Myth or Reality? Assessing the Validity of the Asian Model of Education

By Hawkins, John N. | Harvard International Review, Fall 2008 | Go to article overview

Myth or Reality? Assessing the Validity of the Asian Model of Education


Hawkins, John N., Harvard International Review


It was not long ago that Asian countries were considered poor and under developed. Even Japan, a G8 country and well-established OECD member, was viewed as a struggling nation that produced products of questionable quality after the devastation of World War II. Economists often credit the phenomenal continued growth and development of these countries to the quality of their human resources, the talented and hard-working students and graduates of their educational systems, and the specific nature of those systems. These societies achieved universal primary and secondary education long ago and are now entering the era of massification of their tertiary sectors. It should be noted at the outset that Asia covers a broad regional footprint--one that includes some of the poorest nations on earth. In this article, Asian will refer to primarily the traditional Confucian societies of China (including Hong Kong), Japan, Korea, Taiwan, and Singapore, although many of the points made below apply to other parts of Asia as well, such as Vietnam, Thailand, and India.

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As these economies continue to grow and flourish, challenging those in Europe and North America (to say nothing of the rest of the world), one wonders: what is it that is different about these systems and approaches to education, and how are they changing as the pressures of globalization begin to impinge on traditional values and mores? Can we say that there is an "Asian model" of education? Probably not any more than we can say there is a Western or American model of education in any pure sense. But clearly there are some distinctive characteristics of each that are quite discernible, and this distinctiveness, influenced by Confucian thought and practice, offers other nations seeking to develop their economies an approach that has been tested and found to be successful. For the United States and other industrialized nations, these characteristics create both a challenge and an opportunity to learn new pedagogical strategies to maintain competitiveness in a globalizing world.

The Cultural Question

An educational methodologist colleague, in addressing the achievement gap between Asian and US elementary students as expressed on cross-national achievement tests, could only comment, "I guess we could all become Chinese if we wanted to compete with them." He, of course, was referring to the cultural stereotype that he and many other American educators often have of Asian students, both those they have observed in Asia and Asian-Americans in their own classrooms: they work harder, are more disciplined, are quiet, tend to be overachievers, excel in mathematics and science, and so on. The data to support these observations are available and often highlight what are generally called Confucian traits of self-denial, frugality, fortitude, patience, self-discipline, rote learning, memorization, and delayed gratification. The relationship between the rise of Confucianism and later neo-Confucianism and what might be called an Asian work ethic, an entrepreneurial spirit, has been widely discussed both within the region and outside. Suffice it to say there is a large literature both in Asia and outside the region that finds this correlation well substantiated. From the time Confucianism took hold in the Song dynasty (960 AD), these values spread throughout Chinese society (and other East Asian settings, such as Japan, Korea, Taiwan, and Hong Kong), and came to characterize both formal and information education.

The nationwide civil service examination system and the memorization that came to characterize this exercise drove the educational system and served as a powerful motivator not only for the ambitious but also for ordinary citizens as well. While the system did not work flawlessly, it was in many an open merit-based opportunity structure that by the mid-20th century imbedded the very powerful notion that successfully pursuing education led to a successful and prosperous life. …

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