Wednesday, January 27, 2010


I read this article in the NY Times and it really hit home for me. Although discussing China, this article could easliy describe Taiwan, and from other people I've spoken to, Japan Korea and many other Asian countries as well. A few weeks ago I read Fareed Zakaria's book THe Post-American World. In it, Zakaria argues about the rise of the likes of China and India or "the rest" as he dubs them. In a chapter on China, and citing his own experiences growing up under the educational system of India... he presented a fascinating quote, with a similar message as the article above:

"Other educational systems teach you to take tests; the American system teaches you to think. It is surely this quality that goes into explaining why America produces so many entrepreneurs, inventors, and risk takers. In America people are allowed to be bold challenge authority, fail and pick themselves up. It is America, not Japan that produces dozens of Nobel Prize winners."

As a teacher, especially a teacher who works solely with adults, this quote and article were dead on in terms of my experience.

As an example, in one of my classes not too long ago, I presented some words to my students. Now these were all words that appear frequently of test such as TOEFL, or IELTS and included words like important, necessary, vital and so on. I asked them to simply make a sentence with some of those words and say it to the class. My reasoning was that understanding how to speak using those words will help them know how to listen for them better...and vice-versa.
However, I was met with nothing but silence and nervous stares. All of my students are incredibly smart and have above average English abilities, but something prevented them from actively and creatively thinking up sentences like that. I stressed how important it was to create the sentences on their own but still struggled to get them to say anything. Seeing as how such tests have a speaking section that tests fluency and creativity, one would think they would want to practice these skills. Being a teacher gives me a unique perspective about how drastically the two educational systems really are. For instance, if I want an answer to a question, and ask if anyone has an answer, even though all of my students got the right answer, no one will say a word. Their heads are down and they don't even look up. When I call on someone's name everyone else in the room seems completely relieved. This would be understandable if I was teaching in a Jr. High or high school, but teaching adults, adults who want to learn English to get a better job or degree, I'd assume they would be more proactive.

Being here I've definitely come to appreciate the American educational system, at least in terms of encouraging creativity. I've generally been allowed to make my own decisions and own mistakes; allowed to try everything I was interested in without worry or fear of being ostracized and as a result, I've been able to discover my own strengths and weaknesses. Obviously it's impossible and downright ignorant to try and claim which way of thinking is "Better"; but I can say that personally, I'm glad I was given freedom to think, explore, and discover my passion on my own. I'm also glad that I'm not afraid to be different, to fail or try something new and creative.
Obviously the American educational system has some big flaws, but inspiring creativity and ingenuity, in my opinion, isn't one of them.

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