Wednesday, June 8, 2011

The Learning Gap

For the 52 Books in 52 Weeks Challenge

I am just finishing up a book called The Learning Gap.   By the way, have you noticed that 21st century sociological and psychological books written for the layman almost always have near-book-length subtitles just like Victorian novels?   This one has the subtitle:

Why Our Schools Are Failing and What We Can Learn from Japanese and Chinese Education
The book turns out not to be a polemic, though, even though it might seem so from that thesis.

Apparently the authors are researchers, both Doctors of Psychology.   They went to representative classrooms in Japan and China and the US (Cleveland, Ohio, to be exact) and recorded lots of classroom observations and also statistically crunched lots of information apparently taken from surveys and questionnaires to compare, in detail, the differences in practice between elementary classrooms in Cleveland, Beijing and Sendai.    The focus is on 1st and 5th grade. 

At the beginning of the book they compare the level of academic success in US schools to that of Asian schools.  As we are all vaguely aware, Asian schools tend to produce far more impressive results in typical tests that compare students across international boundaries.  Especially in math, where there is easier grounds for comparing, the US scores relatively low compared to most other developed countries.   They score lower in actual achievement, but higher in how satisfied they feel with their accomplishment, which to many observers seems like a bit of a problem. 

So if you agree that these scores have significance and that consequently Asian classrooms are doing better than American ones in preparing students for whatever high math and other scores are meant to demonstrate that they are prepared for, then you can easily read the rest of the book as "how American schools should be different so they can be more like Chinese and Japanese ones."   You might notice my vague skepticism in my phrasing.  I have a theory that America's fixation upon quantifiable measurements of outcome is part of their problem and that these international comparisons only make us see things through this peculiarly Cartesian filter. 

But if you are just reading for the compare and contrast, then the book is good reading because the tone of the book is very calm and research-oriented.   Its format is simple -- in one area after another, the authors describe what American schools do, then what Japanese and Chinese schools tend to do in the same area.    The authors mentioned that it is difficult to pinpoint distinctive characteristics of American schools without going outside the schools.   Homeschooling, of course, offers a comparison with typical classrooms within national boundaries, but many educational researchers don't know how to treat homeschooling because it is individual and organic and resists normal classroom observation.   So researching other cultures can shed light upon our own.  

To take a couple of examples, math teachers in Beijing and especially in Sendai are far more likely than those in Cleveland to use manipulatives in a math lesson, even in fifth grade.    They are also far more likely to start the class with a difficult problem, get the students' input on how it could be solved, and work through carefully and inductively.  American teachers are much more likely to start a lesson by defining terms and giving a paradigm on how to solve a type of problem, then keep the second part of the lesson for independent seatwork based on the same concept.

Asian teachers are far more likely to stay with one topic during the whole lesson, whereas American teachers are more likely to skip through several topics within a lesson.    They both acknowledge the need for variety to keep the student engaged, but Asians will focus on a variety of ways to approach the single topic.  The pace is slower in an Asian classroom, but it is also more organized with a clearcut beginning, middle and end, where an American lesson is something like a smorgasboard.  

There are some things you would expect --- Asians respect academics and achievement far more than the average American.  And some things are surprising -- though Asian children have a longer school day and a longer school year (240 days instead of 180).  they have far more frequent recesses, so the amount of hours in a class is more comparable than you might have thought.

If you are reading the book from the perspective of a homeschooler, it is interesting, because you can pick and choose how you want to teach.    So you can reflect on some of your own educational experiences and realize that the conventional American mode isn't the only one possible. 

The authors have done a good job not leaping to quick conclusions about what the studies show about the differences.   Rather, they lay it out and admit there is probably more to be learned.  For example, the preschool years are examined briefly but not in depth.   So you get some clues about how Asian parents raise their children, but probably not in enough depth to gain a complete understanding.     Asian parents think of early childhood as an Age of Innocence, according to the book, and do little academic preparation in the home, unlike American parents who buy educational games and manipulatives for their small children.  But once school starts, Asian parents become very involved in academics and in supporting the school discipline, whereas Americans tend to back off at this point and leave a lot of the academic content and discipline to the schools. 

This book isn't exactly one of the page-turning non-fiction ones full of real-life anecdotes with names changed to protect privacy, or interesting personal narratives that keep you reading.  It is about statistics and averages.  But because it divides up and compares so many different elements of elementary education in such a simple, clear format, it's easy to understand and readable, and also easy to look back through.


  1. Hi! I just clicked over from a link on another blog (which had a review of A Little Way of Homeschooling, which I read and enjoyed). This first post caught my eye, because I live in Japan, and my husband just happens to be a Japanese elementary school teacher. I also used to teach English in Japanese schools before kids. I find it interesting that so many still tend to extol Japanese education, in spite of the fact that many Japanese do nothing but complain about it. I think your "vague skepticism" is warranted!

    Of course, being in the thick of it, my husband tends to talk with me about the negative aspects of Japanese education and the way that Japanese raise their children (he has to release his frustration somewhere). There are, of course, good aspects. For example, yes, it's true that a Japanese student will be roughly two years ahead of his American counterpart in the US in math, but I am not so sure that Japanese education overall is a standard that Americans ought to hold up as something to aspire to (which is one reason we chose to homeschool - admittedly, I may be a little biased).

    I don't think it's true that Japanese parents don't educate their children much at home before school. About twenty years ago "free play" kindergartens (kindergarten here is 3K-5K) were in fashion, but the more extreme examples of that are not around much anymore.

    Now days moms want their kids to leave kindergarten with a good start in reading, and many kindergartens offer English and other classes as well.

    I know I receive a ton of junk mail advertising resources for "school prep" for pre-school aged children (starting at babyhood). Many mothers may not feel they can adequately teach their own pre-schooler at home, but most mothers utilize those materials and/or have their children in at least one outside class (English, music, etc.) and many will have them enrolled in several, especially if they want them to get into private school at the kindergarten level to keep them out of the whole cram school/entrance exam craziness later on.

    The Age of Innocence idea is probably reflected more in the disciplining of behavior (or lack there of). One thing that really struck me the first time I entered a Japanese school was the noise level. No lining up with little fingers over lips there! The kids were running through the halls during their break times, and at any other time they may be passing through the halls.

    The Japanese may still churn out the test results, but the classroom atmosphere in many public schools is increasingly horrible. My close friend spent nearly every free moment at her kids' school the last couple of years because of the bullying situation and out of control classrooms.

    Maybe the author shouldn't have tried to lump Japanese and Chinese together? The cultures are more closely related than say Japanese and American, but there are many differences, too.

    Sorry to barge in and rant for so long! Very interesting post for me! Now I'm off to read some more posts.

  2. Sue,

    That is fascinating -- thank you very much for commenting from that perspective of inside experience of the Japanese educational system (and homeschooling).

    In the book, the authors did separate Sendai and Beijing from each other in the graphs, but not so much so in the comparisons. I did wonder since I know enough about China and Japan to know that they do not exactly correlate culturally.


I would love to hear your thoughts on this!