During our nearly 250 years as a nation, many Americans have come to share a set of beliefs about how young children learn best. If you think we do nothing but disagree about education, you’d be correct – but all those disagreements concern how schools deliver education. Now we’re talking about how children learn best.
Typical of most Americans are these two beliefs about how children learn best:
- A child’s potentials will emerge if he is given a wide range of experiences.
- A child will learn best if he explores and discovers things on his own.
People in other world regions have different beliefs. The beliefs about learning typical of East Asians – Chinese, Japanese, and Koreans – have been extensively studied. Might it be useful for us to understand how they think? After all, their children are legendary for excelling in classroom learning.
Americans’ Beliefs about a Child’s Potentials:
Americans parents wonder what they can do so that their young child’s inborn potentials and abilities will emerge and then can be supported. Most plan to provide as wide a range of experiences as they can manage, a few of which will, hopefully, draw out his potentials.
But what if the whole idea of “potentials” actually is limiting?
Americans view a potential as a possibility for future excellence in terms of type (athletics? science? music?) and strength (better than classmates? world class?). A newborn’s potentials are unknown at first, so parents must be alert to detect them as they surface. This belief depicts potentials as (a) inborn, (b) waiting to be awakened by experiences, and (c) fixed in terms of type and strength.
Americans often encourage a child to “live up to your full potential.” A phrase like that portrays potential as a so-far-unknown maximum level of ability that the child should strive for. “You’re learning the violin well. Are you good enough to get to Carnegie Hall?” (Implied: “Or are you merely good enough to play in the school orchestra?”) Here’s the message: If you ever do reach your fixed, inborn maximum, you’re striving for even more excellence can end because that’s your limit.
East Asians’ Beliefs about a Child’s Potentials:
Actually, East Asian parents don’t think much about their child’s inborn potentials. They’re focused on something completely different. They view each young child as having a range of abilities that are malleable – capable of being shaped and trained to become ever more outstanding as the result of the child’s effort, under his parents’ direction.
It’s about the child’s day-to-day effort, not about abilities given by the accident of birth. His effort is under his and his parents’ control. How far his expertise takes him isn’t portrayed as having a maximum because no one believes that abilities are fixed at birth. A child’s maximum is determined by his persevering hard work.
An American saying captures the East Asian perspective. A visitor to New York asks, “How do I get to Carnegie Hall?” The answer: “Practice, practice, practice!”
Americans’ Beliefs about How a Child Learns Best:
American parents believe the best way for their young child to learn is by trial-and-error exploration so that he can discover for himself how things work. This is an example of our individualistic mindset, which leads us to strongly value self-reliance and self-determination.
When toddlers are puzzling through the steps of a basic skill, such as dropping differently shaped blocks through variously shaped holes, parents tend to observe and encourage, only infrequently instructing, demonstrating, or correcting errors. When the child finally begins to get it right, parents’ praise is lavish.
This parental pattern continues beyond early childhood into the school years. Most parents show interest in their child’s academic progress, but their stance is one of observing and encouraging, sometimes disciplining (if, say, homework isn’t done). It’s unusual for parents, in any sustained way, to directly participate in their child’s learning by instructing, diagnosing errors, or drilling.
East Asians’ Beliefs about How a Child Learns Best:
East Asians’ think differently. They view parents as responsible for, and in control of, their child’s learning, not only during his early years but also while he’s in school. They don’t encourage effort, cheer if results are good, and preserve self-esteem if they’re not. Instead, they directly participate in their child’s learning.
For example, if it’s about dropping blocks through holes, parents show the child how to do it. It’s less about instruction through talk, more about instruction by holding and guiding the hand. That’s what “directly participate” means. Parents take responsibility by actively – even manually – shaping and demonstrating. They drill, quiz, and assign their own homework to keep their child ahead of his class. They are their child’s academic coaches and trainers.
Decades of reforms have altered every aspect of how schools deliver education, yet our children are learning only marginally more. The East Asian experience tells us that what most needs reforming is how we think about how children learn.