Differences between the U.S. and Chinese educational systems

Cultural Insights — By on August 21, 2009 at 7:20 am

There are obviously many cultural differences between the United States and China, which stem largely from the fundamental fact that one country has an individualistic view of the world and the other is a more group-oriented society. In the U.S., individual rights and self-realization are highly valued, while in China considerable importance is placed on hierarchy and respect for societal norms. It’s not a surprise that these differences even show up in the educational system, a forum where cultural values are both reflected and molded.

I recently came across two news stories that emphasized the differences between the U.S. and Chinese styles of learning. The first was a New York Times article that discussed the increasing prevalence of young Americans who are finding jobs in China after college. Within the article, there was a quote from a Chinese executive on some of the business strengths that Americans bring to the job, based at least in part on their educational backgrounds.

Willy Tsao, the artistic director of BeijingDance/LDTX, said he had hired Ms. Berman because of her ability to make connections beyond China…Another dynamic in the hiring process, Mr. Tsao says, is that Westerners can often bring skills that are harder to find among the Chinese.

“Sarabeth is always taking initiative and thinking what we can do,” he said, “while I think the more standard Chinese approach is to take orders.” He says the difference is rooted in the educational system. “In Chinese schools students are encouraged to be quiet and less outspoken; it fosters a culture of listening more than initiating.”

The second article was a profile of some Chinese students who are now enrolled at the University of Arizona. The students are part of a cultural exchange program that allowed them to take classes in China from adjunct professors prior to transferring to the United States, thus getting an upfront taste of the educational differences.

The students took classes from UA adjunct professors while completing their senior year at the prestigious high school. The professors taught English, writing, American government and geography, and taught in a highly interactive way that encouraged group work and discussion.

In China, most classes emphasize a learning style of lecture, reading and memorization, said Scott Bird, associate program director with Yangtze International Study Abroad, which organized the group. “Unlike many of the international students coming here, they have an advantage in that they’ve had a little taste of it already,” he said.

If you’re interested in learning more about Chinese and American cultural differences, check out the book Encountering the Chinese: A Guide for Americans by Hu Wenzhong and Cornelius Grove.

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