Tutoring in Asia - Why Asians get Superior Test Scores?

October 25, 2012

private tutoring in Asia - key for top test scores or is it culture valuing education or language?

Asian parents spend billions of dollars on private tutors for their children according to the New York Times and recent study. This pan-Asian phenomenon is called shadow education or "tuition" and popular with  both the poorer countries  as well as the wealthy.

Is it a coicidence that Asian countries (like Singapore, Hong Kong, Taiwan and Japan) get top math and science  scores in TIMISS and the top education systems in the world were all in Asian regions like Hong Kong, South Korea, Shanghai and Singapore? Is there a reason for Asians very high  SAT scores or why the top five nations by IQ just happens to be Hong Kong, South Korea, Japan, Taiwan, and Singapore? Does learning to read and write 400,000 pictoral symbols as a young child ( as the Chinese do) affect math reasoning and IQ?

"American 15 -year olds ranked 25th in math and 21st in science when compared to nations around the world" Obama

"Chinese parents will sacrifice almost anything for their child's education. They realize firsthand, "History is a race between education and catastrophe," as H.G. Wells put it. In China, the disposable income of middle-class families is more likely to be spent on education than leisure or entertainment." William Bennet

According to TIMSS report ( the gold standard comparing countries education) American students are very low in 4th grade,  by 8th grade, USA students are in the bottom third, and at the finish line, the U.S. is near dead last. Is it the "Tiger Mother" approach that makes a difference ( made famous by a Yale Law professor)? I think most Chinese attribute their success on tests like SAT's etc., more  based on cultural values where hard work, sacrifice, good work habits and education are stressed.

Mandarin school in Asia - this is the lunch area where my daughter does her tutoring after school

As we travel the world as a family these last 7 years while  using travel to educate ( homeschooling/unschooling/worldschooling) as well as dipping  into schools in Spain and Asia for language immersion, we ponder these things and the pros and cons of an Asian education.

My child's Mandarin school in Malaysia is on a totally different schedule than the USA, ( doing a January to November school year), so this week she has finals and the school year is about to end.  We are particularly thrilled about how well she is doing in Algebra considering she is the youngest in the class by years, it is taught only in advanced Mandarin and she is the only Caucasian in this gifted class. She has been doing Algebra for a while, but this is at a more advanced level and the physics is fun for her ( supplemented at home in English)

She enjoys math and science and they have always been easy for her ( thankfully Dad teachers that one since he is a math whiz too and we've always taught it in an Asian manner using Singpore math. It was my  research that found the Singapore option when she was 3 and it suits her learning style of not needing lots of repetition and easy to travel with).

We've always done private tuturing to some extent with her for things like mulitlingual language learning and music instruments, but the private tutoring in Asia is very different. Almost all the kids do them regularly starting from first grade or earlier. Tutors can come to your home, or do it with teachers after school or go to a "tuition" school after school or on weekends. We've done all three options here ( almost all just for Mandarin as it is a tough language to master the writing well). The prices here are excellent for tutoring and most of the teachers are quite good.

Last semester we gave her extra tutoring in all subjects lke physics, biology, Algebra etc, just to keep up with the advanced Mandarin, but we soon found that just too much for our family. This semester we went back to just Mandarin tutoring 2 times a week after school and Saturday music classes in piano, violin, voice and digital composing ( subjects she enjoys).


Doing after school tutoring with her Chinese teacher at her Mandarin shool in Asia - an American doing the Asian tuition route to raise scores and help learning

I don't always agree with the ways the Chinese educate, but I do like the Asian focus about valuing education so much. I am glad Mozart has been able to experience the pros and cons of this system as that alone, teaches one much about the culture. It reminds me of the sign at her Mandarin school that she sees every day " Be the best, beat the rest". We often have great discussions about the cultural differences and comparing the pros and cons of different ways of thinking and educating.

In his book, Gladwell had some interesting theories about why Asians do so well in math and part of it seems to be connected to the language. One interesting study showed that perhaps learning Mandarin writing affected IQ as Chinese students had a 5 to 7 point advantage over western kids that seems to come from superior visual/spatial skills that comes with learning to read and write Chinese.

"Our findings support the assumption that reading and writing systems are powerful methods for influencing the developent of mental abilities, and perhaps brain growth, in individuals and in cultures. " Demetriou

I am not sure if I believe any of these theories, but they are thought-provoking and lead me to think there might be some credance to more benefits of language learning that goes beyond just learning the language and the culture. I am not sure I would want her in this system as a young child, or her whole life, but it's been very interesting for her to experience it at this age and I think also good for an unschooled free spirit to learn and get a taste of  the "game of school'", competition, grades, testing etc. before college.

Mozart, like her father ( and the engineers and architects on both sides of our family) has always had exceptional spatial skills ( remember that exceptional puzzle mastery before two) so perhaps that is why math and Mandarin writing are fairly easy for her. Both she and her father can do so much more complicated math in their heads that I can, partly because of those spatial skills.

What do you think about tutors? Have you used tutors before or do you privately tutor your child during some homeschooling or afterschooling? What do you see as the weaknesses in an Asian education? What can we all learn from Asian education? What would the ideal look like? How much parental and cultural influence is in play?

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Amanda S

Hello, I love this blog. I actually find it hard to read sometimes because I so want to travel this way with my family, unfortunately the funds don't allow at the moment. But we continue to work and save toward at least a year of travel :)
I like this blog about tutoring and education. I've often thought about getting a language tutor. We still struggle with how we want to handle our sons education (he'll be entering kindergarten next year).
We also want to get him music lessons, but wonder how best to do that with deciding on something that could also go with our travel plans and limited travel space (it seems the violin might be good because it's small. A guitar might work too since I also play it).
I've also wondered about a reading tutor for now. I think he would be capable of reading if I knew how to teach it. I've read of so many methods and don't know how to go about it.

Anyways, I hope to get a tutor for our son at some point because it seems the best way to on one. It would also be good as we travel and perhaps we can skype with the tutor for further lessons.
Thank you for all the wisdom you share of education and travel...I love it all :)

jeanne @soultravelers3

So happy to hear you love reading our blog Amanda and I hope it inspires you and helps you keep your eye on the prize while you prepare.

When we began planning in 2004, there was almost nothing online about extended travel and now there is so much, so that makes things easier. Hang in there, it's always a challenge when one is in the prep phase.

Tutors and mentors can be great, but they can also be expensive outside of Asia. Look for ways around that like we did by getting native speakers to babysit for language that I talked about in raising a multilingual kid:

Violins are tiny for kids, so very easy to travel with but then guitar also sounds great for you guys because you play.

I don't know if I'd hire a tutor for reading as I think it is quite easy to aid a child in learning to read when they are ready. I'm going to write a post soon about raising a reader. My siblings and I all learned to read on our own before K ( with my Mom's encouragement). Just pass om your own love of books and excite them with the magic of them.

The important thing is to do LOTS of reading to young kids and encourage them to love books ( and I'd do very little exposure to online things in those early years as they get spoiled by the bells and whistles...instead of old fashion books. If you do them, limit the time and put more time into books, go to libraries, bookstores, free reading story time ops etc).

Do lots of talking and discussions with young kids, because building language levels is important key before reading.

When he is ready and knows all the letter sounds, start with the BoB books so he can start building his success gently.

Tutors by Skype can def work, but also keep in mind the costs. Sometimes it is easier to find a teen or senior nearby to help too.

One of one is def a great way to learn and one of the things we love about homeschooling and having only one child ( so we out number her and each can teach different things).

Good luck and happy planning!


As a child, I was exposed to lots of tutoring on both ends. My mom often tutored other children at our house and I had several tutors for different science subjects. One thing that my parents did when I was in high school was to hire 2 math tutors and 2 physics tutors at the same time. They were all the top high school teachers in their subject, in our town, but they had very different methods of instruction. I hated it at the time, there was an enormous amount of work, and I had to solve math problems two different ways, to match the style of the teacher. With physics, I was able to get away most of the times with one way of solving it and presenting it, but the math teachers were too different in their approaches. Tangentially to math skills, what that has taught me, perhaps accidentally, is that there is always at least 2 ways to look/solve a problem. To this day, in my corporate or business dealings, I tend to always discuss 2 or more options to an issue that needs to be resolved. And I find myself more tolerant of different perspectives than a lot of my peers. Just some food for thought, for parents who think may want to hire tutors and may afford more than one. I certainly plan to do the same for my kids, one day.

While I am a believer in a parent being the best educator for his/her child (of course not always), I also think hiring tutors, even for subjects which the parent can clearly handle himself/herself because of their own education or experience, is an excellent practice. Also tutoring does not have to be one on one, most of the tutoring I have been exposed to as a child was in a group setting - which it has its own disadvantages and advantages. Even if my daughter is only 2 now, she has been exposed to some sort of tutoring. Some individualized in our house, some in a class setting. Of course, all is play but I look at it as a structured form of play, a different kind of play that the one she does by herself or with me. Also, as a tool to help me or give me ideas about what I can do with her.

To conclude my 2 cents opinion, tutoring is expensive but I think quite worth it. Not only to help the child in his or her weak areas, but to offer different perspectives and more discipline to learning a subject. Of course the key is to find the right and the best tutors for the child and that is not always easy.

Jeanne @soultravelers

Thanks Violeta,

Sorry it's taken me a while to answer this, but I loved it as usual. Time is just flying by as we prepare for China.

Amanda S

Thank you! I really appreciate your input! We plan for our sons 4th birthday to buy him some easy reader books and a lamp for his room and encourage him to have 15 min before bed to just look through books. I find it's the thing he has a harder time with (just sitting and looking at books). He loves reading books with us and has a greater attention span for it than most kids his age. He also loves kids chapter books (still likes pictures in them though). I think he will pick it up, I just sometimes feel like I don't know how to teach him. I'm sure, together with my husband, he will do just fine.
I've looked into hiring a french speaking student from the francophone high school nearby. I hope to start that soon.
Thanks again for all your suggestions and encouragement!

mey jansen

Grow up in Asean I hate tutoring. That's why my kids who was born in western countries and growing up in Australia now, i'm not put them in tutoring class. The school in these days is from 8-4 is very long, and after school they will have sport activities ( swimming, net ball, gymnastic), or doing music ( piano and violin). And also some other school activities like orchestra, choir or debating interschool. Isn't that betterr for kids to have better and healthy life that can stimulate their brain and rest also, rather than tutoring for school subjects and they got tired. it' s about competition, but I tought is more like parents put the kids in tutoring for their proud that their kids can excell than other kids? If later on my kids said oooh i need tutoring because i don't understand that subject, then that's ok.... if they need it. I thought the best is if the kids themselves love school, love the subjects and excited to learn new things.

Jeanne @soultravelers3

Yes, I agree Mey, tutoring can certainly be over done, as can school! I think even extra curric things like you mentioned added to school can "over book" them.

I think FREE time and self led learning and time to PLAY..especially outside in nature is VERY important for kids. Today's kids don't get enough of that and I think it is essential to create a sense of self.

BUT, then we are homeschoolers and life long learners by nature and like Gattos take on learning as I posted here:

Schools are a type of "adoption" he says where we allow strangers to raise our kids, so as strong attachment parents, we prefer to do it ourselves and just use a bit of school and tutoring etc to our advantage. ;)

Barry Mernin

Good stuff here.

I regularly help kids out over SKYPE and have found it to be very rewarding. Check out my blog about living and teaching overseas.

Jeanne @soultravelers3

Thanks Barry! Sounds cool, we use Skype a lot for various things.

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