If you didn’t, then I recommend you read on! This blog post is an attempt to distill the main messages of a book titled ‘The Learning Gap‘ which was written by two researchers called Harold Stevenson and James Stigler. The reason I read this book was because ED Hirsch mentioned these researchers and their work in documenting and analysing teaching and learning in the Far East, so I naturally followed the trail. Their book is a summation of observations and analyses over many years, involving thousands of children and thousands of hours of lessons in elementary schools in Japan, Taiwan and China and compared to typical American education; it’s taken me a long time to read and it’s been one heck of a journey for me because it is so full of fascinating detail! I’ve attempted to summarise my notes into a few key points in order to then write about how their insight has made me and my vision for traditional primary education evolve. Here is that (ham-fisted*) summation:
- The stereotypes about children in the Far East (FE) being docile, stressed, recipients of rote learning and forced to receive academic education from a very early age are completely wrong
- Research shows that East Asian (EA) children are very happy at school and they also read much more for pleasure
- EA children do study more and experience more competition, but they also have more frequent and longer break times (10-15 mins between lessons and up to 1.5 hours at lunch)
- EA children are actually better at maths; American parents think their children are great at maths when in fact US children are really not that good
- The school day and academic year are much longer in the FE, with the terms/holidays spread out a bit more
- In the home, the typical EA child will have a desk and do homework every day, even if this means parents go without, although they watch TV and play just as much as US children
- EA newspapers typically have children’s sections and magazines. Children love to do the puzzles in them.
- A typical elementary classroom in the FE will contain 38-50 children but will be more orderly than a US classroom. This is because at the start of their education children are explicitly taught routines and transition procedures. Children also do chores and eat in their classroom which eliminates the need for cleaners and lunchtime supervisors.
- The EA teacher is the leader and teaches the whole class, seeking to involve every pupil with good questioning. In the US, ‘working at own pace’ invariably means working alone most of the time and having much less interaction with the class teacher (who divides herself between groups and individuals).
- Children in Japan are put in a designated han, which is a small, mixed ability group of children that they form close bonds and a collective identity in.
- Attendance at cram school in the FE is not as frequent as people assume, and children tend to do non-academic courses there, or learn how to use the Soroban
- The researchers found that class size and old fashioned buildings clearly don’t limit progress and achievement
- American parents tends to abdicate responsibility when their children start school, whereas EA parents get more involved
Conception of childhood
- EA parents believe in an ‘age of innocence’, with laid back parenting to the age of 6 and then an ‘age of reasoning’, with full-on parenting (as this transition is deemed long and arduous). In terms of schooling, this means they have ‘pre-school’ experiences right up until the first grade at elementary school. This contrasts with our EYFS and the American Kindergarten system that introduces academic learning earlier
- EA pre-schools focus on play, singing and games
- US pupils are academically ahead of EA pupils at kindergarten age, but drop well behind at elementary age
- EA parents believe that parents and teachers should work together, whereas US parents believe schools should take on more and more of the responsibility of raising children
- In the FE, children will take home a notebook each day for parents and teachers to comment in. Teachers will also use this to send home information about frequent test results and there will be summaries of what has been learned.
Socialisation and attitudes
- EA legends and heroes such as Ninomiya Kinjiro help to instill in children the importance of social and personal responsibility as well as concept of achievement being due to working hard. Children are told stories about these heroes and hear about them in books, magazines and on TV.
- Class routines and study skills (such as how to take notes) are explicitly taught right at the beginning of elementary school in the FE. This helps the child to cooperate well in the classroom with fellow pupils and the teacher, thus maximising learning.
- EA children are taught folk stories and proverbs that emphasise that hard work is what matters most; this way of thinking is a manifestation of the Confucian belief in the importance of knowledge and study to the point of mastery as a route to personal betterment. EA parents and teachers believe there are no excuses for lack of progress and that what is needed is more effort/time/teaching to catch up.
- US children internalise that ability and skill is an innate quality, leading to low achievers giving up and high achievers thinking that they don’t need to make an effort to do well
- The EA elementary school is academic in its focus, whereas the American school focuses more on self-esteem and individual personality
Organisation of school, curriculum and classroom
- EA schools are pretty spartan in comparison with US schools, and EA elementary schools can have up to 4500 students!
- Central/government level organisation of the curriculum is a key feature in the FE, with even individual lessons specified. The subjects, and how many hours to be devoted to each subject, will also be specified.
- Central organisation of the curriculum helps to guarantee continuity of education for each child and ensures successive teachers build on what has been taught previously, with no opportunity for gaps in learning to open up
- The content of the textbooks in the FE are the responsibility of the governments too and they’re not as distracting as textbooks used in the US. Chapters will not be skipped (unlike in the US).
- EA children spend 1500-3000 hours more at elementary school compared to US children. However, they have more time for breaks, a longer lunch hour and this extra time also includes extra curricular activities. As such, EA children have more opportunities for socialisation.
- EA teachers are ‘at school’ pretty much the whole way through the year, as the academic year is longer and spaced more evenly.
- Even though class sizes are bigger in FE, children have more time with the teacher because of whole-class teaching.
- EA Whole-class teaching is more of a ‘ping pong’ style (as one researcher put it), with a flow of teaching-problem solving-questioning-doing going on between teacher and pupils.
- EA children face the front, not each other.
- An enormous amount of time, both in absolute and relative terms, is wasted in US classrooms due to inappropriate activity, lack of transition efficiency, interruptions, waiting for children and off-task behaviour. In contrast, EA classrooms are extremely efficient and learning time is nearly 100% of the lesson.
- EA children are not put onto different academic ‘tracks’
- US teachers prefer teaching creative subjects and more likely to not like teaching maths. This may be the reason why US teachers de-emphasise maths lessons relative to EA teachers. EA teachers love teaching maths.
- EA teachers have significantly more training, more support from parents and society, higher social status, better remuneration and more CPD than US teachers
- In Japan, there is a system of apprenticeship leading to master teacher status as well as collaboration via teaching hubs
- US teachers have more autonomy but this comes at a price – isolation.
- US teachers also isolated due to being chained to the chalkboard all day long. This contrasts with Chinese situation of 3-4 hr teaching requirements with the rest of the time allowed for intervention, collaboration and preparation of great lessons
- Among other qualities investigated, the researchers found an emphasis on clarity as a teacher attribute in the FE, but in the US teachers are judged more skillful if they are sensitive.
- Teaching ability is seen as innate, like an ‘art’, in the US, but something that can be worked on and mastered in the FE.
- EA teachers don’t really have to deal with ‘problem children’ as teachers have to do in the US. In the US teachers are more likely to be expected to take on the parental/counselor role.
- US Parents are more likely to side with their children and seek to undermine the US teacher. The EA teacher has much more support.
- The US teacher has full responsibility for discipline, but in the FE the discipline is done by the children themselves!
Lesson design and progress
- Studies have concentrated on maths because maths teaching is assumed to transcend cultural differences (this makes me wonder whether, in addition to the legendary ‘Shanghai maths’, there is also an undiscovered ‘Shanghai Geography’ and ‘Shanghai History’ for example)
- EA children are, contrary to popular opinion, very much active participants in lessons
- Typical EA maths lessons start with a problem, proceed sort of like a story and then end with a solution to the very first problem. As such, there is a real coherence and ‘flow’ with children being taken on a learning journey by and with the teacher
- EA lessons are not interrupted. In the US, constant interruptions threaten the coherence of lessons and these interruptions are from the teacher through constant comments, children via off-task behaviour/chatting and by administrators (for example, coming in to ask about lunch choices).
- EA children’s bookwork is interspersed more frequently with teaching/questioning, whereas US children are expected to endure longer periods of ‘seatwork’
- EA teachers’ questions are designed to promote thinking by requiring explanation and reasoning, utilising ‘wrong’ answers in the teaching process. US teachers’ questions are designed to get the right answer.
- EA teachers have the time (because they teach fewer lessons) and the energy (because they don’t have to constantly deal with behaviour) to plan coherent, excellent lessons
- Each EA child has a ‘mathset’ with tiles, clock, ruler, beads (and other items) that are used frequently in lessons. Teachers don’t seek to vary these items for ‘interest’ unlike US teachers who might use sweets for example.
- EA teachers give less praise because this cuts of discussion and they focus more on errors in order to explain misconceptions
- EA teachers encourage the children to ‘slow down and think’ before answering, and they focus on fewer problems. This ‘slow learning’ also extends to reading lessons, where one story might be the focus for a whole month.
This book was an absolute revelation and I am immediately thinking about how I’m going to try and make more of an effort to create questions to get children to think (easier said than done for most primary teachers I reckon) and give explanations and reasoning. I’ve also become increasingly aware that my lessons lack that higher level coherence that is clearly evident in EA lessons, but then when you think about all the extra things I have to do (with less time) compared to the EA teacher, it’s no surprise. If I’m creating or finding resources constantly, then there is less thinking time and energy left over to make sure they all link seamlessly to each other and the lesson ‘story’. I have a student starting with me on Monday and I think I might try to use the opportunity to work with him to maximise lesson coherence and ‘flow’. I’d also like to experiment with ditching ‘carpet time’ and try to make my maths lessons more Shanghai style as much as possible (there is logistical and ideological opposition to this at my school).
My next blog post will illustrate the bigger picture that I am building and how I might use the wisdom and expertise to be found in the Far East to redesign a primary school classroom environment, curriculum and teaching process.
Let’s think about how we can change our primary schools
Who’s with me?
*Yes, there’s less nuance, so I recommend you read the book if you want more detail and interpretation!