Lessons From Asia for US Education

By , Laurel Shaper Walters is on the Monitor's staff.

BEFORE sighing in disgust over yet another book bashing American education and praising Asian students, take note: "The Learning Gap" goes beyond the well-worn terrain of this debate.

Harold Stevenson and James Stigler, professors of psychology at the University of Michigan, have spent a decade studying the education systems in the United States, Japan, China, and Taiwan.

This book, which is written in clear, nontechnical language for the general reading public, is a comprehensive report on five different studies. Through careful comparisons, the authors explore the differences between Asian and American school systems and outline what the United States can learn from these cultures.

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Much of what has been written about education in Asia focuses on high schools. Less is known about the elementary schools, where Stevenson and Stigler conducted their research.

Typically, Americans have shrugged off the success of Asian students by arguing that the price for such achievement - high stress, loss of childhood, high incidence of suicide - is too high. But Stevenson and Stigler dispel these images. "Such stereotypes at best are inaccurate and at worst undermine efforts to overcome our problems," they write.

All the news about American children isn't bad, however. Stevenson and Stigler report, for instance, that American kindergartners have equal or better test scores than their Asian counterparts. It's during first grade that American students begin to fall behind.

This stems from differences in parental attitudes, Stevenson and Stigler argue. "American parents begin to abdicate responsibility for their children's education soon after the children enter first grade, and they place ever increasing demands on the school," they write. Such findings make a strong case for more parental involvement and support.

Cross-cultural comparisons and honest evaluations of the American education system are rare. Several of the conclusions in this book will surprise readers; they go against common perceptions and assumptions.

For example, the research suggests that larger class sizes, as found in Asia, may not be a disadvantage. "Although the number of children in Asian classes was much greater than the number in American classes, Asian students received more instruction from their teachers than did American students," write Stevenson and Stigler.

They argue that perfecting teaching skills and giving teachers more preparation time are more important than reducing class size. In addition, group work is favored over individual instruction. "Rather than teaching different lessons to different groups of children ..., teachers should try to spend as much time as possible working with the whole class," this book suggests.

Some of the differences between what goes on in Asian and in American schools stem from deeply imbedded cultural attitudes that are difficult to change. But many successful educational practices in Asia can easily be adopted by American schools.

For example, every child in Japan and China carries a small notebook back and forth between home and school each day. This allows parents and teachers to communicate about assignments.

Such practical ideas lace the pages of "The Learning Gap." Another example is the common use of a "classroom leader" in Asian schools. This student is responsible for maintaining order in the class.

Asian teachers regularly rely on students as leaders and sources of information. Contrary to the notion of Asian teachers as lecturers who focus on drill and practice, Stevenson and Stigler present evidence of active student involvement in Asian schools.

Ironically, many of the teaching methods used by Asian teachers are precisely the kind recommended by reform-minded educators in the US.

Asian elementary schools do not segregate students according to ability, for example. Asian teachers give well-organized class lessons, illustrate their ideas with multiple examples, and engage the students actively in the learning process.

Errors are approached as evidence of what needs to be learned rather than treated as failures to be feared and avoided.

The difference is that these concepts are not broadly applied in the United States. "What the Chinese and Japanese examples demonstrate so compellingly is that when widely and consistently implemented, such practices can produce extraordinary outcomes," write the authors.

The main obstacle to better teaching in American schools, they argue, is the plight of overworked teachers. Teachers need time to prepare their lessons, grade schoolwork, and improve their training. Asian teachers consistently receive these advantages.

But, taken in total, "The Learning Gap" isn't about comparisons so much as concrete lessons. The focus is on what American teachers and parents can learn from their Asian counterparts. The best way to address the American education crisis is to examine US traditions and assumptions in the light of others' successes, the authors argue. This book is an excellent start.

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