The Drive To Learn
What the East Asian Experience Tells Us about
Raising Students Who Excel
Who is responsible for a student’s learning?
Responsibility for learning in America
American schools spare no effort, within the limitations of their budget, to make themselves into places that children will want to attend. Many schools are physically attractive inside and out. Most have gymnasiums and cafeterias; some have swimming pools and sports arenas. Some have central heating and air conditioning. They offer an array of curricular electives and extracurricular activities.
They are publicized as “child-centered” places where warm and friendly teachers try to make learning fun and – in order to promote each individual child’s fulfillment – to accommodate their students’ needs, preferences, styles, emerging interests, and capacity for self-expression.
We rarely expect children to gain more skill or knowledge than they must have to become “proficient.” When many miss that modest mark, the adults usually lower the bar by means of grade inflation or a reduction of state-mandated standards. We don’t want to discourage children, overly stress their brains, or damage their self-esteem. As Seiji, the child who attended school in America and Japan put it: In America, “you [don’t] really have to really, really do it.”
What does all this tell us about the degree to which we believe our children are willing and able to take responsibility for their own learning? It’s almost as though the gaining of knowledge is a stealth objective, a useful by-product of what some have ridiculed as “edutainment.”
The findings of research completed between 1970 and the early 2000s strongly suggest that:
• After American children begin first grade, parents assume that the lion’s share of responsibility for their learning is being handed to their teachers. For a variety of reasons, parents step back into the roles of protector, esteem-builder, and cheerleader – rarely that of coach or trainer.
• American children encounter few – if any! – situations in which the adults in their lives expect them to master academic skills or knowledge. Their learning bar is set at mere proficiency. If they attain that and show signs of becoming well-liked and “well-rounded,” they’re fine.
• Teachers shoulder most of the responsibility for students’ learning. They provide an enjoyable learning situation, then facilitate the learning process while avoiding demands that might lead to student mental exhaustion. They’re responsible for (a) presenting the material to be learned, (b) creating strategies that will enable the students to enjoy studying it, and will motivate them to want to study it, (c) evaluating how well each student has learned the material, and (d) providing opportunities for the students to express their uniqueness, such as making choices (which book to read, which term paper topic to choose) or expressing their opinions openly.
Responsibility for learning in East Asia
In this book, I’ve said little about East Asian teachers, their teaching approaches, and their schools. We’ve deliberately concentrated on understanding East Asian students and their parents.
State-run schools in East Asia were pretty dismal places during the period when the research on which this book relies was completed. Most were unattractive, featuring large classrooms crammed with desks. There were few areas for play, no cafeterias, no pools or arenas, no intra- or intermural sports, and no electives. (Some offered extracurricular activities, but these were not necessarily school sponsored.) Edu-speak terms such as “child-centered” were not in vogue.
For reasons that this book has explained, East Asian students arrived at these dismal schools with a drive to learn. Teachers centered their efforts on transmitting what was to be learned, feeling little need to accommodate the unique qualities of those being taught, and no need at all to make learning fun. The students’ gaining of knowledge wasn’t a stealth objective; it was the only objective. And it was intertwined with the equally important, closely related objective of the students’ learning to become virtuous human beings.
The findings of research completed between 1970 and the early 2000s strongly suggest that:
• After East Asian children begin school, parents assume that the lion’s share of responsibility for their learning belongs to them and their child. Parents embrace the role of coach.
• East Asian children often encounter situations in which the adults in their lives expect them to master academic skills or knowledge. At a minimum, they are expected to visibly persevere towards that goal. Their perseverance will make their families almost as proud as mastery will.
• Teachers shoulder little responsibility for students’ learning. They master and expertly deliver the lessons, collaborating with fellow teachers to polish their delivery methods. They do not need to provide enjoyable learning situations nor worry about student mental exhaustion. On the other hand, they do feel responsible for their students’ overall development as exemplary human beings (which is not the same as American well-roundedness).
A difference in how Americans assign responsibility
A mystery of American schools has been why parents, students, and others behave in one way regarding academics, in another way regarding athletics. If we had asked, “Who is responsible for an athlete’s performance?,” we’d be discussing the athlete’s responsibility to master basic skills via persistent drill and practice, to build strength and stamina, to learn from failure, and to benefit from their coaches’ guidance. We’d note the passionate support of parents, students, and local residents.
Yes, a home run or touchdown pass is far more exhilarating than a young person’s getting the top grade on a major examination. Well, here we go again: That’s true if you’re an American. If you’re an East Asian, it’s probably not true. Most East Asians are playing a different game.
Here is the likely reason why we Americans behave one way regarding academics, another way regarding athletics. We put athletics and academics into different mental categories:
• We view athletes as malleable, so that persevering hard work is likely to increase their athletic prowess. We believe they’re highly resilient, have boundless energy, and are able to withstand constant drill and practice. For athletics, we prefer Carol Dweck’s “growth mindset.”
• We view young learners as constrained by their inborn aptitude. We think that persevering mental work could impair their delicate brains and will bore and demotivate them. For academics, we apply Dweck’s “fixed mindset,” then ask, “So if efforts to upgrade one’s academic ability will likely fail due to inborn aptitude, why expect a child to keep on trying?”
Who is responsible for a student’s learning? In America, it’s largely his teachers. In East Asia, it’s largely the student – as her part of the collective responsibility she shares with her family.
How some children learn responsibility
We mustn’t leave the topic of responsibility without hearing the conclusions of two researchers who revealed how children in communitarian societies learn responsibility. It boils down to this: In America, we idealize egalitarian relations with our children, we view childhood as a time of self-motivated play, we give children endless choices, and we tolerate disobedience. In almost all communitarian societies, adults train and expect their children to be respectful and obedient, and to be accountable for the completion of one of the family’s essential daily activities.
Even toddlers contribute, for example by carrying small items from one adult to another. As they grow, toddlers are expected to watch, learn, and increasingly get involved. By the time they are six, they have genuine responsibilities: tasks vital to the family’s welfare that they shoulder without adult intervention. Girls care for a younger sibling and help prepare food. Boys herd animals and help to build houses. Some boys and girls have their own garden plots. Does this mean they never experience fun? Not at all. They find ways to have fun while being productive.
The researcher who gave us “Seiji” (see Discovery Step 9) compared Japanese and American responsibility training in schools. In Japan, pupils carried out duties on a regular basis, including serving lunch and cleaning the entire school. In Michigan, students also had duties, “but the school day did not depend on their successful execution.” That’s the core meaning of responsibility: A duty that others expect you to do, so that if you don’t, then they are inconvenienced or injured.
Amazingly, the research strongly suggests that children with a communitarian upbringing are more self-reliant than American children. Or maybe not amazing: After all, if at age six or seven you’re spending hours each day as the sole caretaker of your two-year-old brother, as the lone shepherd of 30 or 40 goats, or as the harvester of the garden you planted in the spring, you’re not only accountable for fulfilling an essential task. You are also entirely relying upon yourself.
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— Celebrate Woman (@DiscoverSelf) September 6, 2017