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Books: Cultural Foundations of Learning

Cultural Foundations of Learning book cover

book coverWhat is it that defines an educated man? Is it his depth of knowledge, or his moral character; his mind, or his virtue? In Cultural Foundations of Learning, Jin Li, Ed.M.'90, Ed.D.'97, describes how distinct answers to these questions have created fundamental differences between Western and East Asian models of learning. While a Western education aims to cultivate the mind and broaden one's understanding of the world, an East Asian education focuses more on moral excellence. In an effort to explain how these two regional models emerged and why they produce such different learners, Li begins by tracing the departure back to its cultural origins. Pointing out how the European-American model echoes the Western intellectual tradition, she then contrasts this with examples such as the Chinese model, which manifests a strong Confucian lineage. Thus, even though both cultures value learning and the education systems themselves are similar — with students in both regions undergoing the same kindergarten to college approach, filled with much of the same math, science, and language content — the meaning of the content is so different that there is virtually no overlap. In East Asia, content is virtue-oriented, with the entire learning process taking place around five major "virtues" — sincerity, diligence, concentration, perseverance, and endurance — that aim toward perfecting the self. In the West, on the other hand, learning processes are centered on four entirely different components — critical thinking, active engagement, self-expression, and exploration — which may sound much more familiar and are ultimately aimed at creating students who better understand the world around them.

Focusing on these general cultural orientations of learning, not the individual differences between East Asia and the West, the book outlines how cultural models influence a child's beliefs, which then manifest themselves in the learning process. Avoiding a prescriptive approach filled with suggestions and advice, the book maintains a descriptive and interpretive tone, shedding both light and understanding onto a topic that has received little attention. Delving into this longstanding, yet often overlooked difference between two major regions of the world, Cultural Foundations of Learning provides valuable insight into the implications that particular learning processes may hold for students.

Ed. Magazine

The magazine of the Harvard Graduate School of Education

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