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The Paradox of the Chinese Learner

Tomorrow's Teaching and Learning

Message Number: 
845

One suggestion is that this superior ability of Chinese students to use memorization to assist in concept development stems from their very earliest experiences of language learning as children. Chinese (also Korean and Japanese) mothers are reported to use more verbs and other relational words in the "baby talk" they address to their infants and fewer nouns, while English-speaking mothers use more nouns and focus more on object naming.

Folks:

The posting below looks at the role of cultural influences on student learning. It is an excerpt by the author, Robert DeHaan, from Chapter 7, "National cultural influences on higher education", which traces the impact of national historical roots and cultural context on higher education today in India, China, and the U.S. The chapter is from the book, Education for Innovation: Implications for India, China and America, (Eds. R.L. DeHaan and K.M.V. Narayan), Rotterdam, Sense Publishers, pp. 133-165, 2008. http://www.sensepublishers.com. © 2007 Sense Publishing. Reprinted with permission.

Robert L. DeHaan, Ph.D. is the C. H. Candler Professor, Emeritus, Senior Science Advisor Division of Educational Studies, Emory University, Atlanta, GA 30322. The full chapter, with references, is available from the author by writing to him at: .

Regards,

Rick Reis

reis@stanford.edu

UP NEXT: Working Effectively with the Dean

Tomorrow's Teaching and Learning

 

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The Paradox of the Chinese Learner

 

The image of students from Asian cultures as rote memorizers being taught by authoritarian teachers has led to a concept deemed the "paradox of the Chinese learner" (Watkins & Biggs, 2001). Despite large classes, expository instruction, relentless norm-referenced testing, and a teacher-centered classroom climate which, by Western standards, seem not to be conducive to optimal learning, Asian students typically outperform Western students in mathematics and science. As noted above, this has been shown repeatedly in multi-national assessments such TIMSS and PISA. Youngsters from Japan, Korea, Singapore, Chinese-Taipei, Hong Kong-China, and Macao-China (to date, the PRC has not participated) all demonstrate deeper content knowledge and better conceptual development than American students of similar age and grade levels (Tatsuoka & Corter, 2004).

Researchers suggest at least two hypotheses to account for this apparent paradox. One hypothesis is that Chinese students learn at early ages how to be "active memorizers," how to use memorization as a tool for concept development rather than a block to it (DeHaan, 2006). When first-year students entering Nanjing University were queried about their conceptions of learning, they did not see memorization as a barrier to conceptual understanding. They were able to distinguish between mechanical memorization versus memorization with understanding (Wong & Wen, 2001). According to Li and Chang (2001), rote learning as used in the Chinese classroom "is not mere memorization, but a consolidation of knowledge and a deepening of understanding." One suggestion is that this superior ability of Chinese students to use memorization to assist in concept development stems from their very earliest experiences of language learning as children. Chinese (also Korean and Japanese) mothers are reported to use more verbs and other relational words in the "baby talk" they address to their infants and fewer nouns, while English-speaking mothers use more nouns and focus more on object naming (Gopnik, Choi, & Boumberger, 1996; Tardif, Gelman, & Xu, 1999). Thus, by the age of two, Chinese children's vocabularies contain a much higher proportion of verbs than English-speaking children. Moreover, Chinese parents place greater emphasis on mastery of practical knowledge by their preschoolers than do U.S. or Australian parents. "English-speaking preschoolers must also master new knowledge, but the Chinese emphasis on knowledge acquisition at an early age is remarkable" (Wellman et al., 2006, p. 1077). Evidence is accumulating that these early language-learning experiences may influence a child's problem-solving and theory formation capacities later in life (Gopnik et al., 1996; Wellman et al., 2006).

A second hypothesis that may explain the apparent paradox is that the image of the Chinese instructor as authoritarian may be misconstrued when examined in light of Asian expectations. Ho (2001) reviews an extensive body of literature showing that in authority situations, Westerners focus on the restriction of freedom of choice, whereas Asians looking at the same situation focus on the responsibility of the person in authority to care for the interests of their charges. Where strictness in Western classrooms may be viewed as reflecting animosity or inadequate teaching skills, it is seen in the Chinese context as parental-like nurturing that enhances motivation in students.

The importance of context and motivation in learning is made clear from experiences of students displaced from their countries of ethnic origin. In the United States, for example, ethnic Korean students are usually found among the "Asian model" group of high-achievers. In Japan, in contrast, Korean families often occupy lower socioeconomic levels and their children perform poorly in school (Park, 2007). The inadequate performance of Korean students in the Japanese schools, like that of many African-American students in U.S. schools, may result from factors such as language differences, low level of school engagement, lack of educational motivation, and social identity threat (Walton & Cohen, 2007). But much more research is needed to understand causal relationships in this area.