The roles that teachers play in personally and warmly encouraging and mentoring pupils are, for countless youngsters, the difference between doing well or falling behind.  I talk to Cornelius Grove, Ed.D., an interculturalist, educator, and author, about East Asian models of teaching in the lower primary grades, how to keep a dynamic atmosphere in the classroom, and motivating children in school.

Cornelius, it was lovely to speak with you about the influence of East Asian parenting on a child’s school learning.  This time we are going to focus on the importance of the teacher on a child’s school performance.  In your opinion, how important is the teacher in the learning process?

Strictly speaking, a teacher is not needed for someone to learn.  But let’s be clear what we’re talking about.  Autodidact – self-taught – refers to a person who has learned a subject without a teacher or formal instruction. Those are two different things: Formal instruction is available in the form of books and manuals, i.e., instruction without any teacher.  There are historical figures – Booker T. Washington was one – who apparently were autodidacts.  But it’s not always clear if they learned only without a teacher, or without any kind of instruction at all.

But here’s the thing: An autodidact needs colossal determination and oceans of free time.  Learning with no instruction of any kind is extraordinarily challenging.  Learning without a teacher is possible, it’s just not efficient.  Our modern world has become so complex that, for children to prepare well for adult roles, they must learn a huge amount in only a few years.

The roles that teachers play in personally and warmly encouraging and mentoring pupils are, for countless youngsters, the difference between doing well or falling behind.  The roles that teachers play in organizing and presenting the content of the learning are, in our modern world, indispensable for the efficient and effective delivery of education.

How do you think teachers influence a child’s educational intentions?

Teachers are in a position of authority over their pupils and, as I said above, they also can build a warm and personal relationship with some, if not necessarily all, of their pupils.  Thus, it’s possible for them to have influence over a child’s intentions and choices.  From my time in Portugal, I know that teachers there are sometimes referred to as “second parents,” and this is so in other cultures as well.  For some pupils, teachers become trusted mentors.

In your mind, is stress-free education possible in school? 

This question is very interesting because it illustrates a characteristic of American thinking about children’s schooling.  I became aware of this while writing my book, The Aptitude Myth: How an Ancient Belief Came to Undermine Children’s Learning Today, about which you’ll soon interview me.  Simply stated, Americans believe that school learning ought to be delivered in such a way that it requires very little resolve and effort on the children’s part.  In short, “stress-free.”  Let’s tackle this fascinating question in our third interview.

You are the author of the book A Mirror for Americans: What the East Asian Experience Tells Us about Teaching Students Who Excel.  Briefly, what is it about, and what is the aim of the book?

Notice that the subtitles of the first book we discussed, The Drive to Learn, and this book are almost identical.  Only one word differs: The first book is about “raising” students who excel, while this one is about “teaching” students who excel.  The two books are complementary; they discuss parallel answers to the same question.  I call the two books “sister volumes.”

The question that both books address is why, on every international comparative test since the late 1960s, students from East Asia have scored at or near the top of all subjects tested, while American students have scored somewhere in the middle of the pack.  Over 50 years, this disparity has never been different!  Why?  I took on the mission to find out.

 I relied on the research of hundreds of anthropologists and other scholars who, over the past 50 years, have carried out research in East Asia to answer this question.  They studied both parenting and teaching there.  A Mirror for Americans relates their discoveries about teaching, specifically about teaching during children’s pre-school and primary school years.     

Why does this book offer a “mirror” for Americans?

You sometimes hear people who have spent time living abroad say that, upon their return to the U.S., they had fresh insights about life here.  They saw aspects of acquaintances and common events that had previously escaped their attention, but now loomed large in their understanding and judgment.  They recognized that things here could be done differently.

Spending time with people and in places different from our usual experience is a “mirror” because it enables us to see ourselves as others see us.  When someone reads A Mirror for Americans, they “visit” preschool and primary school classrooms in East Asia, focusing on the assumptions and values that underlie East Asian education.  Aided by this mirror, readers gain new perspectives on the assumptions and values that underlie our American way of education.

What is your main finding in A Mirror for Americans?

My main finding is simply stated:  Lessons in East Asia are knowledge-centered.  During each lesson period, the knowledge to be learned – e.g., the past tense, fractions, whatever – is more continuously the shared focus of teacher and pupils than is the case here in the United States. 

The researchers also found that the knowledge to be learned is more narrowly the shared focus of teacher and pupils, meaning that the stated objectives of the lesson remained sharply in focus during the lesson.  There was less tendency to stray off topic than here in the U.S.

One research team compared, when similar topics were being taught, the “interactive time on task” during lesson periods in the U.S. and China.  The interactive on-task percentage of lesson periods in the United States was 44%; the comparable percentage in China was 81%!

It also was discovered that classes in East Asia are never interrupted by all-school public address announcements, lunch-count monitors, or pupils being “pulled out” for compensatory instruction or practice of music, sports, special events, etc.  Just imagine: no interruptions!

In the book, you focus on the meaning of “teacher-centered” vs. “student-centered.” Why?

During recent decades here in the United States, most educators and parents have become sternly determined to ensure that classrooms are student-centered.  School districts and non-profits involved in education are even designating senior officials whose role it is to ensure that student-centeredness reigns.  Anything that smacks of teacher-centeredness is condemned.

As I was researching A Mirror for Americans, I realized that East Asians don’t think about classroom learning in terms of student-centered vs. teacher-centered.  It’s of no concern to them.  What they care about is that the students learn the material – and learn it very well.  So I decided to call their set of values and resulting practices “knowledge-centered.”  This is one of the most impactful differences between schooling in the United States and East Asia. 

By the way, I discovered 12 compelling items of evidence for my conclusion that lessons in East Asian primary schools are knowledge-centered.  They’re all reviewed in Chapter 9. 

You discuss “whole-class interactive learning” at length. Why is this important?

Whole class interactive learning is one of the 12 items of evidence mentioned above.  One reason it’s important is because the stereotype of East Asian teaching is that the teachers mainly lecture (teacher-centered: bad!).  Actually, though, that stereotype is false.  How lower-grade teachers actually instruct has been termed “whole-class interactive learning.”

In East Asia, lessons are interactively and directively facilitated by the teacher.  They are characterized by repeated teacher-pupil and pupil-pupil exchanges focused on the knowledge to be learned.  Teachers call on pupils without regard to volunteering.  Pupils critique the contributions of classmates who previously spoke, and they come to the front to explain their ideas on the blackboard, especially during math lessons (as illustrated by the photo). 

It’s really difficult for East Asian pupils to just sit passively.  The teacher obliges them to participate actively in knowledge-focused discussions, both in a whole-class setting and in small groups.  Few off-topic comments can be heard because pupils are constantly involved.  

Pupils often give wrong answers during class. How are these handled in East Asia?

The handling of wrong answers is another one of the 12 items of evidence mentioned above.  During lessons, pupils’ faulty reasoning and incorrect answers are not glossed over but rather openly dissected.  The teacher avoids the role of Sole Arbiter of Right and Wrong; instead, she calls on pupils to analyze and correct their classmates’ errors of fact, reasoning, or calculation.

These pauses to determine the reasons for errors do not become adversarial; the spirit is “we’re all tackling this problem together.”  The outcome is that this frequent attention to how wrong answers came about strengthens pupils’ conceptual grasp of the content’s intricacies.

Do you have some tips on how to keep a dynamic and shame-free atmosphere in the classroom?

Let’s consider “shame-free” first.  Americans think that if a pupil’s wrong answer is publicly dwelled on during class, that pupil will be embarrassed.  We believe that if a teacher is going to point out a fault to a pupil, the conversation had better be private.  I discovered the origin of this attitude when I was writing The Aptitude Myth.  We can discuss this next time.

East Asians have a different way of thinking about these things, captured above by the phrase, “We’re all tackling this problem together.”  The focus isn’t student-centered, it’s knowledge-centered.  A pupil’s dissected error helps everyone learn the topic thoroughly.

As for maintaining a dynamic atmosphere in the classroom, researchers in East Asia have come to understand that the collegial, exceptionally thorough manner in which teachers plan lessons, and the polished yet interactive manner in which they deliver them, usually keeps the classroom not only dynamic but also constantly focused on the knowledge to be learned.

Based on the research, how do you recommend motivating children in school?

The scholar who has found and catalogued pretty much every anthropological and historical study of children’s development and learning concluded that, during all eras and in all societies, youngsters are so full of pizzazz that their resistance to classroom learning must be “tamed.”

Some societies, including our own, attempt to tame children’s resistance by overcoming it.  For centuries, the main way of overcoming resistance was through threats and violence.  Over the past century, the strategy in the U.S. and some other nations has been to overcome children’s resistance by making the schools attractive and the learning pleasurable and easy.

Other societies, including those in East Asia, have long tamed children’s resistance by preventing it.  Children are raised from infancy in such a way that, by the time they show up at school, they are receptive to the idea of learning from teachers in classrooms.  My entire “sister volume,” The Drive to Learn, is devoted to understanding child-rearing in East Asia.

In your opinion, what East Asian learning practices should teachers use in other countries?

I am careful in A Mirror for Americans to say, and to say more than once, that I am not suggesting that American teachers cut and paste any East Asian practice for their own use.  The value of the book, in my view, is that it serves as a “mirror” for us to gain perspective on the assumptions and values that have been shaping the American way of teaching.

But I must admit that there are some teaching practices in East Asia that seem really effective.  For example, math classes often begin with the problem of the day.  This is not a quiz, drill, review, or homework check.  It is a never-previously-encountered type of problem that draws on much of what the pupils already have learned.  But it also slightly exceeds what they know.  The missing knowledge will be the focus of the day’s lesson.  The pupils are given up to 15 minutes to work individually and/or in spontaneous groups.  Their focused engagement with the challenging problem helps them make sense of the new knowledge in today’s lesson.

For whom do you recommend this book?

A Mirror for Americans, only 148 text pages in length, will be of interest to

  • preschool and primary school educators and classroom teachers of all subjects;
  • influencers of lower-grade teachers, such as authors, professors, and teacher-trainers;
  • parents and other caretakers who have an active interest in their children’s school learning;
  • citizens who share my deep concern about the faltering outcomes of American schools.

Where can our readers order your book?

This book has its own website – – and the book can be ordered there.

In addition, it is available from all the usual online sites where people routinely order books.