Educator Schools: Two Ways East Asian Parents Are Different From Us

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Editor’s Note: I’m still reading The Drive to Learn: What the East Asian Experience Tells Us about Raising Students Who Excelbut in the meantime, its author, scholar Dr. Cornelius Grove offers this guest post to school us American parents on two ways East Asian parents approach schooling and educating children differently:

You’re the parent of a young child. You know that a solid education is critical to their future. But, right now, the U.S. ranks 17th in education, behind not only Asian nations but many Western nations too – even Russia. So what, as a parent, can you do?


For your child, you are probably taking all the steps recommended: You read to them; you require them to finish their homework; you communicate regularly with their teacher. You hope to instill in them, during these impactful early years, the habit of attaining academic excellence.

However. there are additional things you should be doing. But basic to what you do is how you think about your child’s learning. Americans have a distinctive way of thinking about these things, quite different from how people elsewhere think about children’s learning, like in East Asia. Their children learn more than ours. So how do people in nations at the top of the school rankings think differently?

For decades, East Asian students have excelled in the international rankings, Here are two ways in which East Asians think differently from us:

1. Children should “fit” schools; schools should not “fit” children. In the U.S. during the early 1900s, the idea grew that schools should “fit” the desires and interests of their students.  Educators’ focus shifted from teaching skills effectively towards teaching them appealingly.  Parents began to expect “child-centered” learning and, recently, began worrying that students are stressed by homework. Americans came to expect schools to adapt to, or “fit,” their students.

In East Asia, making schools fit students has not been a goal. Citizens believe that what schools teach is very important and must be taught thoroughly. Students are expected to strive for mastery.  These beliefs are motivated both by concern for students’ futures, and by concern for their standing as worthy members of their education-focused families. For instance, when children finish their homework, they continue studying using parent-purchased workbooks. In these and other ways, parents help children adapt to schools’ stringent expectations.

The East Asian perspective leads to parental behavior rarely seen in the U.S.:

  • East Asian parents view academic learning as each child’s most important responsibility within the family.
  • During each child’s first years of schooling, parents think of themselves as actively sharing that responsibility with their children.
  • Parents don’t simply encourage children’s studying; they coach, train, and drill them so that academic excellence is assured.
  • If a child performs poorly, her parents participate with her to diagnose what had not been done correctly, and then to master that skill.

2. Children perform well academically, or not, depending on their effort. East Asians know that individuals have – or lack – a range of inborn abilities, but they don’t consider this important in explaining children’s school performance.

American parents focus on inborn abilities. At first they don’t know what these are, but they think it’s vital to find out. They provide the child with a range of experiences so that unique abilities can emerge. Parents assume that each child must rely throughout life on the abilities he’s been given. They see each child as shaped much more by inner factors than by anyone’s effort.

East Asian parents focus on a child’s effort. They view children as malleable, which means “able to be changed, without breaking, into a new shape through the application of effort.” Parents believe it’s their responsibility to shape each child and direct her onto an advantageous life course.  They should do this because they understand their community’s values. They can do this because their child is malleable – and capable of persevering effort.

The East Asian perspective leads to parental behavior rarely seen in the U.S.:

  • East Asian parents govern children’s use of time, insuring that a majority of their waking hours are devoted to academic learning.
  • Parents never pump up their children’s self-esteem; they know that self-esteem grows naturally as the result of outstanding performances.
  • Parents actively instruct, mold, direct, and train children, insuring that they know the “how to” of academic skills.
  • Parents don’t worry that persevering academic effort will harm their child physiologically or psychologically.

As the parent, what can you do? If you believe that masterful capacity to learn is your greatest gift to your child, be guided by East Asians’ ways of thinking and remember these five tips:

  1. You and your child are responsible for his academic prowess.
  2. The habit of persevering study must be set early in life.
  3. Insure mastery of basic processes; do not fear drilling.
  4. Pay relentless attention to correcting each learning shortfall.
  5. Don’t inflate his self-esteem; instead, insure that he earns it.

Dr. Cornelius Grove, managing partner of the consultancy Grovewell, is also an independent scholar and author of iconoclastic books on education including his latest, The Drive to Learn: What the East Asian Experience Tells Us about Raising Students Who Excel. For more information, please visit, www.thedrivetolearn.info and connect with Dr. Grove on Twitter, @corneliusngrove.