The Current

What the West could learn from Chinese teaching methods: author Lenora Chu

Journalist Lenora Chu compares cultures and classrooms in her book, Little Soldiers: An American Boy, a Chinese School, and the Global Race to Achieve.
Journalist and author Lenora Chu compares cultures and classrooms in her latest book, Little Soldiers: An American Boy, a Chinese School, and the Global Race to Achieve. (Harper Collins/

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China has the largest education system in the world and its students dominate the world stage in academic excellence.

So when Chinese-American journalist and author Lenora Chu decided to enrol her three-year-old son in the Chinese school system in Shanghai she knew it would be demanding — but that was exactly one of the reasons why she chose to send her son there.

"I liked the discipline of the Chinese way, the respect for education, all these legendary things that we sort of talk about," Lenora Chu tells The Current's Friday host Piya Chattopadhyay.

But there were some cultural hurdles to get over. Chu's new book, Little Soldiers: An American Boy, a Chinese School, and the Global Race to Achieve, chronicles the cultural clashes both in and outside of her son's classroom, offering a rare glimpse inside China's education system — a system that is often both revered and reviled.

In the first week of school, her son was force-fed ​an egg, a food Chu says her son hates. The incident prompted Chu to go down to the school and confront her son's teacher. 

"I say in the West we don't use methods of force. And she says, 'Oh how do you do it?'" Chu tells Chattopadhyay, admitting to the teacher that her method of explaining the benefits of eggs to her son doesn't work.

​Their conversation sparked Chu's investigation into the Chinese school system. 

'What price do they pay to produce their smart kids' 

  • Lenora Chu's blog: Chinese kindergarten kids do a "fun exercise" in military uniform. Read the post.

"This sets up sort of a culture clash and I spend pretty much the next few years dealing with this question: What do the Chinese, what price do they pay to produce their smart kids? Is there something we can learn from them?" Chu says.

"If you talk to most teachers in the West you'll find they spend a lot of time managing the behaviour of their children, of their students, especially in the early years and a little less time teaching."

Chu understands the Chinese way of teaching will prompt some parents to revolt but suggests to keep an open mind.

"The Chinese way is going to require more memorization in the early years but have some faith because if you look at the research, you know, learning actually happens when you commit certain pieces of knowledge to the back of the brain."

While she's still not sure if her son will stay in the Chinese school system as he gets older, for now Chu is open to the possibility of blending East and West.

"We have to adjust our thinking a little bit around these issues. Discovery learning is fantastic and in the West, we're so good at that but try something a little different in the early years, cement that knowledge and then move on." 

Listen to the full conversation near the top of this web post.

This segment was produced by The Current's Samira Mohyeddin.