From Beijing: Academic Enthusiasm!

A recent Beijing visit left me marveling at students’ academic enthusiasm.  In explaining Asian students’ outperformance of North American students, researchers have documented cultural differences in conscientiousness. Asian students spend more time in school and much more time studying (and see here for one recent study of the academic diligence of Asian-Americans).

The Beijing experience gave me several glimpses of this culture difference in achievement drive and eagerness to learn.  For example, as I dined more than a half hour before speaking at the Peking University psychology department, word came that 160 students were already present.  After my talk in the overfilled auditorium (below), student hands across the room were raised, with some waving hands or standing up, pleading to be able to ask their questions.  And this was a Friday evening.

Later that weekend, I met with teachers of AP psychology, whose students at select Beijing high schools pay to take AP courses in hopes of demonstrating their capacity to do college-level work in English, and thus to gain admission to universities outside China.  Several of the teachers were Americans, one of whom chuckled when explaining that, unlike in the USA, she sought to demotivate her overly motivated students, encouraging them to lighten up and enjoy life.

The plural of these anecdotes of culture difference is not data. (My China sample was biased—high achieving students who had gained admission to the most elite schools.) But the experiences, which replicated what I experienced in a 2008 visit to Beijing, were memorable.