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The Difference Between Education in the East and the West

EtiAmmos - Fotolia

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This school year, three eighth-grade students at Rectory School (Gabby K., Mika K., and Tianshu W.) changed into the algebra 2 class with Mr. Washburn. Algebra 2 is usually for 10th or 11th graders in America, so it is amazing for three eighth graders to take this class.

It is commonly believed that the standard math levels of Asian students are generally higher than those of American students. The Program for International Assessment (PISA) is an international test of students’ performance in math, reading, and science. According to the 2012 PISA math test results, Shanghai, China was ranked first, with a mean score of 613. The other four countries in the top five were also Asian countries: Singapore, Hong Kong-China, Taiwan, and Korea. The United States had a score of 481, which fell in the middle of the ranking (36th out of 65). The US scored lower at math, but higher on reading and science.

Why is this happening? Are Asian students better at studying, or are they just inherently better at math? Of course it’s not because they are born with a higher intelligence, but because their culture focuses more on the sciences, whereas the arts weigh more in western countries.

When asked about math education in Korea, Mika K., an eighth-grade Rectory student, responded that sixth graders learn pre-algebra, seventh graders learn algebra, eighth graders learn algebra 2 and geometry, and ninth graders learn pre-calculus and trigonometry. Korean students learn complicated math sooner than Americans. In Korea, they work independently in academic study programs. However, she stated that she prefers American education because students can collaborate more. Students work in groups, listen to each others’ opinions, and discuss more freely in American classrooms.

Notice the middle column titled "Relative Performance in Problem Solving compared with students around the world with similar performance in math, reading, and science."

Notice the middle column titled “Relative Performance in Problem Solving compared with students around the world with similar performance in math, reading, and science.”

The essence of education is distinct in the East and the West. As I know from my own experience, while most Chinese students are growing up, they aim at getting better grades and becoming a “successful” person. So they pay more attention to STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) subjects. In contrast, western schools focus more on molding the character traits of students and fostering creativity and curiosity. Western education focuses more on writing and leading students to think about real-world problems. Nowadays, many parents from Asia have perceived the advantages of studying in western countries, and this is the reason that they send their children to get educated abroad.

 

Note: Only countries and economies with data from the optional parental questionnaire are shown.  Source: OECD, PISA 2012 Database; Table III.6.1c.

Note: Only countries and economies with data from the optional parental questionnaire are shown.
Source: OECD, PISA 2012 Database; Table III.6.1c.

Data show that parents’ expectations play an important role in the development of children. Over 80% of parents in Mexico and China expect their children to work as managers or professionals by the age of 30. Thus, their children generally achieve high scores in school and on PISA tests. However, academic ability is not the only aspect to be considered when we evaluate an education system. In terms of performance in problem solving, China’s score is 51 points lower than the average scores of all the countries taking the tests, and the U.S. scores 10 points higher.  (oecd.org/pisa/keyfindings/pisa-2012-results-overview.pdf)

Eastern education gives students a strong foundation by having them take innumerable tests and by providing much practice to develop their academic skills. However, when these students grow up, for several reasons they generally choose to work in fields different from the field that they are good at, such as finance or civil service. The western education allows students’ creativity and curiosity to flourish, thereby providing a chance for them to reach for higher achievements. These schools guide students to form their own opinions instead of learning by rote. These students naturally want to do what they enjoy, so many students who were good at math in school, would also choose a related job in the future. Whether the Eastern or the Western education system is more effective is an ongoing question.

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