The Learning Gap

by Harold Stevenson and James W. Stigler, Summit Books, New York 1992

In The Learning Gap, Harold W. Stevenson and James W. Stigler compare teachers, parents, children, schools, and educational practices in the United States, Japan, Taiwan, and China. The authors address many of the issues plaguing our schools and conclude, among other things, that parental involvement and expectations are critical to children’s learning and that schools should reward individual effort rather than emphasize innate ability.

The Learning Gap is a great companion to The Teaching Gap since both deal with educational issues that befall all coaches in Judo.


Americans, it turns out, were more willing than were Japanese or Chinese to attribute children’s academic successes and failures to innate abilities and disabilities; the Asians referred more to environmental factors and children’s own effort in their explanations of school performance. Because American teachers fear public failure might damage a child’s self-esteem, they generally do not send children to the blackboard to display their errors to the whole class. Moreover, Americans conceive of errors as a possible precursor of ultimate failure. People should strive to avoid errors and to give only the correct response- a routine that fits our culture and has been strengthened by the writings of behavioral psychologists such as B.F. Skinner.

Japanese and Chinese teachers and students have a different view. They regard mistakes as an index of what still needs to be learned. They expect that with persistence and effort, people will eliminate errors and eventually make the correct response. In the Japanese classroom, the child struggling at the board was displaying a positive, not a negative characteristic. His errors were not a matter of great concern; what would be worrisome would be the child’s failure to expend the effort necessary to correct them. This experience gave us a new appreciation of how errors, rather than being an index of failure, can be put to positive use in learning.

Finally, the pervasive emphasis on innate ability lowers expectations about what can be accomplished through hard work…Until Americans change their self-defeating beliefs about the limits that innate ability places on achievement, we have little hope for improving the quality of American education.

If standards are too high, and more is expected of children than they are considered to be capable of, children’s self-esteem could be damaged. To prevent this risk, Americans tend to adjust standards downward to a level considered to be appropriate for the child’s level of ability.

Alternatively, parents in America and Asia may know the truth about the children’s performance, but the Americans hide their children’s failures, while the Asians hide their children’s successes.

Educators in Communist China and in capitalist Japan and Taiwan agree that regardless of an individual child’s proclivities or interests, all children need to acquire certain basic information and fundamental skills…The goal of education, we were told by a Japanese education official, “is the reduction of individual differences among children.” Most Asian educators share this view; most Americans reject it.

In Japan, the system of teacher training is much like an apprenticeship. There is a systematic effort to pass on the accumulated wisdom of teaching practice to each new generation of teachers and to keep perfecting that kind of practice by providing for the continuing professional interaction of teachers…By Japanese law, beginning teachers must receive a minimum of twenty days of in-service training during their first year on the job. Supervising their training are master teachers, selected for their teaching ability and their willing ness to assist their young colleagues. During one-year leaves of absence from their own classrooms, they spend their days observing beginning teachers, offering suggestions for improvement, and counseling them about effective teaching techniques.

In Asia, the ideal teacher is a skilled performer. As with the actor or musician, the substance of the curriculum becomes the script or the score; the goal is to perform the role or piece as effectively and creatively as possible. Rather than executing the curriculum as a mere routine, the skilled teacher strives to perfect the presentation of each lesson. She uses the teaching techniques she has learned and imposes her own interpretation on these techniques in manner that she thinks will interest and motivate her pupils. Teachers ask questions for different reasons in the United States and in Japan. In the United States, the purpose of a question is to get an answer. In Japan, teachers pose questions to stimulate thought. A Japanese teacher considers a question to be a poor one if it elicits and immediate answer, for this indicates that students were not challenged to think. One teacher we interviewed told us of discussions she had with her fellow teachers on how to improve teaching practices. “What do you talk about?” we wondered. “A great deal of time,” she reported, “is spent talking about questions we can pose the class- which wordings work best to get students involved in thinking and discussing the material. One good question can keep a whole class going for a long time; a bad one produces little more than a simple answer.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *