China, Singapore are 'ugly models'

Americans should stop envying the education system in Singapore and China, argues Martha Nussbaum, a University of Chicago philosophy and law professor, in The New Republic. For any nation that aspires to remain a democracy, Singapore and China are ugly models, she argues.

Rote learning and teaching to the test are so common in Singapore and China that both nations are worried their graduates lack the “analytical abilities, active problem-solving, and the imagination required for innovation,” Nussbaum writes.

In 2001, the Chinese Ministry of Education proposed a “New Curriculum” that is supposed to “[c]hange the overemphasis on … rote memorization and mechanical drill. Promote instead students’ active participation, their desire to investigate, and eagerness … to analyze and solve problems.”

Singapore, similarly, reformed its education policy in 2003 and 2004, allegedly moving away from rote learning toward a more “child-centered” approach in which children are understood as “proactive agents.” Rejecting “repetitious exercises and worksheets,” the reformed curriculum conceives of teachers as “co-learners with their students, instead of providers of solutions.” It emphasizes both analytical ability and “aesthetics and creative expression, environmental awareness … and self and social awareness.”

The reforms haven’t been implemented: Teacher pay is  linked to test scores and teachers find it easier to “follow a formula.”

In both nations, there is no freedom to criticize the government or the political system.  Singapore’s citizenship education consists of analyzing why the government’s policy is correct, she writes.

Singapore and China aren’t producing the innovators their economies will need, Nussbaum argues. They suppress “imagination and analysis when it comes to the future of the nation and the tough choices that lie before it.”

Nussbaum recommends South Korea and India for those looking for an Asian education model. I thought both put a lot of emphasis on tests.

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  1. Korea does. A local university has a program that brings Korean teachers over to the U.S. for a semester to observe in our schools. I often host them in my classroom and the conversations are fascinating. All systems have their pros and cons, but the tendency is to idolize the successes of these other countries without acknowledging the failures. For example, the Korean teachers repeatedly tell me they envy my smaller class sizes (25 – 30!) because I can actually talk to my students during class and help them individually.

  2. J. D. Salinger says:

    Anyone familiar with the Primary Math series used in Singapore (and by many homeschoolers here) will disagree that math is taught by rote learning. That is the typical ed school dichotomy that finds its way into the mouths of law school, philosophy and English professors who think they can hold their own at cocktail parties and blogs. The edu-fiction is that in Singapore and China, students are doing “exercises” as opposed to “problem solving”. If the questions on tests like TIMSS are so exercise-like, why is it that US students do so poorly on it? Oh, I see, it’s because US students are used to solving real problems. Yeah. That’s the ticket.

  3. LSquared says:

    Can I envy their math textbooks and teacher prep time without envying everything? The Singapore math books (the pre-2003 ones: I haven’t looked at the current ones yet) are pretty impressive at getting depth of content: they spend enough time on each thing they do to work up from introductory problems to challenging problems. When you contrast them with American textbooks, you can really see the contrast with our mile-wide-inch-deep and all-things-to-everyone textbooks. I don’t know if the way I’d teach with them is the same as the way Singapore teachers teach with them, but if I were picking a curriculum for my child, I’d be pretty happy with them (as happy as I would be with any of the 4-5 American text series that I’ve spent time looking at–I teach math to pre-teachers, so I spend a decent amount of my time looking through math books for stuff to share with my students).

    Li Ping Ma’s description of elementary math teachers schedules sounds wonderful too: teachers who are trained specifically to do elementary math, and they get a decent amount of prep time in their schedule, and at least some of it is joint prep time, so they can work with and learn from other teachers who teach the same thing. We seem to have this model here where teachers get minimal prep time, and the prep time teachers have tends to be staggered, so in high school for instance, if you teach math, your schedule is likely to be set up so that someone is always teaching algebra at every period of the day (so that students can be scheduled for it at any period of the day). It makes sense, until you realize that this schedule means that the algebra teachers never have any joint planning time during their paid work time. There’s a school in my region that did an amazing turn-around and raised student achievement significantly by giving teachers more paid and joint prep time…sadly, once the test scores were back up, the money went away, and they lost the prep time. It’s really a shame that we can’t put that sort of investment into schools that aren’t failing.

  4. The fact that a country professes concern about excessive rote learning and teaching to the test in its schools indicates very little about whether those schools engage in more of these evils than other countries do. Indeed, we hear nearly identical complaints from US leaders and educators about US education being too focused on rote learning and teaching to the test.

    The real ugliness is in the stereotype of rote learning in East Asian classrooms, which I blog about here:

    It is astonishingly irresponsible and arrogant of Nussbaum, a Professor of Law and Ethics, to make such pejorative comments without actually visiting Chinese and Singaporean classroom and taking a look at their curricula.

  5. God, discovery based learning? It’s largely useless.

    What are you talking about, “minimal prep time”?

  6. So if our education system is so superior, why can’t I hire a high school graduate that can deal with simple fractions?

    And don’t get me started on typical high school graduate’s ability to write a simple paragraph with reasonable grammar and correct spelling. Discovery based learning is a crock, at least until mastery of basic competency in reading, composition and arithmetic is completed.

    The problem is that we are failing there in most public schools.

  7. LSquared: exactly. I always express envy to the Korean teachers for their 20 hours of prep time a week (I get 4 or 5). It seems illogical that we’re going to models of teaching that require more time to look at data and plan instruction based on it — and yet are having prep time actually taken away. Oh well.

  8. Simply consider the source from which the criticism comes and note what the writer fails to cite in her article: empirical evidence for her assertions. She has feelings that triumph over whatever evidence may exist, don’t you see?

  9. (Nussbaum): “Singapore and China are terrible models of education for any nation that aspires to remain a pluralistic democracy.”

    Dunno ’bout China, but Singapore subsidizes attendance at schools other than those operated by State (government, generally) employees. Until the early 1990s, Singapore did not compel attendance at school. Polices which restrict parents’ options to schools operated by government employees threaten democracy.

    Why disdain worksheets? Skill at anything requires exercise (practice). Why suppose that an instructional method which uses worksheets does nothing else? I use worksheets and if you give me 25 students who can do this…

    a = 7 3/10 – 2 3/4 => a =___

    at the start of the year I will deliver at least 20 who can do this…

    {p(88,30), q(-8,-150)} is a subset of line 1
    {s(72,3), t(-36, -15)} is a subset of line 2

    slope (pq)=___

    point-slope form equation, Line1
    slope-intercept form equation, Line1
    intercept form, Line1
    Standard from, Line1
    vector form, Line1
    matrix (determinant) form, Line1

    slope (st)=___

    point-slope form equation, Line2
    slope-intercept form equation, Line2
    intercept form, Line2
    Standard from, Line2
    vector form, Line2
    matrix (determinant) form, Line2

    Line 1 intersect line 2 = ____.

    No sweat, no tears.

    We use daily worksheets and follow a clear path from solving linear equations in one variable to solving and graphing linear equations in two variables. Along the way, students will encounter definition by recursion and proof by induction. If you don’t waste time, you have time for recreational Math and the fuzzy philosophy that so enthrall the critics of practice and rote memorization.

  10. Danaher M. Dempsey, Jr. says:

    Martha Nussbaum of Univ. of Chicago…

    What are her mathematical credentials? Where is the research on which she bases these allegations?

    She need to be aiming guns at her University’s Everyday Mathematics textbooks.

    Martha needs to pick up a Singapore Math Challenging Word problems text for grades 5 or 6.

    Clearly Martha has no idea how a Singapore math class is taught.

    In 2002 Japan revised their math standards to be more USA like. I suppose because they were listening to folks like Martha. Japan revises their math standards every 10 years. On the 2006 PISA test Japan saw among the largest drops of any industrialized country. No Japan has not left the 2002 standards in place until 2012. They are now largely using the 1992 standards.

    Other countries stop doing stuff that does not work.

    To improve a system requires the intelligent application of relevant data. (Evidence)
    — W. Edwards Deming (1900-1993)

    Heeding U of Chicago law professors that talk about math is very questionable.
    Looking at Everyday Math there is a lot of questionable stuff coming out of Univ. of Chicago.

  11. I agree with anon: There is no source identification for Nussbaum’s quotes. There have been numerous efforts by the math reform crowd in the past decade to say that other countries with high achieving students are looking to America’s way of teaching math because those countries are afraid their students aren’t learning how to be creative or innovative. Hmmm. China owns us now. They’ve obviously been pretty innovative in their economic development. And, as that rascal John Saxon, the defiant traditional math teacher, author, and publisher always insisted on the subject of “creativity” in math: “Creativity springs unsolicited from a well prepared mind; fundamental knowledge is the basis for creativity; and creativity can be discouraged or encouraged, but it cannot be taught.” He even had reams of data to prove that his program worked. Go to for more info.

  12. If Prof. Nussbaum thinks that students would fail to learn analytical thinking and problem solving if these curricula were used, by implication it would seem that she believes that our current system is better at producing these qualities. I would disagree. I think that we can produce students who *believe* that they can think critically but lack the depth of knowledge to make cogent arguments. Their analytical thinking — if it can be called that — is limited by their lack of understanding. I think that we need both deep knowledge — which may include rote learning — and analytical thinking. But one comes before the other.

  13. Student of History says:

    When writers like Martha Nussbaum or Linda Darling-Hammond or Kris Gutierrez (AERA and soon to be IES Board) start using the word “Democracy” in the context of the goals of education, they are not using it in the sense of voting and representation that you remember from Civics.

    They mean equal outcomes in socioeconomic terms and are actively hostile to the equal opportunity analysis. I do not think it’s an accident that Nussbaum is adding her voice to a chorus right now.

    To get a feel for what Hammond means by Democracy, read her 2008 report on what the federal agenda should be in education- “Democracy at Risk”

    A ‘transmission curriculum” as LDH disdainfully calls it is inherently unequal as students vary in ability and perseverance naturally.

    We need to start understanding discovery learning in math and whole language techniques in reading as they see it.

    Tools to level the student population and make the outcomes more equal.

  14. China could always follow the Japanese model of taking American innovations and improving upon them. They don’t need to be creative if they are so good at making our creations better that our companies cannot compete. Look around your home and see how many of the Japanese-made items were invented by Americans.


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