Healthy Competition: A look at American and Asian Schools

By: Hyacinth Mascarenhas

Sitting under a dim desk lamp at 3am, 16-year-old Preeti Patel* is bent over what seemed like mountain of notes, study guides and textbooks studying for her Board exams to be held in four months. Sleep-deprived and exhausted, she ploughs through the massive content till dawn when her mother will inevitably ask at the breakfast table, “I heard the neighbor’s son finished studying for Science. Did you finish yet?”

Patel’s experience is that of a typical girl in the Indian education system, and one that is perfectly accepted and even encouraged.

Education systems around the globe vary in their approach to the simple act of learning by creating emphasis on different aspects of the process.

The Indian education system, for starters, is based on a formal examination system from pre-school through college and is known for its rigorous grading, fierce competition and broad content. Grades are often seen as a reflection of one’s family and allow for parents to take a deep interest and investment in their child’s education, study habits, competitiveness and even join in the examination stress. The system, however, is often criticized for focusing on rote learning and extreme cramming through its emphasis on final exams such as the Board examinations taken by students in 10th and 12th grade.

Similar to the Indian system, the Singaporean education system also considers academic grades as objective measures of the students’ ability and efforts focusing on a structured curriculum and competitive academic success.

Sanya Saud, a full time mother in New York says she saw the difference in her 4-year-old son when they moved from Dubai, where he attended a Singaporean school, to the US.

“When Ryaan was 2 and a half years old, he already knew how to write his name, alphabets and much more. At the start of every new term, the school had a curriculum ready for the parents which they would follow the whole year. When we moved back to US after 2 years, nobody had an answer to the curriculum and the main emphasis was on the child’s creativity,” said Saud. “For me as a mother, the American education system became little frustrating where I felt that Ryaan literally had to take a few steps back and ease in with the other kids’ learning level.”

Originally from Pakistan, Saud says she can relate her own experience with that of her son.

“Specifically speaking about ourselves coming from Asian backgrounds, going to school from beginning clearly means that by the end of the term, you should be walking away with certain amount of skills and, not to forget, good grades,” Saud said.

“For many people, and especially western countries, it also sounds brutally damaging for the child’s creative thinking abilities and they justify that with millions of studies. However we believe in a very simple concept that child’s young brain is like a sponge with an ability to soak in as much as information as you can provide them with and I totally agree with it,” she said.

Paul Stephen, a junior at the George Washington University, says the difference between education systems lies in its very foundations.

“The American education system, I would argue, is “process oriented”, that is, it is based upon our American values and seeks to instill, from an early age, creativity, academic freedom, receptiveness, inquisitiveness, and diversity. The Chinese system, however, is “results oriented”. It functions very much in the utilitarian model by seeking to educate the greatest number of students to the greatest possible degree,” Stephen said.

Many students in the Chinese education system attend school 9 hours a day, 5 days a week with some classes held on Saturdays as well. Like the Indian Board examinations, students prepare for the “gao kao,” China’s nationwide standardized college entrance examination with summer or weekend education courses, private tutoring and long intense hours of studying.

With globalization, technological advances and the current global economic situation, competitiveness and stress is inevitable for any education system worldwide. But who will reach the finish line first? Is one education system better than the other?

“Education is more a part of their culture than it is in America—much more prized there but also a dark side to it since students “shame” their families by under-performing,” said Amber Winkler, education researcher at the prestigious Thomas B. Fordham Institute in Washington DC.

Although Winkler does not suggest that the American education system should imitate the Chinese system (or vice versa), she does acknowledge the fact that there are things we can learn such as ‘more competition or attention to high achievers’.

“The Chinese readily accept that some students and some teachers will perform at higher standards than other. They don’t condemn on begrudge those individuals. They don’t think that recognizing a handful of exceptional teachers kills collaboration for the entire group. Rather, they admire and respect the standouts”, Winkler mentions in her blog posts during her trip to China.

“Are there drawbacks to a competitive culture? You bet. But there are advantages too. We’d do well to inspire more healthy competition in our own schools,” she said.

Every education system has its own pros and cons, yet provides its students with different skills prepare them for the real world – Hard work, ambition, creativity, critical-thinking, ambition, drive. There is no perfect education system that can generate the perfect algorithm for a student, but they can provide the workforce with a diverse set of minds, thinking differently to come up with a new solution, idea and innovation.

“I believe education is the only avenue that can bring forth the true and inner potential of a human being.  Everybody knows and agrees with this fact and we all debate over having a better education system but do we really have one or do we really realize that we lack one? I strongly believe that it is a matter of finding the best one for yourself,” Saud said.

*Name changed




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