Most people tell me that westerners can accept more ‘nonsense’ and their schools can be panaceas to parents whose children have difficulties in Asian schools. Some people say that Asian schools teach more academically and therefore stretch our children more – I thought so too, until I became a parent to students from both sides.

Asian and Western

I have always been and still am proud of the education I received, which gave me social mobility, so it was hard for me to believe that there was any good education system apart from the one I was familiar with.

Therefore, when I moved to another country, I used to think hard and homeschooled my children until I found good schools that met my criteria.

So far, my children have studied under the Singaporean, Australian, American and Chinese systems, and to be really honest, none is better than the other, and every system has its own merits.

Academic Difference

The western systems tend to pitch Math and Science at lower levels than the Asian systems, or so I thought. Therefore, I did not really look at their Math syllabus or homework thinking my children should be miles ahead of their peers, until my then12-year-old son came home and asked me about cosine, sine and tangent identities.

He skipped a few classes to attend courses at the university, so he did not realize his classmates, all twelve, had gone ahead to cover trigonometry. This is not a class from some expensive private school but a primary school just five minutes’ walk from home.

The school fee was $0 and there was no waiting queue to register the child as the state ensured all students within the catchment get a place. There was no ‘gifted class’ or ‘gifted program’ in the school, yet the class of 25 twelve-year-olds were doing trigonometry.(?) I was actually pleasantly surprised.

During their class time, they also did Japanese, Robotics and History. So instead of mugging for PSLE, these 12-year-olds were getting ready for high school (or secondary school) education in their own ways.

By the time they left their primary school, they knew simultaneous equations, trigonometry identities, persuasive and descriptive writing, history and geography of their own country.

It was an inquiry based system where each kid was allowed to explore as deep as he/she desired. I thought… wow…this teacher accelerated all of her students, amidst her busy schedule of writing nice school-leaver reports for each student.

Disciplinary Difference

Afraid that my son could not fit in, I had hoped for more lenient disciplinary requirements from the school, yet my son was assigned to a really strict old English teacher who could not tolerate nonsense: no sweet or soft drinks in the school, everyone should sit upright, no talking with the mouth full, no talking back, no calling out, and no asking questions in class without raising hands.

So what did she do to ensure orderliness? With a lot of love behind her stern face.

For two occasions when my son did not behave, she called me in and had my son sit in the office with the VP. They would go through his unacceptable actions with him, allowed him to defend himself to understand his perspectives, and then explain why his actions were not acceptable. It was in these sessions I got to know my son’s thoughts better, too.

As a typical old gentle lady, the teacher would punctuate all her sentences with “Darling”, and start her reprimanding with “You may not know it, but…”

I can still recall the last statement from the VP as we left the room, “I look forward to you putting all these bad behaviors aside and then see your contributions in class.  I know we have great things to learn from you with that wonderful mind of yours.”

Cultural Difference

When my son ran out to play without a hat, the same teacher would run after him with one which was usually too small since he was big for his age. 

She was never judgmental.

Would you believe she made my son functional in the classroom again within three weeks and two meetings. All because my son wanted to please and make her happy, so that the class could continue.

He knew she cared and he reciprocated. It is therefore a misconception that Westerners are more tolerant and in my son’s case, she was less.  However, this educator knew how to handle him calmly.

I have these educators to thank forever now that my son can attend university and high school classes.

Common Objectives but Different Premises

How the educators from different cultures handled the same student was starkly different though they wanted to achieve the same thing. I believe it is because they started with different premises: one believed the boy was bad and needed a punishment to ‘wake’ him up, while the other believed he wanted to be good but didn’t know how.

The latter took three weeks to do what the former could not in years.

Unfortunately, in any part of the world, most of us educators and parents spend too little time knowing who our children are. Not all of our children are the same: some are suitable for screaming at or even a spanking, while others are more suitable for talking to.

Some thrive on challenges, others don’t like repetitive work but think creatively. Yet, both types are gifted and precious in their own ways.

If we do not label and judge our students so quickly, but give them a chance to show us what make them tick, perhaps we will have a better chance in giving them a great education, and it really does not matter if it is Western or Asian.

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