You often hear about how the west (specifically the United States) is falling behind Asian countries on all sorts of international standardized tests. And then follows the question, “What is wrong with the US education system and how can we catch up with Asian schools?”
Having grown up and gone to school in Taiwan, studied at an international school (which followed the US school system) in China, and attended colleges both in China and in the US, I’d say I have a good understanding of both school systems and teaching methods.
So is the Asian school system better? I’d say no. It’s a simply a matter of different focuses and cultural norms which shape our society and competitive landscapes.
I believe there are pros and cons of both systems. Here are some of the major differences between Asian and American schools.
*Of course there are many nuances among many different Asian countries when it comes to education, this post is only talking in general terms between the East and the West.
1. Grades mean everything
In case you weren’t aware, we have a lot of people in Asia. For real- about 4.5 billion people, which is more than half of the world’s population. The majority of us lives in huge cities with many high rises and small condos. My girlfriend, who’s from the Midwest, said that the concrete jungle landscapes of Taipei felt unreal to her, like she were in a video game.
The environment of big cities have created and fostered this inherent competitiveness and the fast-paced lifestyle. Kind of like walking in the streets of the Big Apple where you felt the pace is much quicker. When you have this many people, standardize testing and curriculum are to be an easy and quick way to find out who is better.
I remember growing up that it’s always about what grades I am getting. If I got 90%+, I would get rewarded with extra time watching TV or reading comic books. If I didn’t do well, I would be punished with a slap on the palms or butt by my parents. And yes, it did hurt.
Parents and teachers would always emphasize the importance of good grades, which could put a ton of pressure on the kids. “If you don’t get good grades, you won’t get into good schools, then you won’t get a good job and may end up on the streets alone”, you would hear something along these lines if you grew up in Asia.
2. After-school tutoring sessions or private academies are just part of the student life
After-school tutoring/academies are the norm in Asia, and they tend to be a lot stricter than regular school.
I remember the days where the tutors would literally whip you in the palms with a bundle of bamboo sticks if you were to fail a test or get below a certain score. The number of whips is based on how hard you failed. Trust me, it hurts really bad and makes your hands swollen like you got eaten up by mosquitos in a tropical rain forest. Could you imagine they doing this in America? It would go viral and be followed followed by numerous law suits and actions from human rights groups.
The tutoring subjects for after school programs range from your typical mathematics, chemistry, English, Physics to music lessons such as piano, violin, and ballet lessons. The students would rotate these subjects through out weeknights and weekends.
Yes, stereotypes are true and my parents made me learn piano for six years just so I would have an advantage.
Below is an entertaining documentary by BBC that immersed three Scottish students to the student life in South Korea, and they were totally overwhelmed at the rigorous schedules that Korean students had to go through.
I had an easier time keeping up with grades until I get to high school where I was preparing for the Entry Examination to get into Chinese colleges. The Entry Examination is the equivalent of SAT for Chinese colleges, except this is literally the only thing (which takes place once a year) that the school evaluate you to see whether you get in or not. Each university has a threshold that you would have to hit, and you would have to choose/select your top three schools (by tiers) before you even take the test. So you if bomb the test so fall short by even just a little bit, you would have to say goodbye to your dream school and go to a tier 2 or 3 school. You only get one shot or you can wait for another year to take the exam.
Consider you are preparing all four years of high school for this one and only test that takes place over the course of three days, the pressure and intensity as well as the amount of studying we had to put in was really living hell.
In the US, you have the option to apply to as many schools as possible and the SAT (or ACT) is not the only determining factor. They look at overall GPA, extracurricular activities, leadership skills, essay writing, and even volunteer hours.
3. Teachers reign supreme in Asia
The relationship between the students and teachers are quite different in Asia. Here, the teacher is seen as the authority, and the students are supposed to follow whatever the teacher says. Having different ideas or challenging the textbooks are not encouraged and could seemed as being disrespectful to the teachers.
In the US, the relationship between teachers and students are a lot more casual to the point where in some instances the teachers are not respected or the students would take advantage of the teachers.
When I first started attending international schools in Shanghai, I was amazed how some students would call their instructors by their first name. You would probably get a slap on the face or go straight to detention if you called a Chinese teacher by their first name. Teachers tend to joke around a lot less (if at all) in Asia, and when they walk into the classroom, they meant business. This somehow translate to the overall culture how Asian people can seemed more serious at times.
Regardless of the seriousness of teachers in Asia, it teaches respect and appreciations for the teachers. Teacher’s Day is a really big holiday (though not a national holiday) where students and adults alike will show appreciation for their favorite teachers in the form of flowers or spending time with them. Adults would often go back to the campus and surprise their teachers while catching up.
4. Uniform and Disciplines
Students in Asia are required to wear uniforms all the way from grade school to high school. There are two types of uniforms, formal and sports wear. Typically you would wear the formal one 3-4 times a week and the sports wear are reserved for P.E. class days. Each school has their own uniforms, so you really do get a sense of pride walking on the streets as it’s easily identifiable.
In addition to uniforms, there are rules about overall appearances. For example, guys are not allowed long hairs, and no one is allowed to dye their hair. Excessive piercings are also not okay.
From an early age (since kindergarten I believe), kids would be assigned tasks in school. Such as watering plants, cleaning black boards, sweeping and mopping floors, delivering lunches to fellow students…etc. We would rotate these tasks and work together as a team.
Asian schools are very structured, and it teaches us disciplines from day one. It fosters an environment where everyone has a role and participate to contribute. The downside in my opinion would be the lack of individuality. It is a great example of how being different is not necessarily a good thing in Asia.
5. Asian Colleges are Wayyy Cheaper than the US
As people are despairing about US student debt surpassing the $1 trillion mark, Asian colleges are at least a lot more affordable, and people are typically student-debt free.
When I attended Renmin (People’s) University of China in Beijing, my 1st year boarding cost was a whopping $800 USD per year. Tuition and other expenses were less than $3,500 USD per year.
Recognizing the importance of China, Billionaire and co-founder of the Blackstone Group, Stephen Schwarzman created the coveted Schwarzman Scholars program which takes place Tsinghua University in Beijing.
Since China is becoming a superpower, maybe you should consider getting a degree or perhaps a dual degree from China. Not only would it give you a career advantage, your wallet would thank you too. Chinese language fluency on your resume? Check!
Asian educations are very test and grades oriented as students put in countless hours to study (as much as 16 hours a day, 7 days a week), that why Asian countries tend to lead in exam scores especially in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). At the same time, Asian teachers push student’s limits and train them to have strong disciples. The dedication and hard work undeniably translate into strong work ethics that are ingrained in the Asian culture.
The education in the United States focuses equally on extra curricular activities, interest development and embraces individuality which are not seen in Asian schools and perhaps somehow discouraged. The relationships between students and teachers are a lot more laid back in the west, which cultivate conversations and explorations.
People thrive in different environments, thus it’s difficult to say which education system is better. Perhaps we can learn and benefit from the best part of both worlds and find out that would work best for you and your family.