While we fear decline, other countries work to model US educational practices

I left the Americas for the first time in December 2011 to explore the possibility of developing debate in China and to recruit students for the Harvard Debate Council Summer Workshops. Since then, academic debate really has taken off in China, and I have learned that it is flourishing all over the world. In a short thirteen months, I have visited China three times, Korea six times, and Qatar once to see the growth and development of debate across the world.

What strikes me the most  is the degree to which eastern countries are committed to improving their educational systems by importing contemporary western educational standards and practices, especially those supported by leading educational theorists in the United States. I find this particularly surprising because we are constantly criticizing our own US educational system for failing to compete against eastern countries  while also cutting back our own investments in these practices and institutions.

What do I mean by western educational standards and practices?

Primarily, contemporary western educational models and practices are concerned with encouraging students to become actively engaged and to participate in their own learning.  Today, modern educational theory supports  classroom practices that promote active learning, cooperative learning, and experiential learning.  Leading educational practitioners, including school superintendents and principals, are encouraging teachers to develop lessons that are grounded in these learning styles. All of these models encourage students to think, to discover, and to create.

This is in contrast to more traditional “factory” models of education that are common in other parts of the world and used to be common in the US. [There is criticism of the US educational system for not having moved as far away from this factory model as it needs to be (McTaggart)]. The basic idea behind the factory model is that teachers are the “sage on the stage” who profess knowledge to students who then regurgitate that information back to the teacher. Students are assessed based on their mastery of the knowledge based on standardized testing.


Although the US educational system has worked to move away from this model, it is common in the eastern countries such as China.  Students in eastern countries are instructed in docile classroom settings where large numbers of students are normally taught in classrooms of 50 students to master material that is taught to them by teachers and then are asked demonstrate their mastery of that knowledge on the test. They are required to accept what the teacher says to be true and not to think critically about the accuracy and value of what is being taught.  The single focus is on the master of the content professed by the teacher.

In fact, I think it is fair to say that in China and other eastern countries that students, teachers, and educational policy makers are obsessed with testing for mastery of content knowledge.  Many Chinese students, for example, spend so much time studying for tests that they do not have any time for friends or physical fitness.

In China and elsewhere, an interest moving a sole focus on testing to developing students who think, discover, and create, is motivating their interest western learning styles activities that promote student engagement such as academic debating. Decision-makers in these countries understand that while the US lags behind in many educational test score indicators that we do an exceptional job at developing leaders who think, create, and discover in a way that drives global innovation and brings new global brands to the marketplace.

Other countries succeed at copying US innovations, but they are not innovating themselves.  China, for example, has Weibo, but it is a Twitter knock-off.  China has Renren, but it is a Facebook knock-off.  Countries such China know that they will continue to lag behind the United States unless they teach their students to to discover, create, and think. Meghan Stack, writing in the Los Angeles Times, explains:

In a sense, this is the underbelly of a rising China: the fear that schools are churning out generations of unimaginative worker bees who do well on tests. The government has laid out an ambitious set of plans for education reform by 2020, but so far it’s not clear how complete or wide-ranging the changes will be — or whether they will ease the immense pressure on teens in families hungry for a place in the upper or middle class.

“We have seen the advantages and the disadvantages of our education system, and our students’ abilities are still weak,” said Xiong Bingqi, an education expert at Shanghai’s Jiao Tong University. “They do very well in those subjects the teacher assigns them. They have huge vocabularies and they do math well. However, the level of their creativity and imagination is low.

“In the long run, for us to become a strong country, we need talent and great creativity,” Xiong said. “And right now, our educational system cannot accomplish this.”

Other countries such as Qatar know that their oil money will eventually run out and that they must move to develop new industries and products if their economies are going to be strong into the future. As a result, they developed Qatar’s Education for A New Era Initiative that began in 2001 as part of an effort to “reform to attain high international standards as defined by the west” (Ellili-Cherif, 2012).

I recently had the opportunity to visit Doha, Qatar to take part in the Fourth Annual Conference on Argumentation, Rhetoric, and Debate that was hosted by Qatar Debate. The Conference was sponsored by the Qatar Foundation, the largest academic foundation in the world that is supporting Qatar’s educational initiatives.

Many of the presenters at the Argumentation Conference were from the Middle East, primarily from the Gulf States, and using debate and argumentation as a method to develop critical thinkers was a common theme of their presentations. In total, there were five panels that focused on critical thinking, including one in Arabic. Nineteen of the individual presentations addressed the subject. Farse Ahmed Mohammed from the Supreme Council of Education, Qatar, led a panel on “Integrating Critical Thinking Skills in the Teaching of Arabic.  I also saw applications of critical thinking skills in new areas, including art, literature, and the study of Islamic texts. It was also applied in traditional contexts such as civic engagement and the teaching of history and economics.

In addition to being the sponsor of this conference, the Qatar Foundation is the sponsor of an education city at the outskirts of Doha.   This city features world-class universities, including Georgetown, Northwestern, and Texas A&M. Enormous signs around the education city remind visitors to the campus, they want students there to think, create, and discover.


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And it is not just policy-makers that see the value of contemporary US educational methods, but they also understand that the best universities in the world are located in the west, primarily in the United States and the United Kingdom.  That is, after all, why we see these branch campuses in education cities such as the one in Qatar.

Today, students from all around the world desire admittance to these universities, and not just the branch campuses located in their home countries. In a recent visit to China (December 2012), I had the chance to visit the High School Associated with Remin University, which is regarded by many as the number on school in all of China.  Prominently displayed in the lobby of the school were four billboards that highlighted the western universities, primarily in the United States, that many of the graduating students will be attending.

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They also understand that to succeed in those universities, and even to be admitted to them, that they need experiences learning the in the ways that students in the West learn.  This is a significant factor driving their participation in activities such as academic debate.

While the US fears academic decline as measured by its scores on standardized tests vis-a-vis other countries, especially those in the east, decision-makers in these countries work to model, adapt, and incorporate contemporary US educational practices in order to compete through innovation in the future.  And while the US cuts financial support for innovative educational programming, other countries such as China and Qatar are investing billions in programs like advanced partnerships between government, industry, and universities.  And while the US cuts-back on K-12 education funding, other countries such as China and Qatar are investing millions in academic debating programs to provide students with experience in western learning methods.

If the US is going to compete in the future, we need to invest in the tremendous educational practices and institutions that we have developed and that have attracted admirers world-wide. If we don’t, those who are modelling our own practices and institutions are going to beat us at the game we have established, using the theories and practices that we have developed.


Ellili-Cherif, Maha; Romanowski, Michael H.; Nasser, Ramzi. All that glitters is not gold: challenges of teacher and school leader licensure licensing system in Qatar. In: International Journal of Educational Development, 2012, vol.32, n�3, p. 471-481