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When Education is not Education

14 September 2009 14,378 6 Comments

In a recent interview, I criticized the misperception that somehow Americans are less interested in the education than their Asian counterparts. American parents have been said to be not as devoted to their children’s education as Asian parents, so have been American teachers, and the American public. In the interview, I said, I believe barring some exceptions, all parents, Asian and American and African and European, are all interested in their children’s education because all we are genetically programmed to want the best for all off-springs. After all, they are our own genes. Teachers too care about their students and want them to learn, regardless of where they are, except for a few lazy and complacent ones. It would be rare to find teachers who don’t want to give their students a good education.

The difference lies in the definition of education. In some countries, education is defined as “schooling” while in some other the definition of education is much broader. That is why you see the different behaviors in different countries. For example, the documentary film 2 million minutes suggests that the Indians and Chinese high school students focus more on education than their American peers. A recent article in the Miami Herald also says that:

When school officials from across the world come here to learn why Singapore’s students score so well on international science and math tests, it doesn’t take them long to discover the secret — a national obsession with education.

But as a blog post commenting on the Singapore Ministry of Education’s recent recommendations for the future of primary education in Singapore suggests, “education is not education in Singapore but just a huge examination preparation exercise, namely, the high stakes examination system.

This observation is similar what I have said in my book about education in China: The Chinese do not really focus more on education than Americans. They simply focus more on schooling, on performing well in school related tasks, or more precisely on doing well on tests. Americans seem to have a broader definition of education, although some have been working hard recently to narrow that definition to preparation for tests in a few subjects.

And below is an email from a Singaporean mother commenting her children’s education experience in Singapore to a friend of hers, when asked about the topic (published with permission):

I dont really keep tab of the development of the education system here. But from what I know and see from the kids’ syllabus and homework, it’s hell of a pressure cooker (Pl mind my language  🙂  ) I always get very agitated when this subject arises. Too much is being squeezed into the school syllabus to be completed within the term and I just find that the average kids do not get to have a good grasp and understanding of one topic before the teachers rush on to another and then another….

For an average kid, the depth of knowledge and appreciation of a topic is not evident, I find. A lot of reinforcement work is expected of parents and home tutors to keep the kids going if they want to do moderately well. Henceforth, tons and tons of homework and schoolwork are being forced upon the poor kids. When “kiasu-ism” results, academic pressure to perform is inevitable.

I heard that they revised the ranking system to a banding system. Schools are no longer publicly ranked individually but in bands or groups according to academic performance. Though there’s no public individual ranking of schools, minimum entry aggregate scores of schools are still being published, so in this respect, we kind of know which are the good/leading schools and which are not. Is that ranking in a way??? Maybe… So when there’s still some form of ranking, I think academic pressure to perform is bound to be there. Frankly, I really haven’t seen any visible reduction in academic pressure to perform yet. On the contrary, the pressure is but mounting.

Nevertheless, the government does try to encourage a holistic approach to education by placing emphasis on the arts, sports, creativity, innovation etc and moving away from examining Pri 1 and 2 kids on academic performance.

My New York cousin recently brought her daughter Jenny(name changed per the author’s request) back here to visit and when Jenny saw Lisa’s (author’s daughter, name changed) work, she freaked out and warned her mum not to even think of sending her back here to study. The kids exchanged their views on schools and aspirations and Jenny commented that she still preferred the US’ culture and system. Though she couldn’t solve some of Lisa’s work even when she was 2 grades higher than Lisa, I personally find her very vocal and confident, knew exactly what she wanted to pursue in her studies and life, and was extremely independent and mature. Whilst our kids appeared kind of like “nerds” who could probably solve slightly more difficult mathematics questions but could not hold up to a conversation… Sad to admit… sigh…

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  • Jonathan Martin said:

    Dr. Zhao:

    As I have written on my blog recently ( I am curious about your reaction to the new Compton produced 2 million minutes movie, the 21st century solution. What is curious to me is that, given Compton’s vociferous endorsement of traditional chinese education as a model for schooling today, you would expect his 21st century solution school would be exactly based on Chinese schooling, (and it may be). But, that would seem to contradict what he praises about this 21st century model school, here, (, that it ““instills creativity, critical thinking, intellectual curiousity and collaboration.” Does this seem as strange to you as it does to me? Any thoughts?
    Jonathan Martin

  • Bob Lenz said:

    You are raising the right issues – thank you. At Envision Schools, people are amazed by the poise, confidence and oral communication skills of our students (the majority who will be the first to go to college). Over 90% of our students go to college and 100% of the students in our first graduating class re-enrolled in college in their second year. Still, many will not believe our educational model that includes PBL and performance assessment is proven until our students do better on standardized tests. We are striving to prove that students can do BOTH but I am still concerned that collectively as a country we are focusing our reform efforts on the narrow outcomes that will not serve our students well – even if they are proficient on the state test.

    Bob Lenz
    CEO and Co- founder
    Envision Schools

  • YongZhao said:

    Thanks for your comments. I have not had the chance to watch the new video yet so I cannot comment on it. The trailer on YouTube does not say much. After I have a chance to watch it, I may post some comments.

  • Homeschooling High School said:

    Wow. This is a real eye-opener. Truly there is much more to education than what you see in Singapore, China and Japan. My fear is that, although I agree with the western “holistic” approach, I think China is about to eat our lunch when it comes to generating the future workforce – especially the high tech workforce. Thanks for the thought-provoking post.

  • Dan said:

    “that China is about to eat our lunch when it comes to generating the future workforce…” Yes and no. The Chinese model as it has been will NOT result in eating our lunch. They’ve already tried and the results in patent creation and other productivity indicators that Dr. Yong has documented prove the point.

    BUT, yes they may yet eat our lunch. They have demonstrated a desire for real change and toward a more comprehensive approach. Those that are unsatisfied with their status in the world are often most motivated to change. We had better get on the move because they are.

    When I watch the scope of schoolwork for my child as almost entirely worksheets, problems at the end of the chapter, a research paper and a test… I have to ask if this is the best we can do? I do wonder if we are willing to change for the better or if we are more willing to opt for the easier challenge of just becoming test-prep centers.

  • Education in Singapore and Finland: a comparison Part 5 | Singapore Educational Consultants said:

    […] Finnish model is a world class model. Why is Singapore still reluctant to admit that its stressful (read an email from a mother comparing school in Singapore and the US here) model is outdated and smacks more of the assembly line model of school more suited for the late […]

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