Educational Tradeoff

Posted in Thoughts

My new favorite podcast is Exponent, a podcast hosted by business analyst types Ben Thompson and James Allworth. They tend to talk a lot about the tech industry and its movements, but often provide subtle insights that, while still self-serving to a degree1, are usually thought-provoking.

In a recent episode (It’s Complicated), Ben characterized the philosophy behind Asian-style education in a way that I’ve never thought about before. Starting around timestamp 48:00,

Asian countries do very well in terms of testing…it’s understandable why, they know their stuff really, really well. But they know it by brute force, lots of memorization, a lot of rote learning. What’s good about that is that you have a very high floor…the risk, though, is the stifling that comes from having a high floor, a low ceiling.

It continues on for a little bit about how the internet-enabled economy rewards entrepreneurship.

My initial years of schooling happened in Hong Kong, and even when I was in kindergarten, I felt the expectations and rigor that were only echoed in a college classroom, 13 years afterward. The standard teaching techniques relied on brute force and repetition, which meant that school hours were woefully insufficient to cover all the work. It’s no wonder that the multiple Asian countries—having chosen to maintain this intense level of study for a decade of their students’ lives—deal with elevated rates of depression and teenage suicides. This also helps explain the desire for Asian parents to send their kids overseas for college: higher education in America has better branding, and the kids can escape the grueling competitiveness of the local university admissions systems.

Our current trend in America of overloading kids with homework was modeled by the systematic ways that Asian education systems did—and continue to—drill information into their children’s heads. And while this strategy may bolster test scores, rote conformity can result in lowering potential at the top. Analytically, reducing (educational) variance raises the floor and provides a better chance that students won’t be left fair behind, but also depresses the ceiling and makes it harder to break out from the median level of study.

In any case, given the breadth of study that I enjoyed in both Canadian and American schools, I’m pretty glad to not have been forced to endure the Asian school system.


  1. Ben runs a paid newsletter that further expands on his topics of discussion.