Collectivism vs individualism: What is the best method of educating our children?


Australia and the United States have performed poorly in the 2012 Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) test.

However, it was no surprise that China and Japan excelled in the test as they have since it was created in 2000.

The PISA test was initially designed by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) as a means of testing the competency of 15-year-old students in mathematics, reading and science.

Now, the test is prepared every three years and taken by more than 500,000 students worldwide.

China, Singapore and Japan achieved the highest results among the 65 countries examined, and Australia and the United Kingdom placed slightly above the OECD average, but the United States’ results were below the OECD average which was 494 for mathematics, 496 for reading, and 501 for science.

The exam is scaled according to each country’s results.

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The OECD analysed the data established in the PISA test and released their Key Findings at the end of 2013.

These showed the United States spends approximately US $115,000 per student per annum of children aged six to 15 – double the education expenditure of many other countries.

However, this does not translate into better academic performance as the US came 26th out of 34 countries, just below the United Kingdom and Australia.

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These results force us to question how countries with the biggest student education budgets, such as the United States, Australia and the United Kingdom, fall so far behind traditional countries like China, Singapore and Japan?

And, as part of a broader narrative: Why is there such a massive education gap between Eastern and Western countries?

Gerald Wurf, an educational psychology lecturer at Charles Sturt University in Wagga Wagga,  believes there are many reasons for the education gap, but says most of them relate to the idea of collectivistic and individualistic cultures.

Mr Wurf worked in Hong Kong for eight years and has a strong grasp of differences in Eastern and Western education systems.

“The way we teach is different,” he explained.

“Americans value a fairly individual focus in terms of their education, and they value the erudition. Asian schools value group harmony and also the written or scholarly tradition.

“Cultural theorists would say that in the West we place emphasis on the individual whereas in more traditional cultures, including some of the Asian cultures, the emphasis is more on the group.

“In Asia, rather than individual talents being the important aspect of education, it is much more tempered with success of the group.”

According to the American Psychology Association’s article Individualism and Collectivism: CrossCultural Perspectives on Self-Ingroup Relationships, cultures are divided into two categories: collectivist and individualist.

Individualist cultures, including the United States, Australia and the United Kingdom, place considerable emphasis on personal achievement, resulting in a strong sense of competition.

In collectivist cultures, such as China and Japan, they tend to emphasise family and work group goals above individual needs or desires.

In addition to learning as a group at school, Mr Wurf says one of the defining factors of a collectivistic culture is family involvement.

“[In Eastern countries] you would find that at school events like parent teacher evenings, parents are much more likely to attend and take their children’s education seriously,” he said.

“There is also good evidence to show that they [parents] spend more time asking students about their school experience, particularly their academic achievements.

“… Western parenting focuses on a whole range of achievements for their children, such as social and sporting.”

Takako Saito grew up in Japan and says she is glad her parents were so involved in her education.

Takako was born in Japan and went to Bunkyo Women’s College. She is now married to Australian Brett Hamilton and has a two-year-old son, Shun.


Takako is hesitant about sending her son to an Australian school, as she believes he would benefit more from the discipline of Japanese education.


Takako and Brett have lived happily in Sydney for the last four years but are now considering moving to Japan, so that Shun can receive a more “disciplined” education.

“We want Shun to have a respect for others and culture in his basic personality, and believe the discipline of early Japanese education will provide this,” Takako said.

“However, in saying that, we want Shun to have a Western education in his mid-teen years because this will benefit him more later in life.”

Takako supports the ideals of a collectivistic culture and said this is one the reasons she wants to enrol Shun in a Japanese school.

“Brett and I are both strongly focused on Shun’s education,” Takako said.

“We have the attitude that parents are very responsible for their children’s discipline and believe that this attitude makes a difference to a child’s education and, consequently, their intelligence.

“But this is not to say that Eastern parents provide everything for their children, we simply instil within them the knowledge that education is important and encourage them to succeed.”

So, does the structure of Eastern schools help children to be disciplined in their education?

Juan Cheng graduated from China Three Gorges University in 2010 and now teaches at a private school in Yichang. She said the structure of an Eastern education system provides an environment where students want to learn.

“Eastern education doesn’t allow for distractions, because every student wants to do well so they will have a career,” Ms Cheng said.

“We start with primary school, like Western countries, and in this time, children are taught about culture and learn to respect one another and their elders.

“Our middle school final exam decides where we will go to high school.

“However, in most Asian countries, educational resources are not equally distributed and some schools have better teachers and facilities than others, so if you get higher marks in your graduation examination you will be accepted into a better high school, and this will lead to a better career,” she said.

Ms Cheng said many families fear that if study is not encouraged, their children will be part of the five to 10 percent of middle school children who are not accepted into high school.

The National Institute for Educational Policy Research’s paper, Distinctive Features of Japanese Education, shows there are advantages and disadvantages to Eastern education systems.

The paper suggests that while the intensive preparation for entrance examinations can cause anxiety and stress, it also helps to develop positive habits such as self-discipline and perseverance.

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Due to the stringent nature of the system, Australian teacher Janine Fuller worries that positive student-teacher relationships may be forfeited in Eastern countries.

“The pressure of not being accepted into school if you do badly in a test concerns me,” she said.

“I’ve found that if I push my students too hard they rebel, so if they are struggling to focus on an aspect of class work I give them something they can do more easily.

“I’m afraid that if they don’t understand the work, they won’t enjoy learning.”

However, Mr Wurf said this is not the case in Eastern countries.

“The make-up of Chinese and Japanese schools is more conducive to good relationships between teachers and students.

“Asian teachers may have the same amount of teaching time, but they have more responsibilities with students outside of the classroom.

“There is a whole range of clubs after school, not just academic but social. So teachers know their students better and have stronger relationships with them,” he said.

Jim Stigler is a professor of psychology at the University of California in Los Angeles, where he specialises in educational psychology. He believes that in Western culture, intellectual struggle in school children is seen as an indicator of weakness while in Eastern cultures it is not only tolerated, but often used to measure emotional strength.

He said there are positive consequences to allowing students to struggle, as long as they eventually overcome the challenge.

“I think that in our cultural belief system, pushing someone hard might seem to undermine positive student relationships, but I certainly don’t see any signs of this in Japanese elementary classrooms,” Professor Stigler said.

“Japanese teachers also make it harder for students to rebel, by trying to position the ‘group’ as the authority, instead of the teacher.

“I do find that Western teachers are not comfortable letting students struggle, because students don’t like to struggle.

“These teachers may feel empathy for students who are struggling, and intervene to take them out of their pain. But although they may think this is kind, it may actually undermine the students’ opportunities for deep learning.

“I think the Eastern approach to struggle places more emphasis on students themselves as the force behind learning; to the extent that students feel it is their job to expend effort if they want to learn. I think this is a good thing,“ he said.

Takako agrees that Japanese schools employ a more encouraging attitude when it comes to struggle and this can improve a child’s ability to learn.

“We believe that it’s really how you deal with struggle that affects your education,” she said.

“Like Westerners, we do understand that smarter children struggle less, but as children we are advised that struggle is not wrong because there is a way to overcome it. The only way to fail is to give up.

“We have a saying: ‘the wall is there for you to overcome’. So, when something difficult presents itself, it is seen as a challenge and it basically encourages you: ‘you can do it, if you put in your best effort’.”

While the results indicate China and Japan have very successful education systems, many Easterners are worried that it does not encourage creativity.

At a Chinese government meeting, Premier Wen Jiaobao quoted Chinese educator, Qian Xueseng: “Why, despite the fact that it produces the highest number of college graduates in the world, can China not produce top-notch creative talents?”

And, in similar vein, how is it that millions of Eastern college graduates work for American tech companies, yet not one Chinese or Japanese intellect/entrepreneur is as successful as Steve Jobs or Bill Gates?

Takako disagrees with Qian Xueseng’s statement and believes that while Westerners may have more opportunity to make something of their creativity, Eastern education does not prevent students from expressing themselves creatively.

“Every country has had geniuses and those people were all extraordinary individuals,” Takako said.

“But, in saying that, the United States have influential personalities like Bill Gates and Steve Jobs because of their [the US] higher standard of education in high school and above.

“They are the culture that offers a fair chance for anybody to succeed.

“In other words, perhaps it is not as easy for creatively talented students in Eastern countries to show off their abilities.”

Professor Stigler’s experience agrees with Takako, but also says that cultural differences and language barriers may vary our definition of creativity.

“I think we have different definitions of creativity in Eastern and Western cultures. We tend to define creativity as originality,” he said.

“But Eastern cultures traditionally define creativity differently, such as making an ingenious improvement on an existing invention would count as creative, too.

“I think both cultural traditions would benefit from broadening their definitions of creativity.”

On that note, Professor Stigler pointed out that every culture also has a different definition of what education involves.

“There are better and worse education systems for specific purposes. You can’t define quality unless you understand the goals that are trying to be achieved.“

So, is it really ethical to define a single education system as superior?

According to Gerald Wurf, no, it is not.

He says every education system has strong components, and we can use this to create a great standard of education everywhere, regardless of our cultural background.

“Going forward, we should allow Eastern education to influence Australia. If we can take things, like the importance of having a global education, the importance of parental support and the importance of self-efficacy beliefs, we can challenge beliefs that don’t get us anywhere and improve education.”

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