East versus West: How learning styles impact 21st Century global knowledge economies
Confucious-based higher education provides high literacy rates but does little to prepare students for innovation and creativity needed for 21st-Century knowledge-based economies
Asian students and Western students learn differently. It has nothing to do with their country or their physical location. It’s all about their respective philosophies of education, which comes from a broader world view.
The educational philosophy of countries like Korea, China, and Japan draw from the Confucius worldview and the Confucius educational philosophy. It’s an educational philosophy that draws heavily on rote learning and memorization. In a Confucius-based system, the teacher takes on the role of the master, and the students take on the role of the disciple. The master is all-knowing because it is assumed that they are all-wise because of all the years of being an apprentice and studying under other masters. The disciple is expected to sit quietly and absorb all the lessons the master has to teach.
This is how most Asian students are educated. From the very beginning of their elementary school training and through college, students are taught to listen to the teacher or professor (the master), don’t ask any questions (how dare they challenge the master), and spend hours and hours in learning their lessons through rote memorization. This is one of the reasons that tutoring schools flourish in these countries. By going to a tutoring program after regular school hours, students have more time to memorize their lessons.
Students raised in countries with a European heritage, on the other hand, learn by using various forms of Socratic educational methods. Education is more a path of discovery, and European based learning is more individualistic. It encourages the student to ask questions of the professor. The best Socratic professors expect their students to challenge them and learn by asking questions and examining various viewpoints. Whereas everything in a Confucius-based system is black and white, a Socratic based system encourages learning based on examining all the different shades of grey.
Which style of learning is better? It depends on who you ask and what your perspective is.
Asian countries have had centuries of success with the Confucius-based educational system. It has turned out very bright scholars, and the literacy rates in these countries are usually very high, often over 90 percent. The economies of these countries have also seen phenomenal growth over the past four or five decades.
Yet, for all their success, the very best and brightest students try to go to the United States or Great Britain to complete their studies. The dream of many top Asian students is to study at Harvard, Yale, UPenn, Oxford, or some other top university in the West. The governments of these countries don’t stand in their way. They actively encourage these aspirations.
With some very prestigious universities in Asia, why do these students still clamor to come to Western universities?
The answer lies in an understanding of today’s global knowledge economy. It’s an economy that is driven by creativity and innovation. It thrives in cultures that foster free-thinking, experimentation, and yes, mistakes and failures. It’s an economy driven by the Internet of Things (IoT) devices, data analytics and pattern recognition, artificial intelligence (AI), and machine learning. It’s an economy that rewards successful risk-taking and punishes failures.
Today’s global knowledge economy requires skilled knowledge professionals who aren’t afraid to think outside the box and ask, “How can I use these disruptive technologies in a new and unique way to create new business models?” These bright young professionals have given us AirB&B, Uber, the social media companies of Facebook, Pinterest, and Instagram, and many other innovative companies. They have also been allowed to tinker with ideas in tech startup incubators, many of which have never been successful.
Which is the reason that education from one of the leading Western universities is still highly valued around the world. These top Western universities are incubators of innovative ideas, where free-thinking among students is valued and encouraged.
These top Western universities are incubators of innovative ideas, where free-thinking among students is valued and encouraged.
This is not the case in many Asian universities that promote a Confucious-based style of education. In these environments, mastery of topics is stressed over innovative free thinking. The professor is the ‘master’ of his classroom; students are not expected to ask questions.
What results are college students that graduate with high levels of literacy and mastery of specific subjects, but are ill-prepared to ‘think outside the base’?
While these students are ill-equipped to function in the knowledge economy, they still present great value to their countries. A majority of countries who have trained and educated their workforce have become what I would label ‘commodity countries;’ countries which are great at ‘borrowing’ proven ideas and innovation, and then reproducing them at a lower ‘commodity’ price.
The economies of Japan, Korea, and China have become great powerhouses because of their ability to ‘imitate.’ These countries are great at copying products that have already been developed elsewhere. They have also excelled at imitating the hierarchal management systems used in the West up until the late ’60s and ’70s, management systems that required a great allegiance to a ‘chain-of-command’ structure. Because business education was still rooted in a Confucious-based learning system, the hierarchical management structure fit their educational model and was easy to implement.
However, learning by rote, by memorization, by ‘copying something’ over and over again will only take learning up to a point. In today’s global knowledge economy, global corporations compete in the marketplace of ideas and innovative thinking. Apple, Google, Microsoft, and other knowledge-based companies are worth trillions of dollars. Their management systems are based on knowledge, innovation, creativity, and the ability to ask questions and think ‘outside of the box.’ These companies require employees who are Socratic thinkers, ones who can look at issues and ideas and question the status quo. Employees who are not afraid of taking risks; employees who are brilliant and knowledgable in their chosen professions and are not afraid to ‘think outside the box.’
Where do the knowledge industries find these employees? These potential employees are students located at the best Socratic-type of learning institutions the West has to offer; Harvard, Stanford, Oxford, MIT, UPenn, and a host of institutions of higher learning that encourage their students to ‘think outside of the box.’
Unfortunately, in the past decade, there seems to be a movement afoot on these same campuses that threaten the very independent, Socratic-type of thinking that made these universities such beacons of higher learning. Campus students themselves are challenging the free-thinking, out-of-the-box exchange of ideas that makes Western universities incubators of this knowledge industry. These students are more worried about being politically correct, having ‘safe spaces,’ and not being offended by any ideas that challenge their beliefs.
When the universities give in to demands of political correctness, it threatens our entire educational system and our society as a whole.
When the universities give in to these demands of political correctness, it threatens our entire educational system and our society as a whole. We risk our universities losing their alure because they are no longer seen as places that encourage innovation and creativity, essential factors that drive our knowledge economy. These variables — innovation, and creativity — are not measured by any standard economic metric. Yet these two factors are the ‘hidden’ variables that have allowed the United States to maintain its global economic leadership.
The United States and other western countries may have lost ground to the rest of the world in other specific educational areas such as science and math. Yet we are still leading the rest of the world economically because of our innovation and creativity and the agile thinking that comes with these two essential knowledge factors; innovation and creativity.
Our best universities still foster these important knowledge characteristics; free-thinking, innovation, and creativity. But they are under attack in the name of ‘political correctness.’ That’s unfortunate because if we lose our leadership in these areas, our institutions of higher learning will lose their ability to attract and educate the ‘best and brightest’ from around the world.