Book Reviews

Eastern Versus Western Learning Approaches

Book Review

Cultural Foundations of Learning: East and West by Jin Li. Cambridge University Press; 1st edition, 2012, 400 pages. ISBN-10: 0521160626, ISBN-13: 978-0521160629. Paperback; $32.39 at

Chinese students from middle school to university continue to come to the United States for an education in increasing numbers every year. The two cultures collide in classrooms largely due to the fact that Western and East Asian people have vastly different beliefs about learning which affects how they view the world, themselves and others.

Innovation, creativity and entrepreneurial spirit are attributes that are being discussed and promoted at education centers in the U.S., China and around the world. School leaders in China recognize that their educational system does not promote creative thinking among middle school students. Can creativity be learned? Dr. Jin Li argues in her new book, Cultural Foundations of Learning: East and West that culture penetrates profoundly into all spheres of human life and underlies how children think and act. The notion of whether creativity is learned or not can only be answered by understanding other important processes that influence child development. It turns out that culture penetrates so deeply it affects how we learn, how we relate with others and how we think. Li sets out to discover if the basic learning concepts in Eastern and Western cultures are still alive today. While doing so, she also confirms a well-known fact: students from East Asian nations outscore students from the United States and other Western cultures from a very young age. The deep cultural differences between Eastern and Western societies about learning and development provide the complex reason for this.

East Versus West: Different Learning Approaches

Jin Li grew up thoroughly Chinese even though she has lived in the United States for many years. Yet, she still remembers the voices of her parents instilling the importance of learning and education in her ears: “Having studied, to then always practice what you have learned — is this not a pleasure?” (“學而時習之不亦說乎”) “Continue studying without respite, instruct others without growing weary.” (“學而不厭誨人不倦”) “To know what you know and know what you do not know — this is wisdom.” (“知之為知之不知為不知是知也”) (p.12).

According to Li, Chinese students today have inherited the Confucian learning tradition which holds to the following (p. 14):

  • Learning is the most important thing in life; it is life’s purpose.
  • Learning enables one to become a better, not just smarter, person. The ultimate purpose of learning is to self-perfect and contribute to others at the same time.
  • Learning is a life-long process.
  • The kind of knowledge that sets one person apart from another does not come to one automatically. One must seek it. Seeking knowledge requires resolve, diligence, enduring hardship, steadfastness, concentration and humility.

In contrast, students from Western cultures have a different approach to learning which follows these key themes (p. 15):

  • Human curiosity about the external world is the inspiration for knowledge.
  • A relentless spirit of inquiry into the universe will lead to knowledge.
  • Mind is the highest human faculty that enables this inquiry.
  • Reason (not heart) is the process by which we know the world.
  • The individual is the sole entity for inquiry, discovery and ultimate triumph.

These basic learning concepts are still alive today in both cultural worlds. What is important for those working in the field of education among Chinese middle school and high school students is to understand how different cultural characteristics influence a student’s learning and to discover whether these respective learning traditions still influence present-day learners. Researchers of learning models between East Asian and Western students found results that were quite startling. They found that American children, parents and teachers explained children’s achievement based on the notion of ability, but their Asian counterparts explained achievement based on effort. Based on her research, Li finds that East Asian students work harder than Western students.

One of the more well-known aspects of the Asian education system is the infamous examination system. Many critics of their examination-driven system claim that it is teacher-centered, authoritarian, favors learning by rote and stifles creativity. However, Li introduces us to an expert on the examination system in China who explains that East Asian societies are “stuck” with the exam system because it is the only solution for the situation with which their cultures are faced. Samuel Peng explains it best: ” the Confucian tradition regards respect for and honoring of one’s family as the most important moral foundation for oneself, at the same time Chinese people uphold the moral principle also espoused by Confucius: equality of education for all regardless of their backgrounds. However, those holding power over educational access face a serious moral dilemma when their family members request favorable treatment. If the request is denied, the person with institutional power violates the familial moral code; if the request is granted, the person violates public ethical standards. There is no other solution but to resort to the impartial test score” (p. 67).

Confucian versus Socratic Parenting Styles: The Heart of Chinese Motivation for Learning

Where do children develop their learning beliefs? Are they born with them or do they come from the environment in their home and family? Asian and Western parents socialize their children very differently when it comes to education; this is a well-known fact. For example, in an East Asian cultural context, when a child performs well, his parents do not usually respond with excessive praise like Western parents do. Instead, after acknowledging a job well done, the East Asian parents encourage the child to try harder and achieve more next time. However, despite widespread criticism of the Asian examination system and learning approaches, it is actually the Asian approach that fosters a life-long love of learning.

Li collected data from simulated mother-child conversations so that she could discover different socialization processes for the two cultures. According to her analysis of the conversations, Li found that Western parents want their children to develop a “love of learning,” yet they fear that if they are too demanding they will hinder their child’s natural curiosity. On the other hand, Western parents find that if they are not demanding enough, then their child does not work or meet the standards. In contrast, her analysis of mother-child conversations about learning incidents shows that Asian parents teach their children to understand the value of diligence, extra effort and endurance. An Asian mother will encourage her child to do more and do better no matter how much or how well the child has achieved. This Asian approach, according to Li, fosters a love for life-long learning. In traditional Confucian culture, a love of learning is a moral imperative and is achieved over time by the development of moral virtuesfilial piety, modesty, effort and perseverance. In contrast, Li explains that American students value independence and individual effort in order to achieve “the prize” (grades, income, status).

Confucian Learning Approaches Meet Twenty-first Century Global Realities

With an increasing number of Chinese learners coming to the United States for an education from middle school to graduate school, the qualities of Chinese students have caused many debates. Currently, people have two contradictory viewpoints about Chinese students studying in American classrooms: passive learners, quiet and disciplined versus active participants, critical thinkers with a spirit of inquiry. While Li argues that Asian parents still hold to traditional Confucian learning approaches, Chinese middle school students demonstrate different characteristics than older Asian students. For the most part, there is very little perceived difference from their Western counterparts as they are active learners. They prefer more interaction with their teachers. These younger middle school students have been influenced by Western culture via social media, internet, movies and cross-cultural exchanges. However, there are still Confucian characteristics that persist. Confucian culture is deeply rooted in East Asian families for the better.

Image credit: Les Whittle
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Lisa Nagle

Lisa Nagle, BA, MA, has been working in and around China since 1991. She has lived in Changsha, Beijing, and Hong Kong. Lisa is founder and executive director of Pacific Link International Educational Services (PLIES, which provides short-term and long-term study abroad experiences for youth from China. View Full Bio