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Cornelius Grove: Author of The Drive to Learn

Jul 7, 2017 by

An Interview with Cornelius Grove: Author of The Drive to Learn

1) Dr. Grove, why did you write The Drive to Learn?

I’m an educator and an interculturalist.  I’ve taken on a mission at the intersection of education and culture: To alert other Americans to the cultural reasons why our children aren’t learning very well the academic material we teach them in schools.

Anthropologists have long known that Americans believe that the reason why a child does well in school is largely his inborn aptitude.  People in most other parts of the world believe that the reason why a child does well in school is largely his persistent effort.  That cultural difference fascinated me.  I believed that the explanation had to be historical.  My exploration of its deep underlying history – all the way back to Pythagoras! – yielded my 2013 book, The Aptitude Myth.

In the case of The Drive to Learn, again I was fascinated – this time by the fact that students in some nations always out-perform American students.  Are their schools really that much better than ours?  It turns out that I’m not the only one who’s asking this question.  It was first asked during the 1960s…in Hong Kong!  Scholars at the University of Hong Kong decided to investigate “The Paradox of the Chinese Learner”:  Why do Chinese students consistently outperform American students?

Long story short, their inquiry gradually expanded to Japan and Korea in addition to China, and their efforts were supplemented by scholars from other nations around the world.  They looked not only at what goes on in schools, but also at how people think about learning and how parents raise their children.  Some of their research explicitly compared and contrasted East Asian ways with American ways.

The outcome of their 40+ years of work is that we now have over 500 published research reports about children’s learning in East Asia.  Over 500!  Only one ever became known to the American public, and that was in 1992.  This mountain of research reports became the raw material for my writing of The Drive to Learn.

2) Discuss your book’s subtitle, “What the East Asian Experience Tells Us about Raising Students Who Excel.”

These research findings probe every aspect of East Asian children’s academic learning – not only what goes on in schools but also what goes on in the total environment in which they grow up, especially their family environment.  So we know a great deal about the East Asian experience and how it compares with the American experience.

What does all that tell us?  It tells us this:  East Asian academic superiority isn’t only about what goes on in schools.  It’s also about what goes on in homes.

East Asian parents’ way of thinking about education is fundamentally different from American parents’ way of thinking.  Anyone’s way of thinking affects his or her daily choices and behavior.  With respect to classroom learning, East Asian parents’ child-raising approach includes actively intervening to insure that they excel academically.

This is the principal reason for East Asian academic superiority.  The way American parents raise their children is the principal reason for our academic mediocrity.

3) Hold on.  Are you saying that American schools actually are in great shape and our current educational malaise is all the parents’ fault?

I make no judgments about our schools.  But I do make a judgment about how we think about improving our schools’ outcomes in terms of student learning.

The reigning characteristic of how we think is this:  School reform is totally about what adult educators do, or should do.  We assume that we have no option but to improve the policies and practices of the adults who make our schools work.

I disagree.  A key insight from those 500+ research reports is that East Asian children arrive at school with expectations and values that are substantially different from American children’s.  East Asian children are more receptive to classroom learning, so they learn more in classrooms.  They bring their receptivity from home where, since birth, they’ve been absorbing family members’ attitudes toward education.

East Asian children’s higher receptivity to classroom learning is arguably the most decisive factor in explaining East Asian students’ consistent academic superiority.

American school reform will never attain its worthy goal of significantly improved learning outcomes if it continues to look solely at adult educators and policy-makers.  Our children are part of the problem, so our children must be part of the solution.  In turn, that means that American children’s parents must be part of the solution.

4) Please be more specific about what you mean when you say that “East Asian children are more receptive to classroom learning.”

As I explained in my book, “receptivity to learning” means that a child…

  • feels deeply committed to learning in school is ready;
  • expects to work persistently in order to learn well is willing;
  • knows how to participate in the process of learning in school is able.

Being “receptive to learning” is not about whether children have finished their homework, slept at least seven hours, enjoyed a nutritious breakfast, or had enough playground time to blow off excess energy.  Those are all very important, as are factors related to equality of opportunity.  But I’m talking about something else.

What all that research is telling us is that East Asian children arrive at school with an emotionally based drive to learn – which accounts for my book’s title: The Drive to Learn.  The research is clear:  American children learn for practical reasons – possible future benefits.   But East Asian children are emotionally driven to learn – right now!

Other factors help to explain East Asian children’s greater receptivity to classroom learning; they’re all explored in the book.  But their emotional drive is the main one.

5) Where does their emotional drive come from?  Are East Asian children born with an emotional drive to learn in school?

No.  Every hypothesis claiming that children of one nationality are innately able to perform better in school than children of another nationality has been laid to rest.  East Asian children don’t emerge from the womb with an emotional drive to learn.  But five or six years later, they do emerge from their families and arrive at school with an emotional drive to learn.  We’re talking “nurture” here, not “nature.”

This brings us back to the parents, the chief transmitters to young children of values and mindsets.  In spite of differences among China, Japan, and Korea, they share many cultural characteristics when it comes to thinking about children and learning, and about how to raise children with a drive to learn in school.  My book reveals how East Asian parents think, why they think that way, and what they therefore do.

6) What stands out for you in how East Asian parents think?

As the parents themselves were growing into adulthood, they were immersed in East Asian culture, which traditionally has given enormous respect (a) to academic learning to a high level of mastery, (b) to the persevering effort that’s required to master an academic discipline, and (c) to individuals who have actually attained such mastery.  East Asian parents transmit these values and mindsets to their children.

Traditionally, East Asians have assumed that academic mastery is not just a good idea because it’s likely to lead to career success.  More importantly, they assume that academic mastery is indispensable for one to become a Good Human Being.

Here’s the key:  It’s not only that knowledge makes one a Good Human.  It’s also that the persevering effort to attain that knowledge makes one a Good Human!

Because of these twin assumptions about how one becomes a Good Human Being, the attaining of knowledge is emotionally driven.  Again, it’s not mainly about future career success.  It’s mainly about becoming a Good Human Being today.  This is a highly desirable outcome, one that confers honor and “face” not only on the child but also on his entire family.  Both effort and outcome are desirable and admired.

7) What stands out for you in what East Asian parents do?

Parents and child jointly take responsibility for the child’s mastery of academic subjects.  They never assume, like Americans do, that the teachers are responsible.  It is not that they don’t trust teachers.  In East Asia, teachers – who have mastered academic knowledge – get far more respect than they do here.  Parents don’t assume that teachers are responsible because the child’s academic mastery is too essential for the family’s “face” to allow responsibility to belong to anyone outside the family.

“Taking responsibility” might seem like another way in which East Asians think.  But I’m classifying it under “do” because it leads to a variety of daily activities that have few parallels among American parents.  Most importantly, East Asian parents relate to their child in a manner similar to that of an athletic coach or trainer.  Parents…

  • Remain on constant high alert regarding their child’s progress toward mastery.
  • Supervise their child’s studying and his strategies for mastering the material.
  • Set and enforce rules for their child’s use of time and choice of activities.
  • Provide direct instruction, including drilling and added study assignments.
  • Discipline the child if he fails to persevere or master fundamental skills.
  • Focus on poor learning outcomes, analyzing errors and prescribing practice.
  • Regard their child’s success or failure as their personal success or failure.

8) I’m getting visions in my head of the infamous Tiger Mom, Amy Chua.

Chua’s “Tiger Mother” book had shock value, so it got a lot of attention.  Unfortunately, Chua neglected to emphasize two critically important background factors.

First, she didn’t emphasize that all this was happening in America, not in East Asia.  If her parenting had been playing out in East Asia, it would have been congruent with the surrounding culture and similar to what her daughters were observing in families all around them.  But Chua’s parenting was being played out here, where it was sharply counter-cultural.  Her daughters knew about the lives of their American peers, who were experiencing relatively few high expectations from their laissez faire parents.

Second, Chua didn’t emphasize the deep cultural and historical factors that were driving her academically-focused style of parenting.  So here’s the thing:  If you can forget the shocking details of Chua’s mothering – drudge-drilling, no playdates, etc. – and attend instead to the values and themes that characterized her parenting, you find the same values and themes that 40+ years of careful scholarly research found.

Reduce those values and themes down to their essence, and here’s what you get:  Your unrivaled top goal for your child is academic exceptionality.  You and your child take full responsibility for attaining that goal.  Then, together, you make sure it’s attained.

9) But aren’t children emotionally and psychologically damaged by the East Asian style of parenting?

This question has long interested researchers.  They’ve often looked for evidence that children in East Asian are warped for life by their Tiger Moms.  What they’ve found is 180° different.  One researcher concluded that Tiger Mom parenting was “associated [by their children] with perceived parental warmth and acceptance.”

As for Amy Chua’s daughters, anyone can easily follow their careers on the web.  Just search for Lulu Chua-Rubenfeld and Sophia Chua-Rubenfeld.

10) Are you advocating that American parents adopt the East Asian style?

All American parents?  As we say in Brooklyn, fuhgeddaboudit!  Couples with high aspirations for their youngster’s mastery of STEM and other key subjects?  Yes.

The Drive to Learn is directly and practically relevant for parents who want their young children to attain the top level of academic performance.  By drawing on the extensively researched and documented approaches of East Asian parents, my book addresses the three H’s of any successful endeavor: Head, Hand, and Heart:

  • “Head” because it pays detailed attention to how East Asians THINK about child-raising, children’s learning, families, schooling, and parents’ responsibilities.
  • “Hand” because it explains what East Asian parents actually DO – i.e., how they intervene – to fulfill their responsibility to insure their child’s academic mastery.
  • “Heart” because it emphasizes that how East Asians FEEL about becoming a Good Human Being is the fundamental driver of their commitment and perseverance.

Am I saying that a successful outcome depends on a parent’s adopting, whole cloth, everything East Asian parents do?  Not at all.  Instead, I’m saying that the East Asian model acquaints us with a range of parental strategies.  Americans can choose.  So suppose you want your child’s classroom performance to be consistently among the best, but you don’t covet valedictorian honors.  The Drive to Learn has ideas for you.

11) Are you aware that Dr. Diane Ravitch doesn’t agree with you?

Dr. Ravitch is on record as trying to ease our anxiety over American students’ decades of mediocre performance – or worse! – on the international comparative tests such as PISA.  Her view is, and I quote, “Let [other nations] have the higher test scores.  I prefer to bet on the creative, can-do spirit of the American people…”  Perhaps I’d agree with Dr. Ravitch if we were doing a minimally credible job of educating the great mass of American students.  Are we?

Since 1969, our own government has kept track of how well children are learning.  At www.nationsreportcard.gov, the numbers you instantly see are the “percentage of students at or above proficient.”  Notice first that our measuring stick is merely “proficiency,” not mastery.  Notice second that none of the percentage figures is above 43%.  Thirteen are below 28%!  This is the atrocious record we’re compiling for millions of children.  Are these America’s “Can-Do Kids”?  I don’t think so.

Research underway right now at Stanford University recently compared the critical thinking abilities of first year college students in America, Russia, and China.  The measuring test they used was a Made-in-the-USA product.  The findings?  The best critical thinkers were the Chinese.  Second, the Russians.  Last, the Americans!

My book isn’t going to make a difference in the trajectory of American education as a whole.  But it can make a difference in the learning trajectories of youngsters whose parents have an emotional commitment to their becoming academically exceptional.  That’s because it’s based on the findings of hundreds of researchers who, over 40+ years, investigated every aspect of why East Asian students’ performance is superior.  Their principal finding was that, above all, the explanation lies in East Asian homes.

12) Finally Dr. Grove, how did you become so interested in this topic?

I completed an Ed.D. degree at Columbia’s Teachers College, and for my dissertation I looked at how cross-cultural differences were affecting the learning of immigrant Portuguese students in a Massachusetts town.  I saw firsthand that culture makes a difference in how we think about children’s learning, and that how we think about that directly affects what we do as we educate children.  Later, I taught in China and joined a Chinese colleague to write a book for Americans about adapting to China.  Recently, for two new encyclopedias, I prepared entries on pedagogy across cultures.  Writing those two entries drew my attention to the mountain of research focused on discovering why East Asian students outperform American students.  It’s valuable for American parents, but it’s almost completely unknown.  I decided to change that.

13) Where can readers obtain additional information about your book?

Much additional information and my blog are available at www.thedrivetolearn.info.

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