Eastern and Western Learning Styles: The
Paradox of Asian Learners
A review of
Cultural Foundations of Learning: East and West
by Jin Li
New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 2012. 385 pp. ISBN
978-0-521-76829-0 (hardcover); ISBN 978-0-521-16062-9 (paperback).
$99.00, hardcover; $34.99, paperback
Jean Lau Chin
The foundations of Eastern versus Western thinking, philosophy, values, and practices are
often said to be made up of contrasts. Collectivism versus individualism, mindfulness versus
mastery, modesty versus assertiveness, and interdependence versus independence are among
the dichotomies used to capture the unique differences and often opposite characteristics
between peoples from the East and peoples from the West (Littrell, 2006).
At times, Western thinking is associated with modernity whereas Eastern thinking is
associated with traditionalism. Sometimes these dichotomies reflect underlying assumptions
and biases about the superiority of Western thinking and behavior—from both Eastern and
Western thinkers. At the same time, many note the remarkable educational attainment of
Asian students in their diligence and motivation for achievement while bemoaning the lack
of application among Western students.
Jin Li has a refreshing outlook on the cultural foundations of learning, comparing
Eastern with Western learners. She is an “insider” with a Chinese perspective who was
educated in the West at the graduate level. In her book Cultural Foundations of Learning:
East and West, Li examines East Asian foundations of learning after her Western education
impressed upon her to reject and question their very validity. Her emic perspective enables
her to understand the nuances within an Asian perspective often missed by those coming
from an etic or outsider perspective. In returning to her roots, she finds new complexity and
value in East Asian foundations of learning and presents an important conceptual distinction
between the Western mind model and the East Asian virtue model.
At the core of the East Asian learner is the aim of “transforming oneself,” consistent
with Confucian principles, whereas at the core of the Western learner is the aim of “learning
to master the universe,” consistent with Socratic principles. What does this mean?
Cultivating the self to become perfected morally and socially (i.e., the virtue model) in the
East Asian tradition places the emphasis on one’s internal world, the whole person, and
perfecting the person, namely, one’s authenticity and one’s integrity. In contrast, cultivating
the mind to understand and master the world (i.e., mind model) in the Western tradition
places the emphasis on the external world, the mind and critical thinking, knowledge of the
world, and the products and things in the universe represented by the sciences.
Li suggests that Western learning has led to the creation of scientific knowledge and
products that have been used to eliminate disease, improve health, reduce hunger, and
provide shelter worldwide. On the other hand, she suggests that East Asian learning has led
to China’s decline; its rude awakening to its decline after the Cultural Revolution resulted in
the rejection of Confucianism, seen to be the root cause. Confucianism was the philosophic
foundation of society for thousands of years, prescribing the rules of engagement for the
ruling classes prior to communism.
Although Li notes how East Asian students as well as countries have moved toward
Western values of democracy, self-determination, and individualism in their education, she
fails to note how Westerners and Western European countries have moved toward East
Asian values of collectivism and interdependence in response to their own perceived decline.
In an examination of the foundations of learning in the East and West, one can see the
contrasts, but the perspective of the observer as an insider and outsider to Asian and Western
cultures needs to be taken into consideration. Surely such perspectives influence the
interpretation of the rise and decline of civilizations.
An examination of Eastern and Western cultural foundations as one of contrasts does
not explain some interesting phenomena of our times. Why is it that East Asian students
excel in math and science and are more likely to major in the sciences in Western settings? If
the foundations of learning in East Asian cultures focus on the whole person and self-
perfection, should students not be majoring in philosophy and the humanities rather than the
sciences, which emphasize mastery of the external world?
The answer may come in distinguishing between learning goals and learning
outcomes. Although the goals of the East Asian learner and the Western learner are based on
a virtue model (“to be”) and a mind model (“to do”), respectively, the intended outcomes of
learning for the Eastern learner are to contribute to society syntonic with a collective and
interpersonal orientation of the culture, whereas the intended outcomes of learning for the
Western learner are to reach personal goals syntonic with an individual and self-actualization
Another phenomenon is the Asian educational system and learning styles, often
criticized as consisting of rote memorization and viewed as learning without meaning; it is
compared with the Western educational system and learning styles that are said to nurture
creativity and curiosity. If this is so, why do Asian students excel within Western settings,
getting better grades when compared with their peers from other groups? One can examine
this question by looking at the process of how learning occurs.
Li makes a compelling case for the emphasis in Western education on knowing, on
nurturing the mind, and on critical thinking; therefore, the process of learning is to focus on
satisfying natural curiosity, interest, playfulness, and enjoyment. In the East, the emphasis is
on the whole person, on perfecting the self, and on committing knowledge to one’s memory.
However, what is often missed, according to Li, is that rote memorization is but the
initial stage of a developmental and complex process of learning. In order to achieve a
complex understanding of a poem or passage, for example, one must first commit it to
memory; only then can one analyze and discern the complexity of its meaning. Chinese rote
learning is not an end in itself but is used as the first step of a larger strategy for achieving
deeper understanding. Repetitive learning is suggested as an alternative term to describe this
as a different process whereby the Western learner starts with exploration followed by
development of skills, but the Chinese learner develops the skills first that then pave the way
for creativity (Wong, 2004).
Hence, rote memorization among Chinese learners is often reduced to a simplistic
caricature of the message in a Chinese fortune cookie, when, in fact, the repetitive learning
of complex passages enables the learner to gain new and deeper meaning. This is also
inherent in the structure of the Chinese language itself, which values and favors complexity
of meaning and brevity of expression; a simple poem or couplet of eight words in Chinese is
more powerful than pages of words.
One might also ask: Why do Chinese students show the degree of seriousness and
achievement motivation that they do? Some have pointed to the rigorous examination system
in China that creates the pressure toward rigorous study. It does not, however, explain why a
similar orientation exists among Chinese American immigrant students.
The achievement motivation of Chinese students has been attributed to the family
values and work ethic governed by Confucian principles, although these same principles are
found in the Protestant ethic. Others have explained this to be a result of social mobility, the
view that education is a means to get ahead for those in low socioeconomic strata; however,
this does not explain why affluent Chinese children have the same achievement motivation.
The answer lies in the virtue model of learning, which emphasizes self-perfection and
reward for effort and diligence. It suggests that all learners, not just a select few, can achieve
Many have criticized the heavy use of examinations in Asian countries as the main
mechanism for controlling access to the next educational level for students; it has been
viewed by many as reflecting an educational approach that is too teacher centered and
authoritarian, favoring learning by rote memorization, fostering extrinsic motivation, and
stifling creativity. Given the hellish toll that examinations take on students in determining
their future, why does the system persist? In a society that relies on quanxi (i.e., the
exchange of interpersonal favors) and places a high value on education, the system enables
those holding power over educational access to avoid the moral dilemmas of corruption and
nepotism when family members and friends request favorable treatment; the examination
provides an objective criterion for meritorious recognition.
These phenomena are best described as the paradox of Asian learners. The virtue
model of Asian learning rewards effort and diligence, not merit, whereas the examination
system rewards merit. This model emphasizes perfecting the whole person, not just the
mind, and its intended outcomes are for the learner to contribute to society and discharge his
or her obligations. It emphasizes rote learning while expecting the subsequent development
of deep understanding and creativity.
Although one can describe many opposing characteristics between the virtue model
and the mind model, it is not a question of which is better. Rather, the different and
contrasting perspectives of the two models need to be in balance, with perhaps one or the
other made more prominent because of culture. The decline of civilizations is consistent with
those societies that have pursued one perspective to the exclusion of others; the maladaptive
learner is the one who fails to adapt to the exigencies of the host culture.
On the other hand, did the decline of China occur because Chinese emperors
embraced Confucian principles superficially and became distracted by seeking power and
wealth over achieving self-perfection to the detriment of the country? Can we say the same
of the Western powers embracing democracy, self-determination, and mastery to the point of
leaders abusing power to attain White supremacy and justify the colonization of “others”?
This drives home the point that in examining the foundations of learning in the East and
West, the essential principle is one of yin–yang balance, not one of contrasts. Li’s book is
worth reading because it provides a perspective rarely found in tomes on East–West
Littrell, R. F. (2006). Learning styles of students in and from Confucian cultures. In O. S.
Heng, G. Apfelthaler, K. Hansen, & N. Tapachai (Eds.), Intercultural communication
competencies in higher education and management. Singapore: Marshall Cavendish
Wong, J. K.-K. (2004). Are the learning styles of Asian international students culturally or
contextually based? International Education Journal,4, 154–166.
January 9, 2013, Vol. 58, Release 2, Article 4
© 2013, American Psychological Association