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Teaching Styles: We Should Pay Attention to Asia

Jordan Catapano

The results are in from 2013, and according to the World Top 20 Educational Systems, Japan ranks number one in the world in education, with countries like China, South Korea, Hong Kong and Singapore following closely behind.

The World Top 20, parented by the New Jersey Minority Educational Develop (NJMED) organization, rates countries based on reading, mathematics, and science performance at middle and secondary ages, preschool enrollment rates, and secondary and post-secondary graduation rates. These factors – culled from data of more than 100 countries and corroborated with five major international education resources – make the results and teaching styles of Japan and other leading Asian nations rather compelling.

Japan receives this top designation particularly because not only do its students perform highly on achievement tests at multiple grade levels, but it invests highly in early-childhood education. Other nations – like South Korea, for example – outperform Japan academically, but Japan’s culture and teaching styles encourage families to enroll their students in preschool programs starting from the age of three. This is quite contrary to other nations – like Finland – that have traditionally facilitated later starting ages for students.

Despite Japan and other Asian nations earning top scores in reading, mathematics, and science, Japan continues to make a strong investment in education. In June of 2013, Japan’s Ministry of Education released its next phase in its promotion of education, focusing on identified weaknesses. The Japan Times reports that these include improving English speaking, focusing on character education, enhancing international student programs, and emphasizing individual student instruction.

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So watch out, world. Japan is poised for the top dog position in education and is making moves to stay there for a long time. By the same World Top 20 measures, the United States ranks 18th.

The results of the OECD PISA test (that is, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development’s Program for International Student Assessment) interesting features Shanghai, China’s, students at the top of the world for reading, mathematics and science. Their scores, along with the rest of the Asian countries, are “obliterating everyone else,” according to the Business Insider summary. East Asian countries, in fact, claimed seven of the top ten rankings, according to the OECD PISA.

Sadly, on the same assessment standards, the United States lags below the international average in reading, mathematics, and science. Part of the paradox is that the United States spends more on education than almost any other country. Per year, the US will spend more than $15,000 per student, which is about $4,500 more per student than Japan.

So what is their secret to success? How did these Asian nations make it to the top spots, and how do we get there ourselves? Andreas Schleicher from the OECD PISA program credits Shanghai’s “emphasis on selecting teachers, as well as prioritizing investment in teacher training and development.” China has figured out how to coax the best teachers and administrators into the toughest schools, and how to support them when they get there.

Another way Shanghai leads the way is pointed out in a CNN report which reminds us that “Google already knows everything,” and it’s not just what students know but what they can do that makes them successful. Shanghai students are not only drilled relentlessly on rote memorization and test prep, but they are better trained to take their knowledge and extrapolate it to creatively find solutions to complex problems. The report also insists that although the American mantra of “hard work leads to success” is regularly broadcast, it is the Asian youth who put it into practice the best, taking control of their own educational futures and diving into problems rather than avoiding them.

It’s difficult to quantify the exact quality of a nation’s education, or to precisely identify the factors that contribute to educational success or failure. As Valerie Strauss from the Washington Post warns, there’s only so much trust we should put into educational “data” that can often be inconclusive and misleading. However, when you look across the board at the input and results, there are many ways to acknowledge that East Asian countries are making an impression on the educational pack. The investments and developments they have made to their educational systems are worth paying attention to. As the U.S. considers its next move, it can look east and find plenty of ideas and incentives to bolster our own education system.

How much attention do you think the US should give these East Asian countries’ educational programs? Do you see the US being on the right track, or is it time it changes course to match what other successful nations are doing?

Jordan Catapano is an English teacher at Conant High School in a Chicago suburb. In addition to being National Board Certificated, he also sits as the District Leader for the Illinois Association of Teachers of English and serves as a school board member for a private school. You can follow him on Twitter at @BuffEnglish, or visit his website

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