Monday, September 21, 2020

Book Nook: A Mirror for Americans - What the East Asian Experience Tells Us about Teaching Students Who Excel

 I recently had the chance to review an intriguing book from an educator's perspective: A Mirror for Americans: What the East Asian Experience Tells Us about Teaching Students Who Excel. As a teacher, I always find it interesting to hear about different methods and values in education around the world. As a parent, it's interesting to see what approaches work different for different kids.

As the author points out in the book, you can't just lift schools from Asia into America and expect them to be successful - there are so many cultural implications in the way schools work that it would fail. However, that doesn't mean it's not valuable to learn from other countries.

A Mirror for Americans concerns itself with preschool through grade 5, comparing the culture of teaching in East Asia and the U.S. Among the research-generated facts revealed are these:


·        In preschool and grade 1, East Asian children are taught, and they practice, individual and group behaviors that promote their own learning and their teacher’s efficient lesson delivery. 

·        Teachers design lessons based on the internal logic of the content they are teaching, not on factors such as a need to motivate, have fun learning or draw out pupil creativity. But they do strive to present content so that all their pupils – slower and more advanced – will benefit

·        Whether a lesson is student-centered or teacher-centered doesn’t concern East Asians. Grove’s conclusion is that East Asian lessons are knowledge-centered, a key explanation for why East Asian students outperform their American peers on those international tests. 

I had the chance to interview the author to learn more.

Why did you write this book?

Allow me, first, to slightly rephrase the question to, “Why did you write these books?” I wrote two books, which I call “sister volumes.” They are entitled

The Drive to Learn: What the East Asian Experience Tells Us about Raising Students Who Excel (2017)

A Mirror for Americans: What the East Asian Experience Tells Us about Teaching Students Who Excel (2020)

If you owned a professional sports team that was racking up way more losses than wins, you’d wonder what the winningest teams were doing right. To find out, you’d send scouts to attend the winning teams’ games and, if possible, even their practice sessions. You’d try to discover ideas for improving your team.

That’s a perfect analogy for what’s happened over the past half century among scholars whose focus was education. It was widely acknowledged – and still is – that American ways of educating the young are not yielding “winning” outcomes for most of them, at least in terms of academics. A few other nations are getting much better results – all the time. Fifty years ago, a few scholars decided to go have a look, to try to figure out what was different about children’s learning in the winningest nations. Hundreds of scholars from around the world joined this effort. Collectively, they’ve now published some 1,000 research reports.

Which nations did they “scout”? China, Japan, Taiwan, and Hong Kong. What did they look at? Not only what’s going on in schools, but also what’s going on in homes. What are the main things they learned?

East Asian children’s home upbringing makes them more receptive to school learning than U.S. children.

East Asian primary school lessons are not student-centered or teacher-centered; they’re knowledge-centered.

The scholars also came to recognize that the factors responsible for the differences in outcomes were not simply about methods or techniques; they could not be reduced to a series of “tips.” The fundamental factors at work are about cultural values, about the preferences shared of most members of each society.

Extremely few Americans have any interest in reading scholarly research findings. Yet these findings are indispensable for parents, educators, and policy-makers who are distressed over the state of U.S. education.

This is where I come in. I have studied and digested those research reports, and on that basis I’ve written two short books – 116 and 126 text pages – that, using easy-to-understand language, share the researchers’ key findings with the American public. One book is about East Asian homes; one is about East Asian schools.

Why is it so important to examine the educational systems in other countries?

When reduced to basics, the purpose of the educational systems of the United States and the countries of East Asia is to carry out the same essential task: to prepare children for a productive and satisfying adult life.

Due to cultural and societal differences, what a productive and satisfying adult life actually looks like for East Asians and Americans varies significantly. Understandably, those variances in expectations affect what goes on in schools and homes, the places where the young are prepared for life in their respective societies.

But there’s relatively little variation in the academic skills that children in industrial societies must learn if they’re to enjoy a productive and satisfying adult life. Each one must learn to read and write at least one language. Each must learn some history and science. Even in subjects such as these, there can be minor differences across cultures. But when it comes to mathematics, cross-cultural differences almost vanish.

When the children in one country (or group of countries such as East Asia) consistently demonstrate that they learn academic subjects more thoroughly, and with better practical application, than children in another country, then you’d expect that people in that second country would be asking “Why?” “How?”

It seems clear that something worthwhile is going on in the homes and/or schools of countries whose children always demonstrate academic superiority. If we have a look, we might learn something useful.

How can parents advocate for change in schools?

Obviously, parents have the most influence over what goes on in their own homes and in relation to their own children in schools. On the basis of what was learned from 50 years of research into East Asian homes, I offer suggestions to parents in The Drive to Learn, Chapter 9. These suggestions aren’t “tips”; they’re more about the parents’ values and behavior than the children’s. I call them, “Seven Commitments to Your Child.”

A Mirror for Americans, which distills the 50 years of research into East Asian classrooms, does not end with a chapter of suggestions, either for teachers or for parents. The book uses the approaches of East Asian educators as a “mirror” that enables American readers to see more clearly, in the subtle contrasts, their own educational assumptions. A Mirror for Americans cautions against anyone’s believing that specific classroom methods of East Asian primary school teachers could simply transplanted here. On the other hand, it says again and again, “Look at their underlying values, for they are where the key differences lie.”

Parents who are determined that their child will become academically superior will bring about change if enough of them insist on classrooms where the lessons are neither student-centered nor teacher-centered, but knowledge-centered. What knowledge-centered actually looks like is explained throughout A Mirror for Americans; a 12-point list of the specific traits of East Asian knowledge-centeredness appears in Chapter 9.

Much more information about A Mirror for Americans is found at

For more background about Cornelius Grove, please visit

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