My Take

Expat kids in Kumon tutorials a sign their parents learning from Chinese

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 08 February, 2014, 5:06am
UPDATED : Saturday, 08 February, 2014, 5:40am

Kumon, as you know if you are a Hong Kong parent or teacher, is rote learning at its purest. It's a popular franchise of tutorial schools in which students do the same types of maths problems or write the same Chinese characters and phrases endlessly until they have mastered them and move on to the next level and so on. It's all about speed and accuracy rather than understanding.

Recently, I find more and more expatriate pupils from international schools joining my kids' Kumon classes. To be sure, they are still a small minority. Like the mutual demonising and stereotyping between the pan-dems and the pro-Beijing groups, some local Chinese parents think international schools are just expensive play centres while other parents, often expats, think cram schools and the rote learning characteristic of local schools just turn out uncreative automatons without an original thought in their heads. Luckily, there is some crossover among many parents who take a more balanced view. I wish there were more of them.

There are things when you are just starting that you have to learn by rote and through disciplined training. Talk about creativity is a waste of time unless you have already achieved a degree of mastery. Maths is one example; learning a language another. Playing the piano, at least if you want to play it well, involves endless hours of practice. As author Malcolm Gladwell has claimed in his book Outliers, it takes roughly 10,000 hours of practice to achieve mastery in a field.

Amy Chua is arguing something similar, first with her tiger mum book and now a new one called The Triple Package. Her books inevitably produce outrage but they sell. But while Chua and Gladwell both advocate repetitive practice, Gladwell's practitioners want to do it while Chua's children clearly didn't. But that's Chua's point. Children as a rule don't know what's good for them and so they have to be disciplined and supervised. Her new book argues that some cultures encourage parents to do this while others are too permissive. Now that you have seen the extreme versions in Chua and many local Chinese parents in Hong Kong, the point is not to reject their approach wholesale but to moderate it to the appropriate extent.