The Asian education mindset..and how it worries me

This topic has come up quite a few times recently..and well it’s an interesting topic for debate. I noticed it first off myself..and discussed it with a few people which confirmed my thoughts and it was again recently re-established.

The mindset is thus:

  • Don’t question
  • Whatever I say is correct (the person in charge – teacher, lecturer or any authority figure)
  • If you don’t understand something don’t ask because you’ll ‘lose face’
  • Don’t EVER think outside of the box
  • Discussion is for noobs

And so on..the crux is this, when people are educated in this region they aren’t taught to think, not in any abstract way, they learn by rote, by memory. This is very unhealthy and doesn’t nuture creativity or innovation..it stifles and leads to a somewhat stagnant talent base. This is demonstrated by the fact most of the ‘great minds’ go overseas somewhere to work rather than here..Here it’s hard to acheive anything, it’s hard to get ‘new’ things accepted. The whole education system leads to the way the market works here, it’s very hard to get in if you aren’t ‘IN’ , once you are in you are the one…once you have the brand identity there becomes only you, there is not so much market competitiveness..

This is because people in general won’t think outside the norm, ok this one is normal to get and best, let’s stick to that and not try the others..

The example that demonstrated this to me was in a recent class I was attending…the lecturer was an Indian teacher, their education system has progressed to include abstract thought and discussion so he taught in a Western way, trying to spark debate and raise questions..so one time he asked a very traditional group of students the answer to a question, they answered then he purposely made his answer different, somewhat incorrect…I voiced my opinion “I think you are incorrect”, he asked me to wait for my explanation and he asked the other students..again voicing his answer as the correct one, they all changed their opinions slowly towards his, nodding their heads and saying they must have been wrong..

A society of sheep?

I don’t see how the knowledge base can grow as it needs to if this mindset keeps being re-inforced in the education system…black is black and white is white no debate.

I first encountered this whole thing when teaching in Singapore…no one asks questions, apart from the one American guy in the class..no one queries, no one dares to say ‘I think [you/that/they] are wrong’

It’s not the way to learn, well I class learning as understanding..not just memorising.

You need to question, you need to debate, you need to be wrong sometimes and accept it..

As my recent tutor said…what’s the worst that can happen? You’ll be wrong, you’ll have made a mistake, big deal..everyone does it, we are all human after all.

If you go to a class, PLEASE ask questions. If not it makes it very difficult for us (the teacher) to conduct an interactive class..

PLEASE question things, don’t be spoonfed all the answer..learn to think for yourselves..think outside the box, take the initiative..

Now these are some sweeping generalisations…but they don’t apply to everyone, those educated overseas usually have absorbed part of a different way of educating..and can debate effectively.

The Asian folks I discussed this with tended to agree, but maybe that’s because I am an authority figure? Who knows…maybe inside they were screaming STFU YOU STUPID AHBENG MATT SALLEH

Some people are just argumentative wherever they were educated and will raise questions..

For the rest of you, don’t be sheep, you’ll never learn anything.

It also may stand that I am completely wrong…but because of the way I was educated…I am ready to accept that 😛

How’s that for a first post?

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12 Responses to The Asian education mindset..and how it worries me

  1. seok October 20, 2004 at 4:09 am #

    Well… I agree but maybe another reason is because most Asians’ r too lazy to study so they might have come to the class unprepared.. thus making it embarassing if they ask questions they think is stupid?

    and guess why i think so? coz i was the same back in school! sorry lah.. we tend to like last minute work. well it’s not healthy..i know.

    and here’s ur first comment!

  2. ShaolinTiger October 20, 2004 at 5:08 am #

    The only stupid question dear is the one that doesn’t get asked. Nice first comment, thanks!

  3. lil eye October 20, 2004 at 5:47 am #

    Very True indeed…
    Guess everyone is always too afraid to ask – afraid of looking stupid or cant get it past the BIG EGO thing.

    Some poeple start to raise questions, they raise it inside thier heads but cant make it come outta their mouth. For those who question, they may not ask intelligent questions and in return get no answers or be laughed at, in return thay feel stupid and then it all goes back square one.

    Baa… Baa….

  4. Terenceg October 20, 2004 at 11:05 pm #

    Asians never ask question might have something to do with their EGO. They’ll pretend they understand, go back study like cock, next day try to impress lecturer how much they know and everyone in class will clap.

    If they ask anything during class, and keep asking all the way tru, they might think he’s a idiot. you’ll need a way to make them feel you’re a friend instead.of someone grading their future.
    Treat them a game of DOTA …might help

  5. Michael P. O'Connor October 22, 2004 at 1:24 am #

    I guess it is the same all over! I am from the US and we have the same problem. I got in trouble once for having the gull to question the teacher in class because I did not agree with what she was saying. And all the students would say after wards was, “you know she is right because she is the teacher” to which I say hog wash. Well I don’t care much about anymore because that was 10 maybe 11 years ago, and I don’t have any kids so it is not my problem now.

  6. MattA November 5, 2004 at 3:18 am #

    I’ve never encountered the Asian eduction system, but have heard that it is like that.
    When teaching the instructor can only really share their experiences ,knowledge and explain concepts and theory. Some students knowledge in certain areas may well surpass that of an instructor. Especially if the instructor has not been working in industry for a number of years and those they are training are working in the field.
    In classes such as these instructor lead discussion is an excellent learning tool allowing many to share experience in how particular problems may be approached.
    As a teaching strategy it may be an idea to give the group a problem based upon their current knowledge then brereak them down into small groups setting each the same problem. Ensure that the groups are ‘well balanced ‘ as far as ability goes then set them on their way to solving the problem and as the instructor go around discussing things with the groups quietly and discretly. Then after say half a day of doing this pull them together and see what they have learned get each group to present how they approached the issue and what there finding where. Be a lazy instructor make them do the work (and hopefully get them to figure out they can fly by themselves 😉 )
    -MattA

  7. Andrew Vong May 24, 2005 at 7:50 am #

    Hey there,

    I guess this comment comes 8 months late but better late than never right? 🙂

    Shaolin’s observations are very accurate and I believe there are many books written about this topic.

    I’m an Asian brought up and educated in, both, Asian and Western systems and environment, so let me share my thoughts on this.

    What’s lacking in Shaolin’s observation is the culturural factor. 🙂 In order to understand the Asian Educational Mindset, one must first understand the Asian Culture, in my case, I’m narrowing it down to one of a Malaysian Chinese.

    One of the main differences between the 2 systems, when it comes to the classroom, is as Shaolin mentioned, “face”. 🙂 The concept of “giving face” and “saving face”. When an Asian student doesn’t ask questions in class, it cld be because he doesn’t want to ask something silly at the risk of sounding stupid or that he feels that it’s a silly question anyway, and therefore does not want to waste everyone’s time and allow for more worthy questions to be asked in class and then go home to look up what they did not understand – as Terence mentioned. The other concept of “giving face” is one directed at the teacher. In Confusian teachings, the teacher is one who is very highly respected and way up there in the social ladder. He/She is the all-knowing and all encompassing. In that context, try to understand that it would be socially unacceptable to “embarass” the teacher in front of its students by correcting him/her. In Asian culture, the student may nod and look as if he/she were agreeing with the lecturer but what it really means is, “yes, I heard u or I acknowledge what you have just said” (even if what you have just said is bullocks!@?!). It doesn’t mean that they agree with you.

    The Asian Education Mindset is one that is heavily Confusian-influenced where, as Shaolin mentioned, you do NOT question the teacher and all he/she says is LAW! ;p Yes, I think this is rote learning and stiffles creativity & thinking outside the box. However, what I do find with this type of mindset is (if you are diligent), is a very fast way to get highly proficient in what you are studying because you have memorised it to a point where it is 2nd nature to you as compared to the “understand first” model and then work on proficiency.

    At the end, both systems try to end up at the same spot, to be extremely proficient and creative in your field, just different approaches.

    It’s just like Kung Fu between the “hard” and “soft” styles, they’re just different approaches to attainment of the same goal.

    The Western way of education mindset did give me a much broader understanding and view on things. It taught me something VERY IMPORTANT that is somewhat lacking in the Asian system. It taught me how to think! 🙂 Yup, a simple thing, you wld think but the Western way of education is superior in delivering that type of teaching – the process of teaching me how to think. That being said, an Asian student with an Asian Education mindset with sufficient initiative can also go through the process of “thinking” if they wished to. And a Western educated student can achieve proficiency in his chosen field given sufficient initiative & discipline of doing something over & over & over & over again until you memorise it. 🙂

    As Bruce Lee said, take what is good and discard what is bad.

  8. Tiara June 13, 2006 at 3:14 pm #

    Thanks for the trackback!

    You’ve got it spot-on really. I’ve seen the sheep effect (I was a part of it!) and like Andrew above me said, it is a large part of the “saving face” culture; if you dare defy the authority, you’d get in trouble and ruin everyone’s honour, so best to keep quiet.

    Yet innovation doesn’t come from doing the same old thing.

  9. TreVesco October 21, 2006 at 1:41 am #

    Oh it’s all about the culture after all. Look at the asian countries…. democracy is still some way to go.

    Punishment is most likely the result you get if you criticise the superior.

    So in this kind of culture, you can’t blame that most of the asian would keep everything in their heart.

    But after all, I am all for creative thinking. Memorising stuff sux.

  10. julthefool October 21, 2006 at 2:12 am #

    I have experience teaching in Malaysia, and the respect one gets for being a teacher is gratifying: however, what worries me is that the ‘respect’ — which may be purely formal as Andrew Vong says (“what it really means is, “yes, I heard u or I acknowledge what you have just said” (even if what you have just said is bullocks!@?!). It doesn’t mean that they agree with you.”) — means that a teacher who is not deserving of respect often gets away with substandard performance. In return for that ‘face-giving’, the teacher may then think ‘Well, they have been good to me so I will be good to them, even if in fact their work is substandard’. A cycle of reciprocal tolerance of mediocrity ensues — to the detriment of all concerned…

    Another theory that I have developed is that a lot of students are worried about asking questions, because asking a question means either:

    1) You have not learnt the material properly and therefore you deserve to be punished in some way (not excluding being whacked — in the primary and secondary levels).
    or
    2) You are stupid (and thus lose face)

    Therefore, it is safer not to ask questions.

  11. cheekky October 21, 2006 at 3:06 am #

    my 2 cents:
    ask a question and you’ll be a fool for 5 minutes
    don’t ask a question and you’ll be a fool forever

  12. hint October 30, 2006 at 9:41 pm #

    would like to share my thought on this. agree with what andrew and others has highlighted. i have gone through the exact situation in my study years. would like to add-in that language barrier is another concern that caused all the “sheepism” in it. most of my peers(including me) do not speak a proper english from those days because of our growing environment and education system. without a proper communication skill most of them would remain silent to avoid frustration. we would draw questions if there are uncertainty provided the class was carry-out using malay or mandarin. i am strifing hard to improve it now tho.