in order to learn to relate to lots of children in lots of situations.

In Japan, the roles played by mothers and preschool teachers are different. Mothers provide protection, guidance, and intimate one-on-one interactions within the restricted world of the family. But children need to transition into the larger society where, soon enough, they’ll need to deal with a wide range of interpersonal opportunities and challenges. Japanese viewers of the American videotapes, parents included, wondered if there weren’t “too little chance for children to enjoy spontaneous, unsupervised child-child interactions.” Having so many pupils that the teacher cannot develop mother-like relationships with each one “isn’t necessarily a bad thing because it forces children to learn to deal with problems and disagreement on their own” (p. 112).

Several articles reviewed in this bibliography (e.g., those by Lewis and Peak) describe what it means in practice for yōchien teachers to allow their charges to deal with problems on their own. Here’s my condensation of a story from this article:

Hiroki is a difficult child. One day one of his classmates, Midori, tells their teacher that “Hiroki is throwing flashcard off the balcony. [The teacher] says matter-of-factly to Midori, ‘Hiroki’s throwing cards, is he? What do you think can be done about that?’” Meanwhile, Hiroki is punching a classmate and stomping on his hand. Who deals with this upset? Midori does. She comforts her wounded classmate, dispensing this advice: “That always happens when you play with Hiroki, doesn’t it? Maybe you should play with someone else the next time.” Their teacher, who didn’t intervene, explains that “We try to ignore [Hiroki’s] behavior with the hope that gradually he’ll begin to notice the effect he is having on the other children…” (p. 113).

The reason for huge class sizes in Japanese schools is not that there are budget shortfalls, teacher shortages, or hard-heartedness. Instead, they’re evidence of an educational philosophy of benign neglect, grounded in a firm belief that social skills must be learned along with – or even prior to – academic ones, and that social skills are better learned experientially than by precept.

Tobin, Joseph, et al. (2009a), Chapter 2: China [in] Preschool in Three Cultures Revisited.

Tobin, Joseph, Yeh Hsueh, & Mayumi Karasawa (2009a). Chapter 2: China. Preschool in Three Cultures Revisited. University of Chicago Press, 22-94.

During the mid-1980s, Joseph Tobin was joined by two other researchers to carry out extensive observational research (including videotaping) in a preschool classroom in China, Japan, and the U.S. Their book, Preschool in Three Cultures, received more attention than most others that compare national educational practices. During the early 2000s, with two different colleagues, Tobin “revisited” two classrooms in the same cultures, adding Revisited to their original title. This review is of their chapter on China.

China is changing, say the authors, and preschools are locations where change is most evident. The first yòu’éryuán (preschool) that’s featured is Daguan, in Kunming, studied by Tobin’s team during 1985. The intervening 19 years saw numerous changes including that (a) the building is larger; (b) the boarding program is gone; (c) the staff is better trained and approach their work as educators instead of mother-surrogates; and (d) the instructional style is less authoritarian and didactic, more “progressive.” The researchers summarize (p. 42):

At the core of the paradigm shift is a change in the understanding of childhood, learning, and pedagogy. The key terms in this new approach are “respecting children,” “active learning,” “individualized instruction,” and “play-based teaching and learning.” These terms are not new to Chinese education. They were introduced by John Dewey, who visited China from 1919 to 1921…

The activity that most dramatically represents the change in instructional style is block play. In the mid-80s, the pupils sat at their desks, received small blocks and a picture of a structure, and were instructed to build it. Teachers circulated and corrected errors, quieting pupils who were chatting. In the early 2000s, when an entire room of the school was devoted solely to large blocks of different sizes, a teacher announced, “In a moment we will play in the block room. What will you build with the blocks? Build whatever you like.” The mood in the block room, say the researchers, “was loud and exuberant” and the teachers joined in the play (p. 44).

The researchers also visit a preschool in Shanghai that’s on the cutting edge of progressive change. The first activity featured is “Story Telling King” in which a child tells a complete story, then listens patiently to his classmates’ critiques. Useful contrasts are drawn with Japan, where pupils critique their own performances, and with the U.S., where critiques are rare so that pupils’ self-esteem remains safeguarded.

The second activity is sociodramatic play, which begins when the children prepare areas to be a supermarket, a kitchen, a school, a beauty parlor, a hospital, and a McDonald’s. Their teacher cooperates by having her hair done at the parlor, her stomach surgically cleared of 100 worms in the hospital, and her lunch at McDonald’s. When a dispute arises at the beauty parlor, it is ably calmed by pint-size, pistol-packin’ police! These two activities are viewed as a melding of progressive child-centeredness, Dewey-inspired focus on community realities, and Chinese traditions such as vocally critiquing others’ performances.

Three features of this chapter deserve mention. (1) The longest section concerns the social impact of changes in Chinese toilets in communities and preschools. (2) The one-child policy is discussed; it hasn’t resulted in demanding children, but rather in demanding parents! (3) The changes in educational policy and practice are shown to be a source of deep ambivalence for the Chinese, including for many parents who want preschools to lay a foundation for academic excellence.

Said one preschool director, “While coming to value individuality more highly, we Chinese prefer to follow the Doctrine of the Mean: neither too free nor too controlled” (p. 77).

Tobin, Joseph, et al. (2009b), Chapter 3: Japan [in] Preschool in Three Cultures Revisited.

Tobin, Joseph, Yeh Hsueh, & Mayumi Karasawa (2009b). Chapter 3: Japan. Preschool in Three Cultures Revisited. University of Chicago Press, 95-156.

During the 1980s, Joseph Tobin and two colleagues carried out observational research in a preschool classroom in China, Japan, and the U.S., yielding Preschool in Three Cultures. With different colleagues during 2000, Tobin observed two classrooms in the same three cultures, adding Revisited to their original title. Their third chapter discusses events during a day in two Japanese preschools: a yōchien (ages 3 to 6, shorter day) and a hoikuen (infant to 6, longer day).

An observation often made about Japanese lower-grade schools is that the teachers are far more accepting of the children’s rowdy behavior than in the U.S., a tendency that receives extended attention in this chapter. Observed (and photographed) in the hoikuen is a “fight” among girls over a toy; observed in the yōchien is a pinching-and-hair-pulling incident. The two teachers react differently. Not surprisingly, the fight is allowed to proceed by the teacher. But the other incident brings teacher intervention the instant she’s told that “Yuki pulled my hair,” after which she reprimands Yuki until he admits he started the incident and apologizes to Nobu.

Tobin and his colleagues take pains to correct a misreading of their first Preschool book: It’s not true that Japanese teachers never intervene. Rather, non-intervention is a “pedagogical strategy” (p. 132) available to Japanese teachers for responding to disruptive behavior (p. 111):

Japanese teachers are able to resist the temptation to intervene preemptively, as they balance the risk that a situation might deteriorate without their intervention with their appreciation of the value of the social experiences that would be lost if they were to act before it becomes absolutely necessary.

The teacher who allowed the girls’ fight to proceed explained her inaction using the word mimamoru, a combination of terms meaning “to look” and “to guard, protect, or watch over” (p. 111). It’s about being alert for imminent danger but otherwise allowing developmental goals to be attained, not via adults’ precepts and punishments, but rather in the normal course of growth and maturation. A yōchien director put it this way (pp. 134 & 156, italics in original):

Children need to be given opportunities to experience life in the gray zone, where things aren’t just black and white. When teachers intervene too quickly, it’s like they are picking a bud before it has a chance to flower.

Parents overprotect children. They are afraid of encountering problems. But if there were no problems, that would be the real problem. Our job as early educators isn’t to protect children from problems, but instead to put them in situations where they can experience problems and struggle to find solutions.

These comments reveal assumptions about youngsters and their learning that differ from those held by Americans and Chinese. Most Japanese don’t find fault with young children’s being childlike, and childlike behaviors are physically rambunctious in ways that aren’t yet dampened by social mores. The tussling four-year-old girls “are not so much misbehaving as behaving pro-socially, but in an immature way” (p.108). How did it end? Classmate Seiko admonished Nao, who had snatched the toy, then put her arm around Nao as they departed. (This event, and in particular little Nao’s motivation for snatching the toy, together with the Japanese point of view that enabled their teacher to watch the girls tussle without leaping to intervene, are insightfully discussed in Hayashi, Karasawa, & Tobin, 2009; reviewed herein.)

Tobin, Joseph, et al. (2009c), Chapter 4: United States [in] Preschool in Three Cultures Revisited.

Tobin, Joseph, Yeh Hsueh, & Mayumi Karasawa (2009c). Chapter 4: United States. Preschool in Three Cultures Revisited. University of Chicago Press, 157-223.

During the mid-1980s, Joseph Tobin was joined by two other researchers to carry out extensive observational research (including videotaping) in one preschool classroom in China, Japan, and the U.S. Their book, Preschool in Three Cultures, received more attention than most others that compare national educational practices. During the early 2000s, with two different colleagues, Tobin “revisited” two classrooms in the same cultures, adding Revisited to their original title. This review is of their chapter on the United States.

Described in detail is a day in two U.S. preschools. The first was at an Episcopal Church near Honolulu; its pupils were racially and culturally diverse. This school had participated in the 1980s study, and some of those teachers were available to watch both sets of videotapes. They said that the passage of 18 years had led to few changes in the curriculum; the big changes were due to the demands of licensing authorities, many of which had to do with health and safety.

The second preschool was in a working-class area of Phoenix; it served economically disadvantaged children in two half-day shifts. It had not been included in the 1980s research. After recounting a classroom day with few dramatic events, this section shifts to describing “The Curriculum Wars,” i.e., phonics vs. whole language and related philosophical differences.

Chapter 4 becomes valuable when, using examples from the two descriptions, it begins to discuss Americans’ culture of learning. The cultural beliefs that, at the Honolulu school, drove practices during the 1980s were alive and well at both schools during the early 2000s. “This is not to say that nothing has changed. New lines of reasoning are being used to support familiar practices; some old practices have evolved, and some new ones have been introduced, but all in ways that are consistent with the cultural beliefs we identified a generation ago” (p. 193).

Those beliefs place high value on choice, individualism, and self-expression. The reader is reminded that children at both schools were given choices again and again – but always within an adult-supplied menu of options. The authors contrast this pattern with that of the Japanese, from their 2nd chapter. In both Japanese preschools, “children are free to roam the classrooms and grounds, choosing activities to engage in without the benefit of a teacher presenting or defining options. Americans favor the phrase ‘free choice’ and Japanese educators favor ‘free play’” (pp. 194-5).

Also discussed, among other things, is the American assumption that personally chosen activities are inherently more pleasurable than those that are adult-assigned or group-chosen. For more about this, see Chapter 5 of The Drive to Learn.

In discussing the power of individualism, the authors make this observation (p. 196):

Looking across our interviews with U.S. early childhood educators, we find no instance of “teacher-directed” being used positively or of “child-centered” being used negatively. Indeed, the term “child-centered” functions as a metonym for progressive practice and “teacher-centered” as a metonym for regressive approaches.

In discussing the importance of self-expression, they offer this telling contrast (p. 198):

This practice is highlighted by the contrast between the emphasis in the U.S. preschools on verbally expressing feelings, and the emphasis in Japanese preschools on children’s learning to be sensitive to the unverbalized feelings of others.

Two other topics are discussed. One, disembodiment, concerns Americans’ hand-wringing about pupils’ health and safety, and our moral panic to insure that sexuality is never ever expressed in schools. The other notes our focus on equality of opportunity (help for disadvantaged pupils) and its contrast with other nations’ emphases on equity (similar treatment for all pupils).

Tsuchida, Ineko, & Catherine Lewis (1998), Responsibility and learning: Some preliminary hypotheses about Japanese elementary classrooms.

Tsuchida, Ineko, & Catherine C. Lewis (1998). Responsibility and learning: Some preliminary hypotheses about Japanese elementary classrooms. Teaching and Learning in Japan, Thomas Rohlen & Gerald LeTendre, eds. Cambridge University Press, 190-212.

Who is responsible for a student’s learning? How that question is answered in each nation – Teacher? Parents? Student? – reveals a great deal about its culture of learning. This article is one of the few that straightforwardly addresses the question of responsibility for learning.

While analyzing 100 videotapes of science and social studies lessons in American and Japanese fourth-grade classrooms, the authors recognized differences in the degree to which pupils were assuming responsibility for their own learning, and for management of their classroom. The authors’ central question was, “Is there a connection between students’ intrinsic motivation to learn and teachers’ degree of regulation of students’ behavior?” (p. 198).

The videotapes revealed that Japanese teachers were, moment-to-moment, less controlling of pupils’ behavior than were Americans teachers. A major reasons why the Japanese could be less controlling were because (a) Japanese lessons follow a well-defined script, and (b) the procedural routines of Japanese classrooms can be efficiently executed by pupils by the time they leave the first grade. Therefore, as other researchers have noted, far more time is devoted directly to inquiry and learning in Japanese classrooms than in American classrooms.

For example, in cases where a lesson required pupils to take different roles (e.g., facilitator, recorder, reporter), American “teachers usually spent 10 to 15 minutes…explaining the procedures and the roles…and having students choose their roles” (p. 196). Such non-productive directives are rare in Japan.

Also similarly to other researchers, Tsuchida and Lewis admire the constructivist approach – termed “sticky probing” – of Japanese teachers. As described in this article (pp. 199, 200):

[A common style] was for the teacher to ask a question (e.g., “What are the effects of moving water in a stream?”), to solicit many different ideas and opinions from class members, and to acknowledge each response by saying “I see”…without ever indicating whether it was correct or incorrect. Often, Japanese teachers went an entire class period without telling students whether or not answers were correct. Instead, they…asked students to elaborate on already stated ideas, and encouraged students to debate among themselves.

Often, discussions were led by the students. Student-led discussions were remarkably lively and coherent. Compared with U.S. discussions in which teachers tended to ask most of the questions, these discussions seemed to afford students far more opportunity to participate in the exchange of ideas and opinions.

Another contrast was that, in American schools, teachers put far more time and effort into keeping the pupils on-task with “directional statements” (e.g., “Look up here,” and “Shhh!”); “accountability statements” (e.g., “Your work will be checked.”); and “time reminders” (e.g., “Five minutes left.”). External reward systems (points later exchanged for privileges) were used in some U.S. classrooms. These characteristics were seldom observed in Japan.

The assumption in Japan is that youngsters are curious, so learning will occur naturally if subject matter is presented in a way that appeals to that curiosity, builds on prior learning, and can be explored by them in an interactive social context. Learning can depend on children’s own motivation; it need not be driven by teacher-delivered rewards, punishments, and directives.

This issue is discussed in The Aptitude Myth (pp. 166-168) and The Drive to Learn (pp. 103-108).

Tsukata, Mamoru (1991), Student Perspectives on Juku, Yobikō, and the Examination System.

Tsukada, Mamoru (1991). Student Perspectives on Juku, Yobikō, and the Examination System. Transcending Stereotypes: Discovering Japanese Culture and Education, Barbara Finkelstein, Anne E. Imamura, and Joseph J. Tobin, eds. Intercultural Press, 178-182.

Tsukada begins by noting that treatments of the Japanese examination system in Japan’s popular press usually describe its effects on the students themselves in sensationally tragic terms: stabbing of mothers as well as self-immolation and other forms of suicide, always attributed to anxiety over Japan’s “examination hell.”

The focus of this short article is the rōnin, the high school seniors who failed to get into a prestigious university the first time they took its exam and are devoting an entire year (or two!) attending one of the special private schools – i.e., juku – known as yobikō, where they “cram” full-time for another attempt at passing the exam. Invariably, press accounts portray rōnin as disproportionally likely to commit suicide. Using statistics from Japan’s Ministry of Health and Welfare over 20 years, Tsukada reveals this allegation to be false; the proportion of rōnin suicides to the number of rōnin has slowly decreased. Fake news.

What do the rōnin themselves have to say about all this? Tsukada notes that (pp. 180-181)

Graduates of exam-oriented high schools which produce a high percentage of rōnin students each year are generally knowledgeable about the realities of the exam system and thus prepared for failure… They decided they would rather fail the entrance examination of the university of their choice than to compromise and take the entrance exams only for universities they had a realistic chance of entering.

Tsukada’s research shows that each rōnin identifies a cause for his or her failure. Many attribute it to insufficient effort. Said one, “If you didn’t pass the exam simply because you didn’t study well, you can easily recover from your shock of failure. If I had failed after studying hard, then I would be terribly shocked and depressed…” Other reasons were bad luck such as illness on the day of the exam, and psychological hurdles such as this student describes: “I wanted to enter [University A] so badly that I tensed up while taking its entrance exam. When I took the entrance examination for [University B], I felt totally relaxed since I didn’t want to go there anyway, so of course I passed” (p. 181).

At the end of his article, Tsukada notes that the rōnin he interviewed rarely concluded that that their failure was because the exam itself was unfair, arbitrary, or random. For them to do so, he believes, “would be to undermine the core belief rōnin must hold on to, that with hard work and determination they will succeed” (p. 182).

For a broader view of juku, see the annotation for Russell, Nancy Ukai (1997).

Tsuneyoshi, Ryoko (2001), The Japanese Model of Schooling: Comparisons with the United States.

Tsuneyoshi, Ryoko (2001). The Japanese Model of Schooling: Comparisons with the United States. Routledge, 219 pages.

This book delivers handsomely on its promise to compare schools in Japan and the U.S. It is based on Tsuneyoshi’s 1987-88 observations of fourth grade classrooms in two schools in suburban New Jersey and two in suburban Tokyo. The Japanese classrooms had 35 to 40 pupils while the American ones had 20 to 23 (a common but significant difference).

The cover photograph depicts lunch in a Japanese school. Prepared by a school’s cooks, lunch is eaten in classrooms by the pupils together with their teacher. On a rotating basis, a group of pupils wearing chef-like hats fetch the lunch and serve the others (as the photo shows). Tsuneyoshi notes that one of the American schools had a manual with a section about lunch; in the manual of one of the Japanese schools the lunch section was seven times longer, dealing with “everything from the aims of lunch, the children’s manners, the desirable way to eat, and the desirable way to clean up afterwards.” The aim wasn’t merely to provide nourishment and opportunity to socialize, it was also “to instill certain basic habits and a sense of cooperation.” Lunch was “an opportunity for character development” (pp. 47-8).

I mention this difference between Japanese and American lunchtimes not because it’s Tsuneyoshi’s most significant revelation, but because the two nations’ lunchtime procedures symbolize the yawning gap between daily life in their respective elementary schools. Yes, in both systems age-graded pupils are in a classroom with desks, a teacher, and a learning agenda. Beyond those superficial similarities, the two systems could hardly be more different. Their differences comprise not only countless procedures (e.g., lunch) and activities (Japanese schools have far more non-academic yet learning-objective-driven events), but also the animating assumptions and intentions regarding everyone’s behavior, teachers as well as pupils.

A phrase that occurs repeatedly is “voluntary cooperation.” Tsuneyoshi views Japanese elementary schools as recreating “traditional, small-scale, tight-knit communities where face-to-face relationships prevail, relationships are intimate, [and] mobility is low” (for example, students are never skipped ahead or held back). The tentpole value holding such a community together is “the idea of ‘voluntary’ cooperation with a heavy dose of empathy” (p. 39), which plays out during academic learning and even more so during the numerous non-academic activities.

“Voluntary” is not the American “if-you’d-like-to” variety, but an intentionally developed mindset. As one teacher explained to his class, “Just because you don’t want to do something doesn’t mean you don’t have to cooperate with the small group. That’s why there are rules. If we were all free to do anything, we would have no unity” (p. 61).

It’s fashionable for American educators to talk about teaching the “whole student.” The shallowness of such talk becomes clear via Tsuneyoshi’s distinction between systems where teachers focus mainly on pupils’ cognitive growth versus systems where teachers simultaneously embrace responsibility for developing pupils’ basic behavior patterns and character. A public school teacher in the U.S. can be disciplined or even dismissed for straying into that territory!

Tsuneyoshi’s The Japanese Model of Schooling is high on my list of clear, insightful books to read about Japanese elementary education and its value-laden underpinnings.

Tweed, Roger B., & Darrin Lehman (2002), Learning considered within a cultural context: Confucian and Socratic Approaches.

Tweed, Roger B., & Darrin R. Lehman (2002). Learning considered within a cultural context: Confucian and Socratic Approaches. American Psychologist, 57 (2), 89-99.

This insightful, often cited article begins by explaining that the terms “Socratic” and “Confucian” are “conceptual homes” for educational philosophies derived from ancient Greece and China. Socrates and Confucius did not invent the two contrasting approaches to learning; rather, each summarized in compelling ways the views about learning extant in his contemporary culture.

Socrates encouraged each individual to self-reliantly pursue truth. One should begin by questioning, doubting, and critically evaluating the ideas and beliefs of others, including those of authorities. Then one should rationally arrive at his own conclusions. In contrast, Confucius didn’t advocate the seeking of knowledge for its own sake but in pursuit of the betterment of oneself and society, using knowledge to improve one’s behavior (i.e., to gain virtue). The knowledge to be gained, in his view, was already known and in the possession of authorities. Confucius taught respect for authorities, but he urged his students not to merely parrot the ideas of authorities but rather to strive toward full understanding and mastery of those ideas.

A key distinction is this: Socrates said that truth lies inside oneself; so after applying thought (suggesting introspection), an individual should doubt authorities’ views and, when appropriate, challenge them openly. Confucius said that truth lies outside oneself in the environment and the past; so an individual should learn from authorities, understanding their timeless insights in order to acquire virtuous behavior. The distinction regarding the location of valuable knowledge – inside or outside – leads to differences in how Western and Eastern people approach learning:

  • Western learners assume that, during the early stages of their learning, they should draw on their own insights to critically evaluate the material. Personal insights about the material are valued as much as, or more than, personal efforts to understand and master the material. So it’s possible that, without having read widely or thought deeply, Westerners sometimes will challenge points they don’t thoroughly understand and end up swapping ignorance among themselves.
  • Eastern learners assume that texts and teachers are the bearers of authoritative, valuable knowledge drawn from the environment and the past. Their first response should be to fully internalize, comprehend, and master the knowledge. Easterners tend to be ready, willing, and able to exert persevering effort to accomplish those goals. It is accepted that, following mastery, Eastern learners may question what they’ve learned, and even modify it to a modest extent.

Tweed & Lehman’s article is valuable as an introductory overview, but it isn’t without its inaccuracies, as pointed out in the same journal a year later by researcher Jin Li. As discussed in this bibliography’s entry for Li, Jin (2003), Professor Li points out that…

  • Confucius had little interest in the pursuit of “truth” or the acquisition of skills. His emphasis was on the concept of ren, a lifelong striving for individual behavioral (i.e., moral) perfection, often termed “virtue.”
  • Confucius valued persevering effort, but not because it leads to mastery or academic success. Effort was intimately related to ren, the never-ending quest to attain behavioral perfection (virtue).
  • Confucius firmly advocated respect for authorities, but that fact typically enables Western commentators to portray Eastern students as “passive.” Easterners are quiet in classrooms not because they’re uninterested but because they assume that humility ensures better learning.
Usui, Hiroshi (1996), Differences in teacher classroom behaviors in the U.S.A. and Japan: A field note.

Usui, Hiroshi (1996). Differences in teacher classroom behaviors in the U.S.A. and Japan: A field note. Research and Clinical Center for Child Development Annual Report, 18 (3); Faculty of Education, Hokkaido University, 63-85.

The author was not an comparative education researcher but rather a developmental psychologist when he visited a number of American classrooms, then recorded his impressions in this “field note.” We must guess how many classes he visited and their levels (probably all lower grades).

Usui discovers for himself many of the same distinctions between Japanese and American classrooms that seasoned, painstaking researchers have revealed. The value in this article is that Usui’s relative inexperience enables him to perceive, and to explain, a number of Japan-U.S. classroom differences from a refreshingly “naïve” perspective. Here are four of his impressions:

Japanese teachers take great care in introducing and explaining key topics. They organize their approach carefully, they use much class time to explain fundamental concepts, and they linger over critical meanings, giving all class members time to ask questions and discuss the fine points. “Japanese teachers emphasize kodawari, which literally means ‘obsession,’ so that they might make children focus on a single word or phrase, continuously coming back to subtle differences…” (p. 71). “Introduction of new problems or units by American teachers are rather abrupt and brief in comparison. Teachers seemed impressed by how far they had traveled and how many different topics they had covered. I often had difficulty keeping up with them” (p. 69).

Japanese teachers’ role is more like a coordinator than an authority. Usui saw American teachers as quiz show hosts: Ask a question, get a response, rule the response as correct or incorrect, ask a new question… Japanese teachers facilitate neriai, “kneading ideas,” a process of “group thinking and sharing of beliefs during which each child has many opportunities to elaborate and criticize ideas as well as to receive the same from classmates. At times, the teacher will summarize the points or even intervene when she feels the need to organize the line of discussion. That is to say, she also participates in the kneading” (p. 66). Usui attributes the often-noted nosiness of Japanese classrooms in part to the on-going neriai among the students.

Japanese teachers know their students extraordinarily well. Teachers in Japan have more contact with their students than teachers in the U.S., where some subjects (music, art, gym) are taught by specialists. Teachers share their lunch with students, oversee their daily cleaning of the school, and plan and join with students in a variety of extracurricular and school activities. Each child reports his personal life situation in detail at the beginning of the year. Teachers visit every student’s home early in each school year, and parents occasionally are invited to observe ongoing classroom instruction. “Every teacher knows even the details of their students’ private lives like divorce, discordance and makeup between the parents, bankruptcy due to huge debts, pregnancy… Teachers are expected to know this private information in order to understand their students and give them the appropriate guidance” (p. 77). Guidance extends even to detailed input to how each student will spend their vacation days, including schedules of times to arise, to study, to practice a sport, to go to bed, etc. Each child sets holiday goals – to swim 100 meters, to upgrade computation skills, not to fight with brothers – and reports his progress. “But,” notes Usui, “recently some parents have become a little skeptical about these policies…” (p. 82).

Japanese chalkboards are a primary medium of communication. Teachers in the U.S. seemed to use the chalkboard in an unplanned, haphazard way. Japanese teachers put thought into what goes on the board, approaching it as an exercise in page-design and message clarity. They view chalkboard organization as “an intrinsic refection of their teaching process” (p. 64).

Wang, Tao, & John Murphy (2004), An examination of coherence in a Chinese mathematics classroom.

Wang, Tao, & John Murphy (2004). An examination of coherence in a Chinese mathematics classroom. How Chinese Learn Mathematics: Perspectives from Insiders, Lianghuo Fan et al., eds. Series on Mathematics Education, Vol. 1. World Scientific, 107-123.

As used in this paper, coherence “refers to the role of unity or connectedness of speech and behavior in the creation of meaningful discourse” (p. 107). Three types of coherence are useful in classrooms because each contributes to enhancing students’ understanding of the material.

Instructional coherence is improved “when a teacher points to thematic or logical connections between a new topic and earlier material” (p. 107). Other researchers have discovered that many more topics are typically covered during math classes in U.S. upper elementary schools than are covered in comparable Chinese classrooms. For example, a research team segmented classroom flow into 5-minute segments and found that in Taipei, Taiwan, 55% of all segments focused on one topic, while in Chicago, only 17% of segments focused on one topic. And it is well known that in both China and Japan, a typical approach to an entire 40-minute lesson is to focus on a single challenging math problem, discussing it from multiple perspectives and solving it in several ways. Besides aiding coherence, such practices deepen student understanding.

Social and psychological coherence overlaps the third category, cultural coherence. The authors note particularly the rituals that characterize Chinese (and other East Asian) classes. One obvious example is the formal manner in which each class begins: teacher enters, students stand at attention, teacher greets students, students return the greeting, students sit, class begins. “[This small ritual focuses] the attention of the large class [and it’s] also the cue for participants to assume their roles of teacher and students with their respective responsibilities in the classroom discourse. [It signals] the natural hierarchy in the classroom” (p. 117).

Cultural coherence refers to the assumptions and values of the larger containing society, a factor that I believe has powerful explanatory value (see my 2017 book, The Drive to Learn). Wang and Murphy address, from a cross-cultural perspective, why teachers in Asia and the U.S. prepare and teach lessons in such different ways. They identify three culture-related factors:

  1. There are differences in beliefs about the nature of mathematical knowledge and its teaching. Research has revealed that American math teachers tend to view math knowledge as existing “piece-by-piece, whereas “Chinese teachers often view a piece of knowledge as part of a larger context [in which] some of the pieces are key to the target knowledge” (p. 114). This better enables Chinese teachers to point out connections between new and previous content.
  2. There are differences in the quality of teachers’ math comprehension. This paper mentions this without discussion; perhaps the authors take for granted that readers will know that studies have pointed to the comparatively poor preparation of math teachers in the U.S. [For a major study of this East-West gap, see the annotation for Ma, Liping (1999).]
  3. There are disparities between the larger cultural environments in which the teachers are working. To mention a few: (a) Chinese teachers have many human and other resources in their schools that support their crafting of coherent lessons. (b) Compared with Americans, Chinese teachers are in class teaching during a far smaller portion of each school day. (c) Unlike many American teachers, a Chinese teacher entering a classroom “can assume that two important cultural scripts are in play. First, the student respects the authority of the teacher. And secondly, the student tends to have an interdependent self-construal” (p. 117). In turn, that factor is the foundation for several characteristics of Chinese classrooms, especially that… (d) Students’ errors are publicly discussed in Chinese (and Japanese) classrooms in the sense that the reasoning that led to the error is dissected and analyzed, thus enabling all class members to gain deeper understanding.
Watkins, David (2000), Learning and teaching: A cross-cultural perspective.

Watkins, David (2000). Learning and teaching: A cross-cultural perspective. School Leadership & Management, 20 (2), 161-173.

Watkins reviews a wide variety of research findings that solve “the paradox of the Chinese learner.” (The paradox is this: According to Western beliefs about education, East Asian students should perform poorly. Paradoxically, East Asian students consistently outperform Western students.) This article offers the newcomer a useful overview of key findings. Here are just three examples:

Western students view understanding as occurring via quick insight; Chinese students assume that it results from long study. Watkins notes that this difference dovetails with a widely recognized cultural difference: In the West, academic success it attributed largely to inborn ability; in Asia, it’s attributed largely to effort. For deep background on how the West came to it’s belief in inborn ability, see my 2013 book, The Aptitude Myth.

Regarding intrinsic vs. extrinsic motivation, Watkins says that this bipolar construct “collapses” within the Asian context because Asian children gain “internal dispositions that create a sense of diligence and receptiveness.” For much more about East Asian children’s diligence and receptiveness to classroom learning, see my 2017 book, The Drive to Learn.

Watkins also discusses a less recognized research finding about classroom group work: Western teachers often arrange simultaneous pupil talk within small groups; Asian teachers often arrange sequential pupil talk through two-pupil public discussions and even prepared performances to be observed by all other pupils. The reason this “works well in China is due to the emphasis on moral training: to listen attentively is one’s duty and shows respect for the teacher, other pupils, and indeed learning itself. The approach seems to work well, even in large classes, so that Chinese teachers are not dismayed by facing 50 to 60 pupils” (p. 169).

White, Merry (1993), School in the life of the teen.

White, Merry (1993). School in the life of the teen. The Material Child: Coming of Age in Japan and America. The Free Press, 71-101.

In her chapter about the school life of Japanese students, Merry White makes many of the same observations that others have. But she points out that, in spite of the common generalizations about differences between American and Japanese teens, both nations are home to youth with a broad variety of characteristics. She also underscores the importance of the school-sponsored, after-classes clubs in the life of Japanese teens, portraying them as “religiously attended” (p. 80), as major vehicles for their gaining of social competence, and as deeply motivating and involving (often year-round) for the youth.

Near the end of this chapter, White makes an important statement about how Japanese teenagers learn their culture’s patterns of adult interactions (p. 94):

Training for adult relationships and responsibilities is actually conducted more in the peer relationships of classroom and activity group, and social ethics are learned in the junior-senior hierarchies institutionalized in such peer groups…. This is not a formal curriculum established by adults, but a system built in and reinforced by generations of students passing down the rules to the next group.

White focuses on those junior-senior hierarchies, or sempai-kōhai relationships, within the context of school clubs. New members, the younger kōhai, have an obligation to master the behavior patterns of their club. Existing members, the older sempai, impart those patterns, which are “a curriculum of detailed aspects of behavior that must be understood” so that the kōhai become capable of “very precisely tuned observance of the niceties” such as bowing at the right angle not only within the club’s space but even if they meet a sempai on the street (pp. 94-95). White then adds two infrequently noted points.

The first is that the sempai-kōhai relationships of their student years conditions the young people to the honne-tatemae distinction that pervades much Japanese adult life. Honne refers to how an individual behaves when in relaxed, “off-duty” situations with family and close friends. Tatemae refers to how an individual behaves in the numerous situations when correct social performances are expected. One of the essential learnings of Japanese adolescents, says White, is “what they must do to maintain both an integrated self and a viable place in society,” which means learning the distinction “between public and private, ideal and real, inside and outside, and that they must be careful not to ignore the demands of both…” (p. 98).

White’s second point is that although American youth become aware of the public-private distinction, most view it as disillusioning, a source of hypocrisy. Americans value personal integrity, i.e., “just being yourself” across different social situations; they view distastefully the expectation that, in some circumstances, one’s behavior needs to be guided by externally imposed social codes. “American teens,” she writes (p. 98)

see these social codes as embodied in adults and their institutions; Japanese learn them from peers. Hypocrite is one of the worst epithets an American teen can hurl at adults, while young Japanese tend to accept [public-private distinctions] as a necessary social construction [and] manage them without social or psychic discord.

White, Merry, & Robert LeVine (1986), What is an ii ko (good child)?

White, Merry I., & Robert A. LeVine (1986). What is an ii ko (good child)? Child Development and Education in Japan, Harold Stevenson, Hiroshi Azuma, & Kenji Hakuta, eds. W.H. Freeman, 59-62.

White and LeVine advance our understanding of Japanese child-rearing by revealing what the Japanese themselves mean when they use certain terms in their own language. Children in Japan are raised to be ningen-rashii, or “human-like,” meaning able to maintain harmony in human relationships – a sharp contrast with the American view that social abilities are means instead of ends. The authors address the processes and goals of children’s growth.

Processes include gambaru (persist), amaeru/amayakasu (depend/indulge), hansei suru (reflect on one’s weakness), and wakaraseru (cause the child to understand). Wakaraseru implies engaging the child in goals the mother has set but without the mother’s ever going against the child. Americans are likely to frown on this supposed “manipulation” as blocking development of the child’s self-will; the Japanese view it as part of a strategy to build self-motivated cooperation. White and LeVine cite other researchers who contrast Americans’ “power-assertive” child-rearing methods with Japanese “love-oriented” techniques.

Growth goals include fostering a sunao disposition. In the West, sunao often is translated as “compliant, obedient.” But for the Japanese, sunao carries meanings including “authentic in intent and cooperative in spirit,” “open-minded,” and “nonresistant.” Becoming sunao does not imply giving up one’s self; it means that cooperating with others is the way to express and enhance one’s self. “In Japanese child development theory, no conflict exists between goals of self-fulfillment and goals of social integration” (p. 57).

A 1987 book by Merry White, The Japanese Educational Challenge: A Commitment to Children, expands on this article’s themes.

Winner, Ellen (1989), How can Chinese children draw so well?

Winner, Ellen (1989). How can Chinese children draw so well? Journal of Aesthetic Education, 23 (1), 65-84; includes photos of children’s art.

“Chinese children do not draw childish drawings,” is the opening line (p. 41) of this important journal article. “Childish,” after all, is gauged by our experience here in the U.S. The experience of Chinese people with children’s drawings is stunningly different. Oh, by the way, we’re talking about ordinary children, not merely those who are artistically gifted.

This article is important because, in the context of art classrooms, it reveals the vast gap between the Western (i.e., American) and Chinese (and, by extension, East Asian) assumptions that underlie how adults guide children to adulthood.

The unspoken assumption in East Asia is that what exists outside oneself – i.e., social situations, relationships, events, others’ needs, etc. – is more worthy of attention than what exists inside oneself – i.e., own aptitudes, ideas, feelings, needs, preferences, style, etc. Among us Americans, the reverse is true: We assume that what’s inside us is more worthy of attention.

Winner doesn’t make her point exactly that way (it’s my analysis), but she does provide examples of the East Asian assumption being played out in art classroom there. It comes down to this:

In the U.S., children’s art lessons are facilitation; in East Asia art lessons are training.

By “training” I mean that children are deliberately molded, through demonstrations, the tracing of models, repeated practice, and focused guidance – including hands-on guidance – to become able to execute a wide range of previously developed “schemas” for producing drawings, paintings, etc.

The architype for East Asian art classes is calligraphy instruction. Explains Winner (p. 47):

[First graders] learn how to sit, how to hold the brush for the different kinds of strokes, how to prepare the ink, and how to mix the ink with water to achieve precisely the right tone… In a fourth grade class, each child had a textbook containing rows of Chinese characters. Under each character was drawn the same character, but this time only with thin lines. Students filled out the lines in the lower characters so that the brush strokes were of the appropriate thickness and tone.

There are many similarities between how calligraphy is taught and how art is taught. She writes that “it is clear to everybody that there are right and wrong ways to draw… The notions of art as process, as visual problem-solving, or as innovation are conspicuously absent” (p. 49). Art is a traditional craft, and the goal is for the children to master it. There’s no need for “visual thinking.” All visual problems have been solved by the old masters; children apply the masters’ solutions.

Winner comes up with an analogy that strikes me as highly insightful (p. 59):

In China, the act of painting is like performing a piece of music written by someone else. Although artists may ultimately put their personal stamp on what they paint, this is analogous to putting one’s own interpretation into a piece of music that one performs, rather than composing one’s own piece.

Here’s a final quote from Winner’s valuable exploration of Chinese art education (p. 57):

Westerners commonly believe that artists paint to express themselves and to work out their feelings. It is not unusual in the West to see children making drawings of things that have high affective content – a visit to the doctor, the death of a pet, and the like. I did not find art put to such uses in China. I never saw pictures that had a personal voice. When I asked children if they ever felt the desire to draw something that had just happened to them, they looked at me blankly and said no. What they draw are schemas that they have learned in school.

Woodward, John, & Yumiko Ono (2004), Mathematics and academic diversity in Japan.

Woodward, John, & Yumiko Ono (2004). Mathematics and academic diversity in Japan. Journal of Learning Disabilities, 37 (1), 74-82.

It’s true that Japan’s population is unusually homogeneous, but it’s not true that math classes there are characterized by little variability in student performance. Woodward and Ono include two graphs – a type known as “boxplots” – that compare the variability in the Japanese and American TIMSS samples for the fourth and eighth grades. The range of score variability in both grades is virtually equal. At the fourth grade level there’s considerable overlap in the high-low score range of the two data sets, with Japan’s range being modestly higher. Amazingly, though, at the eighth grade level the upper end of the U.S. students’ range of scores – it appears to be about 560 – is virtually identical to the lower end of the Japanese students’ range of scores!

Compared with practices here in the U.S., one difference in how the Japanese deal with low performing students is that educators there are disinclined to identify students as needing special attention due to learning disabilities (or, for that matter, learning giftedness). Japan is a culture that pays little attention to individuals’ innate abilities. It’s a culture that pays much attention to individuals’ effort and persistence. So it doesn’t occur to Japanese educators to track, or to pull out for special attention, students whom American teachers would regard as “slow learners.” All such students remain in class with the others, where they’re expected to devote extra effort and persistence to learning. In Japan, special education concerns itself only with those having severe disabilities.

Within each classroom, teachers know which students are fast and slow. They use that knowledge not to divide them, but to deliberately mix them together in the working groups (han) that are a ubiquitous feature of elementary classes. They apply constructivist procedures so that the low achievers will benefit from interacting with their higher achieving peers, and that the high achievers will benefit from having to carefully explain their reasoning processes to their slower peers.

The authors report that, besides the application of extra effort and the assistance of their faster peers, struggling elementary school math students have another source of support: Japanese teachers were three times more likely than American teachers to work outside of class with students needing additional help. (For this finding, the authors cite Lee, Graham, & Stevenson, 1998 [reviewed herein].)

This article ends with several pages and illustrations concerning the “Suido Method” for teaching mathematics, conceived in 1958 by Japan’s Association of Mathematical Instruction. Understanding that some children learn to count but don’t associate counting with quantity or magnitude, the Suido Method uses tiles to make quantities explicit, to associate quantity with positional notation (units, ten, hundreds, etc.), and to treat operations involving zero as special cases. Other than in this article, I have not been able to locate more information about the Suido Method in English.

Wray, Harry (1999), Japanese and American Education: Attitudes and Practices.

Wray, Harry (1999). Japanese and American Education: Attitudes and Practices. Bergin & Garvey, 322 pages.

Wray’s book could have been entitled, “Everything You Ever Wanted to Know about the Differences between Japanese and American Education.” His command of both quantitative and qualitative information about el-hi education in Japan is exhaustive, as is his awareness of what others have said on the subject. He has chapters on Japanese education’s strengths, followed by chapters on Japanese education’s weaknesses, and through it all Wray repeatedly makes comparisons with American education. How did Wray become so knowledgeable? Raised in Nebraska, he somehow gained fascination with Japan, earned an appropriate Ph.D., and taught in Japanese high schools, then universities, for 29 years.

Wray never holds back on delivering his own (well-informed) opinion, and it’s clear that he wrote his book for the same reason I’ve written mine: Concern over education in the U.S. Like other American researchers, he finds a great deal to admire in Japan’s elementary schooling, very little to admire at the secondary level. His most memorable opinion is this (p. 75):

Good indigenous values, attitudes, and institutions in both the Japanese and American educational system become harmful because they are carried to extremes.

For example, Japanese overemphasize the value of mastering the basics that deep tradition has handed down; Americans overemphasize the value of curious exploration along heretofore unimagined paths. Wray provides an instance of these value-overemphases: The Japanese rely on imitation of models, constant repetition of basic forms, and dogged persistence as the path to achievement, skill, and satisfaction. Then, quoting Rohlen & LeTendre [annotated], Wray observes that Americans “assume almost automatically that, to improve, we have to break out of our old ways of doing things and forge a new way. We see – in our seemingly endless cycles of educational reform in [the U.S.], for example – a tremendous emphasis on finding a new and better way that makes old ways obsolete’” (p. 64).

In preparing to consider whether the two societies can reasonably borrow from each other, Wray offers this comparison of the values that drive each nation’s educational ways (p. 177; a few additions by me):


Duties, form, and order Inalienable rights, liberty
Respect for learning Anti-intellectualism
Effort and perseverance over ability Inborn aptitude and IQ over effort
Group identity and uniformity Individualism
Hierarchical and homogeneous Egalitarian and heterogeneous
Centralization of bureaucracy Decentralization, anti-bureaucratic
Confirmist and passive citizenry Active, vocal citizenry
Situational moral values; tatamae Absolute moral values; integrity
Love and harmony Truth, justice, and freedom
Deference to and trust of officials Distrust of officials, antipathy to orders & regulations

In spite of the chasm between the two set of values, Wray concludes that selective borrowing is reasonable.

Zhu, Yan, & Lianghuo Fan (2006), Focus on the representation of problem types in intended curriculum: A comparison of selected mathematics textbooks from China and the United States.

Zhu, Yan, & Lianghuo Fan (2006). Focus on the representation of problem types in intended curriculum: A comparison of selected mathematics textbooks from mainland China and the United States. International Journal of Science and Mathematics Education, 4, 609-626.

The authors compared mathematics textbooks for students at the lower secondary level in China and the United States; the American text was the one developed by the University of Chicago School Mathematics Project. The Chinese text was used by 70% of Chinese students. Explored was the two textbook series’ use of seven classifications of mathematics problems:

  1. Routine vs. Non-Routine. Non-routine problems cannot be resolved by merely applying a standard algorithm, formula, or procedure.
  2. Traditional vs. Non-Traditional. Non-traditional problems were divided into four subtypes labeled “Problem-posing,” “Puzzle,” “Project,” and “Journal.” None of these non-traditional problem types figured significantly in the findings (almost all problems were traditional).
  3. Open-Ended vs. Closed-Ended. Closed-ended problems have a single correct answer; open-ended problems potentially have several correct answers.
  4. Application vs. Non-Application. Non-application problems describe a problem presentation that has no obvious relation to any practical or real-life context or situation.
  5. Single-Step vs. Multiple-Step. Multiple-step problems require two or more mathematical operations in order to be correctly solved.
  6. Sufficient Data, Extraneous Data, and Insufficient Data. Sufficient data problems contain the exact amount of information needed to solve them. Extraneous data problems contain more than the needed information. Insufficient data problems lack all the needed information.
  7. Mathematical Form, Verbal Form, Visual Form, and Combined Form. The four titles are descriptive of how the problem is presented to the textbook user.

The two textbook series were similar in a surprising number of ways, but several interesting differences also were revealed. Among the authors’ findings were these:

  • The much longer American textbooks contained twice as many problems as the Chinese ones, but the number of problems within individual text sections was virtually identical.
  • In both textbook series, the overwhelming majority (97.2% and above) of problems were categorized as routine and traditional; also, most problems were non-application.
  • In both textbook series, the overwhelming majority of problems were closed-ended, and extremely few problems contained either insufficient or extraneous information.
  • The American texts had a more even distribution of problems among the four “forms”: mathematical, verbal, visual, and combined. In the Chinese texts, 53.9% of all problems were in mathematical form, while only 3.3% were presented in visual form.
  • In the American texts, 63% of problems were single-step, while in the Chinese texts only 52% were single-step. In this respect, the Chinese texts appear somewhat more challenging.

In my opinion, these findings fail to identify differences in textbooks as a major factor in explaining Chinese (or East Asian) superiority in mathematics performance. [See also Fan, Lianghuo, & Yan Zhu (2007); Li, Yeping (2007); and Park, Kyungmee, & Frederick K.S. Leung (2006).]

Zhang, Dianzhou, et al. (2004), The “Two Basics”: Mathematics teaching and learning in mainland China.

Zhang, Dianzhou, Shiqi Li, & Ruifen Tang (2004). The “Two Basics”: Mathematics teaching and learning in mainland China. How Chinese Learn Mathematics: Perspectives from Insiders, Lianghuo Fan et al., eds. Series on Mathematics Education, Vol. 1. World Scientific, 189-201.

The authors’ purpose was to capture the essential features of how mathematics educators in China think about teaching. They note that throughout East Asia and Singapore, historical and cultural factors (including the 1950s, when Russia was influential in China) have predisposed math educators to emphasize the laying of a solid foundation within their students’ minds. In China, the underlying principle long as been “basic knowledge and basic skills,” widely known as the “Two Basics.” Chinese math educators “believe that primary and secondary education are foundational…, and establishing a good foundation is the main task of mathematics education [because] without a solid foundation, it is impossible to realize children’s creativity” (p. 190).

That last phrase is important. It references a fundamental difference between the U.S. and East Asia, namely that East Asians assume that mastery must precede attempts at creativity, whereas in the U.S. creativity is sought at any stage of learning, including at its beginning.

The six primary goals of Chinese mathematics education are concisely stated (p. 193):

  1. Fast, accurate calculation with the four arithmetic operations; memorization of algorithms.
  2. Fast, accurate manipulation of polynomial expressions, algebraic fractions, and others.
  3. Accurate memorization of definitions, a variety of formulas, properties of curves, etc.
  4. Logical and formal expressions of mathematical concepts and awareness of logical accuracy.
  5. Conformity of reasoning in solution processes to rigorous logical rules with sufficient reason.
  6. Familiarity with solutions patterns; using them on similar problems through fast imitating.

To fulfill those demanding goals, Chinese math teaching has the following characteristics:

  • Teachers play a central role in the classroom; students need to follow the teacher’s pace. This requires teachers to have a thorough understanding of their subject area.
  • “Student-centered” approaches such as discovery, constructivism, group discussion, and real-life math rarely are used. But oral questioning by the teacher is common; it guides students to learn step-by-step. On average, teachers ask students 50 questions during each class.
  • Applied is the rule to teach only the essentials and ensure plenty of practice. This “does not support the idea of ‘understanding first,’ but insists that both understanding and manipulation are of equal importance. It is not necessary for [teachers] to spend much time to make students understand… Without thorough understanding, students [can] practice first and then develop their understanding through exercises” (p. 195).
  • Teachers often use a distinctive approach known as “teaching with variation.” Example: A teacher “could propose five different ‘non-conventional’ strategies to help students solve the problem 123 x 456. Those five strategies create a framework for students to understand the ‘standard’ procedure from different angles [and ultimately] the essential theory – the place value system – underlying multi-digit number multiplication” (p. 196).
  • Logical deductive reasoning is treated as the core thinking ability. Emphasized is logical analysis of content and logical reasoning in developing solutions. Therefore, Euclidian geometry is important because of its emphasis on rigorous deductive proof. In general, proof is more valued than mere verification. “For example, to prove Pythagoras Theorem, one needs to use rigorous algebraic or geometric methods; demonstrating a cut-and-paste method is not acceptable” (p. 198).