China vs America
Learning Strategies in the 21st Century

Beyond his blond hair and pale skin, there are cultural distinctions, already apparent, that distinguish my 15-month-old son from the local Chinese children around him. My son is more active and determined than the other kids we meet at the playground, qualities which arise from some mixture of genetic predetermination and social conditioning. 

Before he could sit, my son spent hours clenching his stomach muscles, practicing the type of semi sit-ups that are encouraged at the gym. [ Natural tendencies, however, are compounded by nurture. There are countless ways that the Chinese, in their speech, actions and attitude, work to control and suppress their children’s innate will and energy.

Howard Gardner, the educational psychologist, has written extensively on China. He argues that it is evident, even in the simplest forms of infant play, that different ways of learning begin long before school begins.  When Westerners play with their children, they tend to sit back a little, giving them space to discover the world on their own, letting them follow their desires and determine their own limitations. In China, on the other hand, when children explore, there is usually someone hovering right behind them, guiding their movements and activities.

Whereas North American parents emphasize self-reliance, creative solutions and problem-solving skills, their Chinese counterparts use illustration and gentle guidance, a learning style known as ba zhe shou jiao (teaching by hand-holding). Teaching art in North America, to give one stark example, usually consists of handing out paint and paper and encouraging children to use their imagination. In China, on the other hand, model pictures are hung on the wall and the art teacher takes the child by the hand teaching them how to draw.

Thus, the Chinese culture of education at even the earliest stages stresses the mastery of technical skill, learning through mimicry, concentrated discipline — and the value of respectful conformity. In contrast, Western culture tends to value free experimentation, creativity and original expression. Chinese babies are, in general, far more disciplined than their North American counterparts. Much of my son’s behavior that is perfectly acceptable in the West — fidgeting in one’s seat, banging on the floor, crawling around in public spaces — seems wild and out of control to the Chinese.

Western teachers working at Chinese preschools express shock at the levels of strictness imposed, and the ways in which the most difficult (i.e., active) children are chastised. While this high degree of discipline has the negative effect of making children reluctant to initiate play, it does succeed in teaching self-control and respect for authority — precisely those qualities that are seen to be lacking in U.S. schools.

Friends and family in North America often tell me that between piano, art and sports lessons, their kids are already overscheduled and subject to pressures beyond their years. Yet, regardless of the number of extracurricular activities, the lives of Western children are leisurely when compared to Chinese.

In America, a general rule states that teachers should assign ten minutes of homework per grade per day. The average eight year old thus has a daily limit of 30 minutes of homework. If schools go beyond this, parents complain. In China, especially in the era of the one child policy when the lost opportunities of the Cultural Revolution still have lingering effects, kids are subjects to tremendous pressure. Parents typically assign extra homework themselves and weekends, evenings, summer and winter holidays are filled with English and math tutoring. Even kindergarten teachers are asked to provide extra work. This requires immense sacrifice from parents who must spend hours each evening supervising homework.
Ann Hulbert, in a review of a new book entitled “Top of the Class: How Asian Parents Raise High Achievers — and How You Can Too”, contends that it is Western parents’ intimidation at this staggering demand, rather than concerns over the stresses of a too-competitive environment on their children, that is behind the recent ‘white flight’ from Asian schools in America.

As a result of this cultural devotion to study, Chinese children have far less free time than their North American counterparts with little opportunity for play. North American 6-10 year olds play for an average of about 2-3 hours a day — more on weekends and holidays. Chinese kids of the same age are lucky to squeeze in a half hour evening trip to the park.

This lack of leisure time extends well into adolescence. In stark contrast to the West, the typical Chinese teenager rarely goes out on evenings or weekends. When I asked one 16 year old in Shanghai how often she hung out with friends after school, she shockingly replied that she did so about once or twice a year.

The cultural distinction is evident not only in teenage lifestyle — but also in attitude. North American culture by and large tends to glamorize the rebel and sees the uniqueness of the misfit as worthy of praise. It accepts — and on occasion even encourages — failure. Chinese society in comparison is massively conformist.  “The tall nail gets hammered down”, goes the popular saying. Idioms such as these pepper the Chinese language and are often used to express near universally held opinions. Westerners on the Chinese mainland soon discover a kind of group-think on topics as diverse as politics, history, food, art and travel.

Unlike in the West, in China it’s cool to be a good student and even being the teacher’s pet is considered OK. Explicit favoritism is widespread. It is common practice for Chinese schools to publicly rank their students and test results are posted for all to see. There are even cases of classroom seating being arranged according to rank.