Tuesday, March 05, 2013

David Brooks on Learning Styles: Western vs. East Asian

David Brooks

David Brooks has an interesting NYT article published, "The Learning Virtues" (February 28, 2013), on the different attitudes toward learning between Western students and East Asian students, based on the research of Professor Jin Li:
Jin Li grew up in China during the Cultural Revolution . . . . [but] wound up marrying an American, moved to the States and became a teacher . . . . She has spent her career, first at Harvard and now at Brown, trying to understand how Asians and Westerners think about learning.

The simplest way to summarize her findings is that Westerners tend to define learning cognitively while Asians tend to define it morally. Westerners tend to see learning as something people do in order to understand and master the external world. Asians tend to see learning as an arduous process they undertake in order to cultivate virtues inside the self.
Consequently, Westerners and Asians talk in different terms about learning, as in this comparison of Americans and Chinese:
When Li asked Americans to randomly talk about learning they used words like: thinking, school, brain, discovery, understand and information. Chinese, on the other hand, tended to use phrases common in their culture: learn assiduously, study as if thirsting or hungering, be diligent in one's learning.
Conceptions of the student also differ:
In the Western understanding, students come to school with levels of innate intelligence and curiosity. Teachers try to further arouse that curiosity in specific subjects. There's a lot of active learning -- going on field trips, building things. There's great emphasis on questioning authority, critical inquiry and sharing ideas in classroom discussion.

In the Chinese understanding, there's less emphasis on innate curiosity or even on specific subject matter. Instead, the learning process itself is the crucial thing. The idea is to perfect the learning virtues in order to become, ultimately, a sage, which is equally a moral and intellectual state. These virtues include: sincerity (an authentic commitment to the task) as well as diligence, perseverance, concentration and respect for teachers.
These differences are said to have practical consequences:
Li argues that Westerners emphasize the Aha moment of sudden insight, while Chinese are more likely to emphasize the arduous accumulation of understanding. American high school students tease nerds, while there is no such concept in the Chinese vocabulary. Western schools want students to be proud of their achievements, while the Chinese emphasize that humility enables self-examination. Western students often work harder after you praise them, while Asian students sometimes work harder after you criticize them.
These are intriguing observations, but I wonder how well these really correspond to reality. Plagiarism is so widespread in Korean universities that I have to question the effectiveness of a moral conception of learning. Moral failings are easy to fall into, for one can be successful anyway, sometimes more so, but with conceptual failings comes failure in one's career. Cognitive failure corrects itself; moral failure requires an external critic.

Incidentally, I had my daughter read the article, and her response was to agree that there is a difference in the way that Koreans and Americans talk about learning, that the former do speak about the process in moral terms, but that Korean students don't actually take the moral talk seriously, so it has no practical significance on how they study, and that the one big aim is to score high on the nationwide university entrance exam.

I would add that while the cognitive approach might not be talked about in moral terms, an ethic is implicit, but this is an issue that itself deserves a blog post . . .

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At 9:16 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

What your daughter said. Koreans invest more time in formal learning than Americans yet still mock their peers who are all study and no play. Chinese students, too, ridicule "shudaizi," or "book idiots" who study too much. Ms. Li has been outside of China too long to have an insider's understanding of modern China.


At 9:30 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Thanks, Sonagi, for the extra input -- you know this issue better than I do.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 10:15 PM, Blogger Shannon Hodges said...


Interesting article. I listen to David Brooks regularly on NPR. His article however illustrates the flaw in building a case based on one individual's perception. By the way, any professor can attest cheating is a big problem in the U.S.

Shannon Hodges

At 10:26 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Cheating must have increased a lot since I taught in the States . . . but I suppose "big problem" is a matter of perspective.

Jeffery Hodges

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