Claims of East Asia’s ‘chalk and talk’ teaching success are wrong, and short-sighted too

East Asian academic success is based on culture rather than teaching methods. And Australia can’t, and shouldn’t, imitate that culture. Shutterstock

Since Shanghai, China, emerged at the top of international league tables of educational performance such as the OECD’s Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), there have been repeated calls for Australia and other western countries to learn from East Asian countries.

One of the more recent comes from Kevin Donnelly, recently published in The Conversation and picked up by The Washington Post and the South China Morning Post. This article advocated that we should learn from the “chalk and talk” teaching methods reported to be used in Shanghai, where a teacher directs instruction from the front of the class, and revive these in Australian schools.

The problem with such calls is the assumption that the success of East Asian countries is due to specific features of their education systems. Even at first glance, this assumption would seem to be dubious. The school systems in these countries are quite diverse and are certainly not universally characterised by the use of chalk and talk, or any other specific teaching method.

It was always possible that the success of East Asian students was primarily due to their commitment to educational success through hard work. Recent work has demonstrated that this alternative explanation is probably correct. This work compares the performance of children of East Asian ethnicity growing up in their country of origin with similar children growing up in Australia.

It is obvious that in migrating to Australia, these children did not bring their schools, their teachers and their teaching methods with them. So, if they continue to be high performers, what they left behind cannot provide the explanation.

Educational success in East Asian countries is based on a culture of hard work, not chalk. Shutterstock

The University of London study found that Australian students with East Asian parents outperform those with Australian-born parents in mathematics by the equivalent of nearly three years of schooling. The results of students of East Asian ancestry in Australia were statistically similar to the average score of Shanghai students (613) and significantly higher than scores in Hong Kong, Japan, South Korea, Singapore and Taiwan. Thus students of East Asian ancestry in Australia perform highly without access to the teachers and schools in their country of origin.

There is a lot of evidence pointing to the real factors involved, in particular long hours of out-of-school study. Homework starts early, often as early as pre-school, and increases as students proceed through school. Data from PISA 2012 show that a higher percentage of students from East Asia participate in out-of-school coaching classes than in Australia. They generally spend much longer on homework and study at home as well. These intense study patterns are continued by students of East Asian ancestry growing up in Australia.

A smaller study published in the Journal of Education Policy found similar results. It concluded that:

cultural background appears to be more consequential for the educational attainment of Chinese immigrant students than exposure to the educational systems of Australia or New Zealand.

This success comes with costs Australia doesn’t want

If the greater success of students of East Asian ancestry, both in East Asia and Australia, is a matter of cultural commitment to education, we need to ask if we should emulate the educational pressures imposed by East Asian parents and schools. There are two reasons for doubting that this is a sensible way to go, even if such a substantial cultural shift was feasible in a reasonable time-frame.

Firstly, while we may look to East Asia for lessons, most countries in East Asia are dissatisfied with their educational outcomes. They believe that they are not producing flexible and creative thinkers, and often look to western education systems for a lead.

Secondly, we also need to look at the impact of the educational pressures imposed in East Asia on the children. There are many reports of mental health and attitudinal issues associated with these pressures. One of the best documented is the emergence of an epidemic of myopia, or short-sightedness, in precisely those countries in East Asia that score highly on both educational outcomes and out-of-school coaching and homework in PISA data.

In East Asia, around 80% of students completing secondary school are short-sighted. Around 20% have such severe myopia that they are at a markedly increased risk of irreversible vision loss later in life. Studies have linked these vision problems with extended periods of time spent indoors studying. The human cost of East Asian educational success is very high.

All in all, there is not a lot for us to learn from East Asia on educational success, despite the commentators and policy-makers who follow this line. Instead, it may make more sense for East Asian countries to look at western countries such as Finland, Canada and even Australia and New Zealand. They manage to combine reasonably high educational outcomes with more rounded and balanced development of students, and without an epidemic of myopia.