Lessons from the East

Lessons from the East

Speaking at a recent seminar, Isabel Nisbet, of Cambridge International Examinations discussed South-East Asian education systems and culture, and challenged assumptions and prejudices.

The UK should use the experience of very different cultures to hold a mirror up to our own practice. However, Isabel issued a word of caution about drawing conclusions and generalising about ‘the East’, which juxtaposes educationally high-achieving countries with those doing poorly in international league table terms.

There are a number of ‘real reasons’ for high educational standards in the East:

  • Highly positive attitudes to learning and scholarship among all classes;
  • High expectations for educational achievement – they don’t accept mediocrity;
  • Family support: parents make sacrifices, which children feel obliged to repay;
  • A belief in discipline, effort, resilience, concentration and humility;
  • A strong sense of group identity and a supportive peer culture that values study and learning;
  • A respect for authority and the knowledge of parents and teachers;
  • A recognition that education can be tough and isn’t always fun.

We can draw three key lessons:

  • To value education: because of its intrinsic value and as a means of advancement for individuals, as well as for its contribution to economic success and social cohesion.
  • To value and respect teachers: selecting the best; giving them social status; and ensuring continuous development throughout their career.
  • The importance of peer group support for students and teachers. Teenagers in Singapore can often be seen in cafés discussing a lesson, with one showing the others how to do it. They assume that it’s their responsibility to help each other.

Neither the West nor the East has really worked out how to recognise different forms of success rather than dismissing as failures those that don’t or can’t conform. Perhaps to be truly successful, every country needs a healthy mix of both Confucian and Socratic ideals.

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