Sunday, July 26, 2009

Education Differences in the U.S. and China

About two weeks ago, I attended a conference "Putting the World into World-Glass Education", hosted by the Asia Society. The conference aimed to "bring together K-12 educators, policymakers and resource providers to focus on developing American students' global competencies."

During the conference, I went to different presentations and was excited to see so many schools across the country focusing on global education through language learning, culture education and study tours. One session, "Singapore Math in the U.S. Classrooms," made me think again about the differences in education between the U.S. and China. In that presentation, two presenters introduced Singapore Math methods, as well as the education system in Singapore. They talked about how government supports teachers and students, and how students learn math and other subjects. Everyone in the room wished for a similar system in the U.S.

Singapore Math focuses on teaching math basics step by step and having students practice these basics on a daily basis -- in many ways very similar to what we did and are still doing in China. While the participants were puzzled with the math problems for 6th graders, I was wondering if the Singapore Math or education system is really the direction the U.S. math teaching and education should go. Yes, maybe Singapore's and China's education systems are great for teaching math, but how about creativity, innovation, and social skills? If a country lacks these skills but has plenty of math skills, will it lead to global competency?

On another side, I really feel math education in the U.S. is behind international standards. My son has not learned much math in his elementary school, at least not like we did in school, with endless math drilling in the classroom and at home. Having seen his math book and homework, I understand why Americans cannot do math. But do we really use math on a daily basis at work? I only realized that when I started ChinaSprout-- it's not because we need math to calculate sales, but we use math to guide logical thinking to improve the business. Luckily, my son has been practicing math at Kumon since he was six years old and has started learning Singapore math in his middle school.

Nevertheless, I do think creativity, innovation and social skills are more important than math skills and unfortunately, China and Singapore are lacking such education or promotion. If U.S. education is behind international standards, how could the U.S. have the innovative technology and creative people that made it a world leader of technology and creative arts? Interestingly, the plenary guest speaker in the following day's session answered some of my questions.

Professor Zhao Yong from Michigan State University shared his studies about "Catching Up or Keeping the Lead: American Education in the Age of Globalization" with the audience. He showed us statistics that American math skills in secondary schools were among the second to last position in international standards 4o years ago, but the U.S. now has one of the highest living standards among countries. Why is that? He talked about 3 Ts: Technology, Talent, and Tolerance. He said the U.S. has the most advanced technology and focus on developing technology, and the U.S. education system discovers and encourages talents and tolerates differences among students, regardless their of backgrounds or whether they think differently. He also gave us the example of the talent shows that his daughter's elementary school has. In these talent shows, there are no standards, no rankings, no prices; students can just show whatever talents they have.

Professor Zhao Yong also showed us some photos of Chinese moms holding the certificates of their children passing the Olympic math contests, comparing the photos of U.S. moms doing crafts projects with their kids. Yes, that's the answer, the schools in the U.S. may not focus on math drillings, but they encourage talents and tolerate diffferences. These are the things that we have never experienced in China, no standards, no rankings in a show or competition? How could that be possible in China? As a result, students in China focus more on standards and rankings not only in such talent shows, but also in their daily school work. And when we focus on such standards and rankings, how can students be creative and innovative and tolerate differences?

For awhile, I have been wondering why the U.S. education seems behind global standards, yet the U.S. has most creative and innovative people in the world. Now I think I understand much better why this is. Shall the U.S. "catch up" to the global education standards or "keep up the lead" of technology, talents, and tolerance in the world? Or should the U.S. do both, but is it possible to do both? These are the questions I still have, and hopefully you will have some answers.



Asianmommy said...

It's interesting that some US schools are now adopting Singapore Math. It'll be interesting to see how the students' performance changes with this new curriculum.

Anonymous said...

I too worry about the standardized testing that we are pushing on our kids. I worked in the education department at Asia Society for a time. I saw where schools were trying desperately to fit so much into one year of schooling kids. I wondered how can these standards allow for teachers to be creative. Now I see it with my own kids attending school that teachers do find they way to be creative and allow our kids creativity as well. I hope we never lose site of our individuality and the importance of just being a kid. Yet, I know teachers are doing their best to keep our kids on top of learning what's needed to survive in the world they will inherit. It is just the parents who need to support that effort and that support has to be given with time and money--unfortunately may schools are suffering because the money isn't there.

Inspector Clouseau said...

We're fighting too much in
America about local control, teacher salaries, administration, and curriculum content. You do not have the same debate going on in China.

Although both sides / factions in this debate are entitled to their positions, I seriously doubt that any one side is fully or primarily responsible for what is occurring here in our society at this point. It's probably 50/50 or 51/49 at worst. However, I am reasonably sure that continuing to argue and fight about it, without actually addressing the underlying root problems, will not advance anyone's interests. We all should Try Harder.