Dining with a Tiger Cub (guest article)
Guest article written by Emily Chen
February 2012 (perspective of a Ph.D. student)
In this guest article, the author talks about the need to strike a balance between traditional Asian and more progressive American educational philosophies.
About the author: Emily Chen is currently a tenth grader at The Hun School. She is and will be in constant exploration of the right kind of fusion education. You can email her with thoughts and inspirations: firstname.lastname@example.org
Preparation of the Course: Some background
7 PM Friday, and I'm faced with an impossible dilemma. The clock was ticking and we were left with no choice—it was a code red disaster. Where would my friends and I go for dinner?! We finally decide on the new Asian fusion place, Sens. As we pushed open the door, we were greeted by a rush of smells promising good food—but as our eyes adjusted to the dim lighting, we saw the crowd of people waiting to be seated. We were promptly informed by a nearby server of the wait time—45 minutes. But boy, was it worth the wait: Everything. Was. Amazing. Yet when I remarked on the unique delicious quality of our meal, confusion ensued. My friends asked, "But ... Don't you eat like, Asian food every day? Cause ... you're kind of ... well Asian so ..." My friends were very good at stating the obvious. But they were right. I did have Asian food for 90% of my meals. But that night? Well, I'll let you in on a little secret. That night was better than even my mom's home cooking. It was something different. Not Asian, not American, but something in between, an almost miraculous blend of two very different elements. And I'm not sure what this restaurant's recipe for success is ... but fusion clearly played a part in it. So maybe I gained something other than some extra pounds from that dinner. Maybe I realized this concept of fusion wasn't only noteworthy in food ... but also in something equally necessary in our lives: education.
With the recent release of Amy Chua's Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, the age old controversy over the "right" teaching methods has rekindled again. With America's poor performance compared to Shanghai's top scores on the Program for International Students Assessment, educational experts were sent into a frenzy of analysis. And with the country's current economic crisis, citizens have begun to turn to our schools and call for reform. Today, I'd like to reveal the merits of merging American and Asian education concepts. First, I'll present to you an appetizer on the education system of Asia. After we've digested that, we'll move on the main course: a comparison between American and Asian schooling. And finally, the best part: a dessert detailing the formula for sweet success in our schools. So Bon Appetit! Or as the Chinese like to say ... Shang Zuo Ba!
Appetizer: Importance of the issue
Recently, in order to maintain a competitive edge, American education has begun to shift towards a more rigid teaching style focused more on math and science, and American parents have begun to obsess about education, similar to their Asian counterparts. Yet ironically, these same Asian counterparts hope for more "American" schooling in their country. You see, in the average day at an Asian high school, students are in class from 8 in the morning until 5 or 6, and sometimes, schools may have more classes or mandatory study halls in the evening as well. As for the structure of the class, teachers are typically lecturing to students, and students are discouraged from questioning the teacher or having any kind of discussion. The class work and exams involve primarily memorization, and there is little room for a student to develop the independent thought, creativity, and social skills necessary to become future innovators and leaders. Ultimately, each school prepares the student for entrance exams—whether it's testing into middle school, high school, or college. In fact, there is only one factor in a student's college admissions—the national higher education entrance exam. But is this education system truly effective? Time Magazine reports a 40% failure rate for the Chinese college exam. This high pressure test pushes students to extreme behavior: students have been caught with "cheating shoes" outfitted with radio transmitters, and doctors are known to provide birth control pills to female students to prevent bodily distractions. It has come to the point where government officials in South Korea take part in tutoring crackdowns after the 10 p.m. curfew. No wonder parents in Asia want their children to escape this system that focuses so much on test-taking, this education that kills independent thought and replace it with an inflexible mindset in its students. To increase the likelihoods of their children's success, Asian parents often look to the American education system. In fact, the number of Chinese students studying at American universities is five times greater than five years ago. So let's take a look at American education from an Asian student's perspective.
Main Course: Illustrations and learnings
Say there's a girl named ... Kim. And let's say she's been sent to a high school in America because her parents believe it's the better choice for her education. And most likely she'll choose classes such as an arts course, American literature, maybe a psychology or sociology course—classes that an average teenager would take throughout their high school career. Her first few days at an American high school are rough to say the least—imagine all the worries and issues of being new to high school plus the experience of being new to ... well, the country! Again and again she's shocked by the environment in school—whether it's the discussion based classes or the school's well balanced approach regarding the arts and athletics. The next few years will be tough for her, not only because of the language barrier, but also because her superb memorization skills are no longer able to get her through most classes. Now, fast forward 4 years! Kim has finally made it through high school and when she returns home in Asia, her parents find that she's a different person. At first they're shocked and a little horrified—she talks back to them occasionally and even questions their ideas now. She keeps a diary, writes poetry, and has another hundred hobbies that seem to have come out of nowhere. But then the parents realize: this is why they sent her overseas. Kim has become a free thinker after four years in America; she is no longer the inflexible student unable to apply the knowledge she had memorized for test after test years ago. As she goes on to college, she'll have the amazing capacity for memorization that she gained from her early years in Asia. But she'll also be able to create and innovate. After spending time in the American school system, Kim has acquired problem solving skills and the ability to "think outside of the box." With the best of both worlds, chances are Kim will be a top competitor for the next job position after college.
After all my ramblings, I'm sure you may be wondering why this even matters, why I've just spent ... 5 minutes singing the praises of Kim, a girl who doesn't even exist? Have I possibly been describing myself? Nope! I've actually had the reverse of Kim's education—but I too hope to have this powerful blend of skill sets. You see, I was born here and have had an American education for all my life, like many of my American classmates, but unlike them, my parents introduced numerous practices of the Asian education system at home. While teachers at school encouraged memorization of material, my parents mandated it. When my classmates started learning multiplication and division in elementary school, I had already gotten it down thanks to my parents. There were certainly times when I wished they weren't so obsessed with education! This craze ranged from assigning hours of supplementary math problems to supervising my diet: at dinner time, my mother would often cry "Eat moar fish! Give you brain power so you can ace test!"—a logic that completely went over my head as a child. Endless tutoring sessions would leave me exhausted and even confused at times. But while my childhood may seem rather dreary, through this ordeal I have gained stronger study skills and ultimately, a better capacity for memorization. Simultaneously, I've learned from my teachers at school how to balance my life with arts and athletics and how to form my own independent thoughts. As I spent more time in the American education system, I gradually weeded out various counterproductive Asian ideals—like those draining sessions with private tutors. Take Finland, a country that routinely performs as well as South Korea on the test for 15-year-olds conducted by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development. Yet only 13% of Finnish students take remedial after-school lessons! The contrasting ideals of Asian and American education each have their respective merits. I'm not able to fully compare Asian and American school systems, but I am able to tell you what it's like to undergo two opposite approaches to education. And I can't say what my future will be like, but I can say that I'm certainly grateful for this fusion of Asian and American ideals in my education.
10 years later, after a blur of workbooks, tutors, and lessons, my mother ... still complains that I don't eat enough fish. But she's come to accept that maybe tutoring isn't the right way of learning for me, that maybe participating in a play or swimming for a team could somehow have the same benefits. And so my message is: before you jump to join the next rally for more focus on the maths and sciences, before you write an unhappy email to your school's principal, please reconsider completely upheaving our school system. Yes, I do think we need a stricter teaching method, and yes, I do agree that the quantitative studies are not getting enough attention in our schools. But I also believe our arts should not be ignored and the emphasis on independent thought should never be relinquished. As William Butler Yeats stated, "Education is not filling a pail but the lighting of a fire." As this "pail filling" becomes more and more widespread across American schools, we must be careful not to douse the fire of ingenuity that makes the American spirit so unique. Maybe instead of calling blindly for an "Asian" style of teaching here in America, we could find a happy medium between the two ideals. So the next time you're having a delicious steak salad with crispy wonton strips and sesame dressing ... think about how Asian-American fusion education could re-invent our future.
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Last modified: 2012-02-11