The culture surrounding Asian education is portrayed in the West as rigorous, unrelenting, and highly effective, with Asian countries commonly inhabiting top spots in global success measurements. However, last year, a British Council report suggested that developing the soft skills the students it brings into the workplace could be one of China’s biggest challenges yet, despite its rapid growth and success in the last 35 years.
The nation is a powerhouse, having lifted millions out of poverty and becoming the world’s second largest economy, lagging behind only the United States–but China, much like the US, is suffering from a skills gap that researchers are having a hard time explaining.
One idea, set forth by David Scott Clegg, Managing Director of The HEAD Foundation and founder of UNITE Education, is that the if the East and the West could learn from each other’s’ shortcomings, they could synthesize a new approach that would address education in a holistic manner. Clegg breaks it down like this:
In a typical Asian classroom, you will find:
- The teacher at the center
- Rote learning (memorization of facts and sequences);
- ‘Drill to thrill’ on formal, standardized assessments
- Minimal student-driven discussions or exercises
- With a healthy dose of discipline, structure and respect
Now, let’s visit a typical US classroom:
- The teacher is more of a facilitator (at least in the more effective environments), as well as a full-time manager.
- The students are more empowered in their own learning processes.
- They are learning concepts (some), along with context (some).
- They are challenged to inquire, debate, deliberate, to ‘work it out.’
- They are given freedoms, liberties not typically found in Asian education settings.
The way Clegg explains it, in Asian education, the teacher is revered and respected while the students are dedicated both in the classroom and at home. The extreme focus on STEM and scoring high on exams like the state-run “gaokao” means that Asian education fosters higher IQ in their students and on into the workforce.
On the other hand, US students who may not do well on standardized tests and display lower signs of IQ are actually displaying higher signs of emotional intelligence in the workplace. Clegg argues that both American and Asian societies can learn from each other in this regard–and he’s not alone.
Asian entrepreneur and face of e commerce powerhouse Alibaba, Jack Ma, seems to actually agree with Clegg on this issue. In a speech explaining why China’s education systems fails to produce innovators, Ma said this:
“We often say that America and Europe are more innovative than us, that China’s innovation is not good and that the education [jiaoyu] system is to blame. Actually, I think China’s jiao is fine. The problem is with the yu. In terms of jiao, China’s students test better than anyone in the world, but yu is about fostering culture and emotional IQ (EQ).”
For anybody thrown off by jiao and yu, it helps to understand that in Chinese, the word for education is “jiaoyu” and it’s a compound word. Jiao refers to pedagogical teaching, while yu means to foster or to raise. In a separate speech, Ma recounted a valuable lesson he’d taught his son about education, indirectly referring to yu and learning that happens outside of the classroom:
“I told my son: you don’t need to be in the top three in your class, being in the middle is fine, so long as your grades aren’t too bad. Only this kind of person [a middle-of-the-road student] has enough free time to learn other skills.
I think, if China’s economy wants to develop, it needs a lot of SMEs and individually-run companies, and that requires a lot of entrepreneurs with values and drive.”
TIA writer Christopher Quek found that Singapore entrepreneur and engineer Shirley Wong also believes that being more well-rounded helped her with her business ventures, and that perhaps more yu is needed in the education system to produce better engineers.
Either way it’s become increasingly clear that something needs to change in both Eastern and Western education so that students actually feel they are getting their money’s worth out of college.
An increasingly prevalent topic in the West is how little ROI students are reaping out of their collegiate degrees, which cost almost 10 times more than a Chinese degree on average ($19,548 per year on average in the U.S. for tuition, fees, room and board vs. the equivalent of $2,200 per year in China). The best advice that anybody has offered is that businesses around the globe are going to need to be ready to uptrain their employees.
If a candidate is fantastic with hard skills but perhaps lacking in soft skills or emotional IQ, be willing to invest in that employee and teach them the importance of business etiquette, either on-premise or through classes. Conversely, if they are lacking in hard skills that are teachable, it may be in your best interest to endow them with those skills over time.
It must be remembered, of course, that this is a two-way street. If the company provides everything for the employee to succeed but the employee doesn’t have the will to learn, there’s nothing the employer can really do. Context is key when it comes to collaboration, but with the right partnership between employers and employees, development of the missing IQ in the West and lack of EQ in the East can be overcome.