Cultural Differences

I’ve been feeling a bit exasperated lately when considering the difference in levels between my American students compared to my Chinese students.  Overall I feel that, as I read in an article recently, the best American schools develop creativity and individual identity in students who become active and responsible citizens, whereas the best Chinese schools create citizens who work hard and efficiently to accomplish a given task but don’t come out with much individuality or creativity.

Both of these are great characteristics to have in a way but in all honesty in the type of society that I value, the option created by the best American schools far exceeds that of the Chinese schools.  As a reminder, I lived and taught in China for two years.  I completely immersed myself in the culture, learned the language, and completely love that country and its culture.  But it really is true that most students who go through the Chinese school system come out with little creativity (unless this is valued at home or other exceptions).  One of my Chinese seniors recently wrote me and mentioned that the thing he has valued the most about my classes has been my encouraging students to be open-minded and creative, which he stated that he’s realized are necessary characteristics for a mathematician.  This meant a lot to me since that is a big goal of mine each year.  Especially because, and this is a hard pill to swallow, he actually knows a lot of the high school math content better than I do.  But he still really respects me as his instructor because of those things, and that means a lot.

This brings me to my real point here: What about the average American school compared to the average Chinese school?  My average American school didn’t spit me out with the characteristics of the best American schools mentioned above.  And I didn’t come out with the knowledge that most Chinese students have in mathematics, either.  I’d like to have at least had that.  So I feel like it was a lose-lose for me.  I mean, don’t get me wrong, I am thankful to have grown up in a country with those values.  I’ve since learned them.  But, oddly, it seems as if the school system as a whole does a poor job of creating students with those values and if only the best of our schools are doing this very well, then what?  I’d like to say my experience isn’t the norm, but I’m afraid it just might be.

In math I think there is an important exception to these norms: I think that Chinese students actually come out of their mathematics sequence with more identity than American students do in many ways.  No, they aren’t really encouraged to explore on their own or be individuals, but they are raised to trust themselves and work hard.  Their curriculum emphasizes not rote practice, but practice involving variation, meaning a concept will come up in their practice in various forms and difficulty levels.  From the beginning Chinese students are taught to trust themselves and the value of figuring things out for themselves, a characteristic that (in my opinion) few American schools develop in students, but is necessary.

I’d really like to see something in the middle here.  I feel like the positive but serious attitudes Chinese students have towards math and their hard work combined with the creativity and individuality of American students is the ideal.  I know there are many other cultural nuances involved with the Chinese students, and my experience teaching Chinese students in China is interestingly different than here, but can’t we have both?

What’s the takeaway here?  I’m not quite sure, but I’d sure like to help work towards my school being one of those best American schools.  I want to design my classes in such a way that students get the best of both worlds.

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