Monday, October 2, 2017

Teach Your Kids The Drive to Learn - Interview with Author Dr. Cornelius Grove

Want your kids to be more successful in school and in life? We sure do.  Why are some children more successful than others? We certainly want to find out! That's why we interviewed Dr. Cornelius Grove, author of The Drive to Learn!

Why did you write The Drive to Learn?

Jennifer and Tony, thank you for giving me this opportunity to share my views. Since around 1970, an increasing number of Americans has become concerned about the accumulating evidence that our young people are not learning as much in school as the youth of several other cultures. Often noted as attaining superior academic results are Finland, Poland, Singapore, China, Japan, and Korea.
Among Americans who share this concern, the response is invariably to develop a wide variety of “reforms” for what goes on in schools. Well, that’s a reasonable thing to do. But let’s note that virtually all of our reforms address the roles of adults – educators and educational policy-makers – in enabling children to learn in classrooms. Virtually none of our reforms address the roles of the
children themselves in actually doing the learning in classrooms.

Surely the fact that our children aren’t learning enough isn’t 100% the fault of the adults. It’s the children who aren’t learning enough. They bear some of the responsibility. They’re part of the problem, so they must be part of the solution.

Professionally, I’m an interculturalist. Interculturalists focus on the differences between cultures at the level of assumptions, values, mindsets, and behaviors.

We like to compare different cultures. So my concern with the state of American education transforms into this question: “What can we learn from other modern cultures where the children consistently learn more in classrooms than American children do? What’s happening there that differs from what’s happening here?”

My next question quickly becomes, “Are there any other cultures about which we already know a great deal about all the factors that can possibly help to explain why children there learn more in classrooms?” 

Fortunately, the answer is “Yes!” We know a huge amount about children’s learning in East Asia: China, Japan, and Korea (and including Taiwan and Hong Kong). Since 1970, more than 500 studies
have provided answers to why children there learn more than children here. (Be aware that the findings don’t necessarily reflect student learning in East Asia today.)

The more I became acquainted with this mountain of research findings, the more I recognized that it’s loaded with insights that potentially are useful for our understanding of our own predicament. And here the thing: That research didn’t address only what happens in schools. It also addressed what happens in other areas of youngsters’ lives, especially in their homes. These findings are invaluable!

Why did I write The Drive to Learn

Because these findings are virtually unknown 1 to the American public, including to educators and educational policy-makers. I say “virtually unknown” because one important, research-based book did come to the attention of the American public during the early 90s: The Learning Gap, by Harold W. Stevenson & James W. Stigler (Simon & Schuster, 1992). So I made it my mission to share the researchers’ conclusions. I was in a good position to do this because I had lived and taught in China during 1986 and subsequently co-authored Encountering the Chinese (3rd Edition: Hachette, 2010).

How do successful students use class time?

The research makes it clear that East Asian students have expectations about the purpose of class time that differ sharply from American students’ expectations. In East Asia, the mastery of academic knowledge is deeply respected. Therefore, teachers are deeply respected. Books and other repositories of knowledge are treasured. And the time and intense effort required for a young person to master academic knowledge is widely admired. In fact, children who study long and hard to excel in school confer honor and “face” on their families within their community. When you put young people with these beliefs and values into a classroom with a teacher widely respected for her academic accomplishments, the outcome is going to be quite different from the typical outcomes in American classrooms.

That’s because East Asian young people view their in-class time as a valuable opportunity: Here’s their chance to gain knowledge from authoritative sources, the teacher and the textbook. Only 45 to 60 minutes are available; therefore…

East Asian students are quietly attentive. They are mentally engaged. They do not interrupt the teacher’s carefully planned delivery with questions or comments; that would take time away from the authoritative source. There is no expectation that they will be broken into small groups for discussions. Nor that the teacher will make the learning fun, lead them in a game, or seek their creative ideas. Nor that the last 10 minutes of class time will be for them to get started on the homework.

No! Anything that deprives their teacher of teaching time to teach is avoided. East Asian students certainly might have questions as the teacher makes her presentation. They might disagree with something, or even have a creative idea about a point the teacher made. All this may and does happen – mentally. But class time is not the time for students to speak. Class time is the teacher’s time to deliver knowledge. Class time is the students’ time to be receptive to the teacher.

How do successful students spend time outside of class?

The research also makes it clear that East Asian students have expectations about the purpose of out-of- classroom time that differ sharply from American students’ expectations. Yes, both American and East Asian students are given homework to be completed outside of class. (And let’s note the constant push here in America to reduce or even eliminate homework.) But that’s where the similarity ends.

Most of the “active learning” activities that Americans expect to find happening inside classrooms also happen in East Asia – outside of classrooms. And here’s the critical point: These activities are neither organized by, nor suggested by, the teachers. They’re initiated by the students themselves (above the primary grades). What are we talking about here? We’re talking about asking and answering questions, discussing, exploring, disagreeing with the material, offering one’s own ideas, discovering through additional research, finding practical applications – the types of activities that many American teachers try to make happen during class time. In East Asia, these occur in small study groups spontaneously organized by the students. Sound odd? Remember, academic learning is deeply respected inEast Asia; the existence of these study groups is one way we know that to be true.

If students want to ask the teacher a question, here is how that happens. First, there’s the time immediately after class, when students approach the teacher in the corridor outside the classroom. Then there are other times as well, such as at student-teacher social gatherings (which occur fairly often in East Asia). Or a student might even arrange to visit the teacher or professor in his home. In these cases, before approaching the teacher, a student typically does research on his own or within his study groups. The outcome is that, instead of simply asking the teacher about something not understood, the student is prepared to have an intelligent discussion with the teacher about a range of related factors. I taught in Beijing during 1986 and personally experienced student questions of these types.

How can Western parents help instill a drive to learn in their children?

The challenge that we must recognize is this: It’s the history and culture of East Asia that instills a drive to learn in East Asian families. Families, in turn, instill that drive in their newest members, their children. The history and culture of the United States is strikingly different in this respect. For anyone who would like to gain a deeper understanding of this fact, I recommend the Pulitzer Prize-winning book by historian Richard Hofstadter, Anti-Intellectualism in American Life (1970). But the insight of those 500+ research studies remains valuable: Children who arrive at the schoolhouse door with a drive to learn are mostly the daughters and sons of parents with a drive to learn. We’re talking about academic learning, about the mastering of STEM subjects and other critical skills such as writing. Also revealed by the research is that parents in the two cultures – American and East Asian – have different ways to conveying their dedication to their child’s learning. American parents assume that, once their child is in kindergarten or first grade, his or her learning is largely the responsibility of the teachers. They see their role as supporting the teachers and the school. With their child, they largely assume the roles of encourager, cheerleader, self-esteem preserver, and – if absolutely
necessary – enforcer of rules such as homework-completion and media-limits.

East Asian parents tend to operate on a different assumption: that their child’s learning is continuously their responsibility. The key here is that in East Asia, the mastery of academic knowledge is deeply respected; a child’s doing so brings respect and “face” to the family. So the parents’ role is a proactive one.

In the book, I compare an East Asian parent’s role to that of an athletic coach. They are not merely cheerleaders. They are not self-esteem boosters (the child’s self-esteem grows organically as the result of hard work and high marks). Parents are participants with their child in insuring that he or she excels academically.

Look at the photo on the cover of The Drive to Learn. It shows a parent, at home, participating with her child in persevering study. I commissioned that photo, and I directed the photo shoot, to convey a parent’s responsibility being carried out.

The teacher? The teacher is very important as the respected authority on her subject. Her responsibility is to carefully prepare and coherently present classroom lessons. That’s not identical to responsibility for each student’s learning of that subject, which East Asian parents maintain as their responsibility.

There’s good news and bad news here. The good news is that, thanks to half a century of research and over 500 published research reports, we finally understand why East Asian students tend to perform better academically than other groups. The bad news is that we finally understand why they perform better academically. It has nothing to do with their native intelligence, their I.Q. or their aptitude. It has everything to do with their perseverance in studying, guided by their parents’ investment of thousands of hours of coaching, drilling, and participating. It’s a huge parental commitment and, let’s face it, it’s not what most American parents are ready to sign on for.

How does this book relate to your previous book?

In 2013, Rowman & Littlefield published The Aptitude Myth: How an Ancient Belief Came to Undermine Children’s Learning Today. Back around 2006, I had become curious about why most Americans assume that that a child’s school performance is due very largely to his native intelligence or I.Q. In most of the rest of the world, parents subscribe to what our own Ben Franklin said was the
recipe for success: “ninety-nine percent perspiration, one percent inspiration.” The deeper I dug for an explanation, the farther back in time I had to go to discover the source of Americans’ assumption about inborn aptitude. Well, I did find the source: Pythagoras, around 600 B.C.E.! But he wasn’t the main instigator. Culprit No. 1 was Aristotle, arguably the most influential thinker in all of Western
history. And right up there sharing the blame with Aristotle is the 19th century British philosopher and popular lecturer, Herbert Spencer. Spencer is so important to this story that he gets two chapters in The Aptitude Myth.

Anyone who finds the history of ideas fascinating is likely to enjoy reading The Aptitude Myth. And anyone can find more about it at

What else would you like to share about your book?

The Drive to Learn, which is only 182 pages long, is organized as a process of discovery. It begins by asking the basic question, “Why do American students learn less than East Asian students?” By referencing research findings, it finds an answer to that question, but recognizes that the answer raises a new question. Again by referencing the research, it finds the answer to that question – but recognizes that the answer raises still another new question… By the end of Chapter Nine, all questions are answered. Then, Chapter Ten addresses the practical question facing American parents, which is “To what extent could – should – this new information change the way we do things?” The Drive to Learn is extremely unusual in one way: It comes with an annotated bibliography! In writing the book, I relied heavily on 100 of those research reports. For each one of those 100, I wrote an annotation of 200 to 300 words. They’re not in the book.
They’re at

Where can people find out more from you?

I would be very happy to communicate with anyone interested in either of my two books via the “Contact” page of

Author of The Aptitude Myth (Rowman & Littlefield, 2013)
Author of The Drive to Learn (Rowman & Littlefield, 2017)

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Authors - Dr. Jennifer and Dr. Tony Edwards

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