Slow learning

Jen Li, who grew up in China during the violently anti-intellectual Cultural Revolution, has spent her academic career in the U.S. “trying to understand how Asians and Westerners think about learning,” writes New York Times columnist David Brooks in The Learning Virtues.

Westerners see learning as “something people do in order to understand and master the external world,” Li believes. “Asians tend to see learning as an arduous process they undertake in order to cultivate virtues inside the self.”

In the Western understanding, students come to school with levels of innate intelligence and curiosity. Teachers try to further arouse that curiosity in specific subjects. There’s a lot of active learning — going on field trips, building things. There’s great emphasis on questioning authority, critical inquiry and sharing ideas in classroom discussion.

In the Chinese understanding, there’s less emphasis on innate curiosity or even on specific subject matter. Instead, the learning process itself is the crucial thing. The idea is to perfect the learning virtues in order to become, ultimately, a sage, which is equally a moral and intellectual state. These virtues include: sincerity (an authentic commitment to the task) as well as diligence, perseverance, concentration and respect for teachers.

Westerners stress the “aha moment of sudden insight,” while Chinese respect “the arduous accumulation of understanding.” (It reminds me of the “slow food” movement.) Of course, Chinese wouldn’t think of teasing nerds, if they had such a concept. “Western schools want students to be proud of their achievements, while the Chinese emphasize that humility enables self-examination,” Brooks writes.

Brooks wonders if the U.S. can find “moral/academic codes” to motivate our students. Could we add a dash of Confucianism (he also likes Jewish Torah study) to our culture?

It’s the Confucianism, stupid

What can the U.S. learn from China’s Winning Schools? Asians make education a priority, writes New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof, who’s lived in Asia.

While Shanghai students are world beaters, the city has China’s best schools. Rural schools are not nearly as good — but they’re improving.

In my Chinese-American wife’s ancestral village — a poor community in southern China — the peasant children are a grade ahead in math compared with my children at an excellent public school in the New York area. That seems broadly true of math around the country.

Chinese principals get extra training for ineffective teachers or push them into other jobs. “Bad teachers can always be made gym teachers,” a principal in Xian tells Kristof.

The Chinese aren’t satisified with their schools, Kristof writes.

Many Chinese complain scathingly that their system kills independent thought and creativity, and they envy the American system for nurturing self-reliance — and for trying to make learning exciting and not just a chore.

In Xian, I visited Gaoxin Yizhong, perhaps the city’s best high school, and the students and teachers spoke wistfully of the American emphasis on clubs, arts and independent thought. “We need to encourage more creativity,” explained Hua Guohong, a chemistry teacher. “We should learn from American schools.”

One friend in Guangdong Province says he will send his children to the United States to study because the local schools are a “creativity-killer.” Another sent his son to an international school to escape what he likens to “programs for trained seals.” Private schools are sprouting everywhere, and many boast of a focus on creativity.

For all their faults, Chinese schools benefit greatly from the Confucian reverence for education, Kristof writes. Teachers are respected. The class brain is admired, not the jock or the class clown.

Higher education is China’s weakness, he writes. But a self-critical, education-valuing culture can identify and fix its problems.

From Whitney Tilson via Matthew Ladner, here’s a chart of  PISA “combined literacy” scores for 15-year-olds in various subgroups. (FRL means “free and reduced lunch” eligibility, i.e., a school’s poverty rate.) Asian-American students do slightly better than Korean students; U.S. whites score a bit lower.

Non-Hispanic whites in the U.S. match scores for Canada, New Zealand and Australia, points out Robert Samuelson. The very low scores for Hispanics and blacks pull the national average down. “Persistent achievement gaps demonstrate the limits of schools to compensate for problems outside the classroom — broken homes, street violence, indifference to education — that discourage learning and inhibit teaching,” he writes in the Washington Post.

In high-level math performance, which correlates with economic growth, U.S. children of white and college-educated parents are lagging, writes Eric Hanushek, who thinks Samuelson is way too optimistic.

Sixteen countries actually produce twice the proportion of advanced math students that we do.  And there are more highly talented math students in the whole population of 18 countries than in U.S. families with a college educated parent.

The U.S. is an innovative society capable of attracting very bright people from around the world, Hanushek writes. But relying on the brain drain is not a sound long-term strategy.