Finding the Middle: Early Childhood Trends in Asia

BY AMITA GUPTA | The educational challenge in an age of rapid and intense globalization is to sustain locally relevant, yet globally competitive, educational discourse and practice. I am an early childhood teacher educator working with teachers and teacher educators in the United States and Asia. I have thus been privy to discussions about pedagogy and policy in both parts of the world over the last 25 years, as national governments try to adjust their educational systems in an increasingly connected world. In many ways, the policy trajectories have been diametrically opposed; the West (not a geographical direction but the white, English-speaking “developed” world) and Asia have learned from one another, but perhaps too much for their own good.

Many educators in Asia express frustration with the historic focus on academic rigor in Asian schools, and call for more nurture of children’s creativity, imagination and socio-cultural development, instead. At the same time, many educators in the United States decry the low academic ranking of their students in international assessments, and consequently demand higher standards. As a result, leaders in both countries have set in motion sweeping policy changes in education that are diametrically opposite in language and intent. I focus here upon the effects of Western pedagogy upon Asian educational systems and argue that the either/or approach brings real risk.

Asian Educational Culture and Western Norms

Asian societies have, historically, emphasized both academic rigor and communitarian values. In countries such as Japan, Korea, China, Singapore, and India, test scores from a national examination have served as gate-keepers to higher education. The pressures of this score-driven system have systematically filtered downwards, and the early childhood school curricula in these countries have, likewise, been exam-based, text-book-driven, and teacher-directed. At the same time, most children grew up within extended family systems and learned to negotiate large class sizes and multiple mothering and teaching from all the adults in their lives. Interdependence has long been more socially valued than individual autonomy.

Enter the effects of globalization and neoliberalism, and over time, the values inherent in Western pedagogy have begun to shape the Asian educational landscape. On the one hand, the structures of Asian systems have become more standardized, with stricter licensing protocols and privatization of educational institutions. On the other hand, the content of Asian policies has sponsored an increasingly progressive narrative, in keeping with Western approaches to early childhood. This has meant that, within such phrases as “child-centered” and “learner-friendly,” we can find new norms of individualism, assertiveness, self-advocacy, open expression of feelings, standing up for one’s rights, and an emphasis on choice and majority rule. These qualities, valued within a progressive Western pedagogy, may result in cultural incursions when imposed.

Also common within progressive discourse is the high priority accorded to individualistic skills and behaviors. In the United States, children as young as 2 and 3 are assessed for the “age-appropriate” skills of autonomy and independence. Learning how to wear one’s coat in the “magic way” is a popular technique whereby preschool teachers encourage children to be independent of adult help at a very young age. This sits uncomfortably in the more collectivist cultures found in Asia and other parts of the world where the adult-child continuum exists for a longer period of time, valued for the extended opportunities it offers to strengthen bonds between child and caregiver. This bonding is prioritized over the development of autonomy in young children within communities that value interdependence.

In another example, progressive early childhood classrooms in the West are equipped with sufficient materials for each child to have his or her own. In many parts of Asia, such abundance is simply not financially possible nor, I submit, socially desirable. Abundant materials, time, space, and teachers, minimize opportunities for learning to share and unintentionally undermine the community values that Asians have held dear.

Or in Chinese-speaking societies, where reading and writing depends upon memorizing thousands of characters within a tonal language and mastering precise calligraphic techniques, the teaching of whole language skills such as invented spelling are not as effective. Yet, Western practices like the whole language approach have been viewed by many local educators as necessary for sound learning. In one community-based kindergarten center in Singapore a Chinese Room was designated in which children would learn reading and writing of Chinese characters in the traditional way. The center additionally had a Phonics Room where the 4 and 5 year olds would spend 30-40 minutes every day learning the English language based on the Phonics approach. The teachers had observed that in the play-based, child-centered home classrooms the kindergartners continued to struggle with learning English, but after experiencing a more structured approach to language in the Phonics Room, the children demonstrated a higher level of comfort and ease in their language development by the end of the year.

The Evaluation Regime

The new ideals have consequences for school leaders on the ground. At the level of high policy, the general themes of progressive education, such as “child-centered” and “learner-friendly,” have been adopted as standard quality indicators. These, along with other indicators recommended by UNICEF (, have been rapidly incorporated into school policies across Asia. For schools to be considered “quality,” they must provide well-equipped classrooms with teachers who have been trained in progressive pedagogy. While well-resourced schools can implement the material requirements, being graded as “high quality” is simply not possible for many of the classrooms in rural and high-poverty areas.

A “low-quality” label has dire implications for schools such as not being awarded funding from global foundations/organizations, and being viewed negatively by the community. As local families seek out the “high quality” schools for their children, the “low quality” schools lose on enrollment, teacher retention, and struggle to stay open. The unfortunate results are that children who are most disadvantaged lose access to educational opportunity, and the schools that succeed may be unintentionally sacrificing more than they realize to fit the new mold.

In short, under new norms associated with Western pedagogy, many Asian schools and classrooms would be deemed “unsound”. But the willing westernization of schools in Asia through progressive educational practices may have lasting negative impact: a disruption of the values of collectivism and communality that have distinguished Asian education and ways of being; and an undermining of the academic rigor that has historically strengthened proficiency and access to higher education across Asia as a result of penalizing those schools and teachers who continue to promote strong academic work within a communitarian environment.


The larger story here is that we need to engage more critically with the imposition of a “one-size-fits-all” model and an inappropriate application of “appropriate” standards. Neither progressive nor traditional approaches constitute an unalloyed good for students. It is certainly a challenge for developing countries when foreign consultants or philanthropic donors promote global or Western rhetoric and seek to impart their own agendas and educational values. It is problematic when early childhood educators assess local programs according to Western definitions of the “standard” pedagogy, and find them lacking. These themes are explored in detail in my books.

This is one of the dangers of using labels such as “child-centered” and “teacher-directed;” they are not only binary and inflexible, but their strict usage flattens out the nuances of real practice. The (healthy) reality is that early childhood education usually combines elements from both child-centered and adult-directed approaches. Unfortunately, as a consequence of this either/or debate, child-centered approaches become equated with “play” and teacher-directed activities with “work” – which further challenges a pedagogical resolution. Similarly, creativity (defined here as thinking outside the box) should not be limited to the arts – it is a cognitive skill equally essential to math and science.

I am not arguing for hermetically sealed educational systems; it is always beneficial to examine the best practices and pedagogies of other nations. However, caution is advisable as educators critique both ways. As Asian educators adapt lessons from the West, they need to honor their historically deep understanding of an academic knowledge base even as they also provide opportunities for children to develop their socio-emotional skills. Conversely, in the United States, the new emphasis upon skills should not be promoted at the expense of the nurture of creativity and socio-emotional skills – the chief tenets of progressive pedagogy.

In this complicated, interconnected, global milieu, it would be helpful to force pedagogical concepts away from labels that seem mutually exclusive. All of us need an approach that combines child-centered and teacher-directed teaching approaches in a guilt-free manner, acknowledging that both are required in order to prepare children to succeed in the highly globalized and technology-based world of the 21st century.

Consider what would happen, for instance, if we viewed the two approaches in a Venn Diagram, with a balanced approach situated somewhere within the third space of pedagogical hybridity: a learning environment carefully planned and presented by the teacher rife with meaningful opportunities for children to engage and interact with learning experiences, both socio-emotional and academic, with a high degree of interest, focus and passion.

Amita Gupta is Professor of Early Childhood Education at The City College of New York. Her most recent book, Diverse Early Childhood Education Policies and Practices: Voices and Images from Five Countries in Asia, has just been released (Routledge, 2014) to critical acclaim.

See also:

Early Childhood Education, Postcolonial Theory, Teaching Practices and Policies in India: Balancing Vygotsky and the Veda. New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan (2006/2013).

Play: Early Childhood Pedagogies and Policies in a Globalizing Asia. In Lillemyr, O.F., Dockett, S. & Perry, B. (Eds.) Varied Perspectives of play and learning: Theory and research on early years’ education. Information Age Publishing Inc. (2013).

Neoliberal globalization and pre-primary teacher education policy and practice in India, Sri Lanka and the Maldives. In D. Kapoor, B. Barua & A. Datoo (Eds.) Globalization, Culture and Education in South Asia: Critical Excursions. New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan. (2012).

Play and pedagogy framed within India’s historical, socio-cultural and pedagogical context. In S. Rogers (Ed.) Rethinking Play and Pedagogy in Early Childhood Education: Concepts, Contexts and Cultures. Oxford, UK: Routledge. (2011).

Vygotskian perspectives to enhance children’s development and balance creativity with structure in the early childhood classroom. Early Child Development and Care. 179(8), 1041-1054. (2009).

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