Are East Asian Students Robots?

Elementary and secondary school students in East Asia, particularly in Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan — are well known for their high ranks in international standardized tests for academic performance such as PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) and TIMSS (Trends in Mathematics and Science Study), outperforming their peers worldwide. Their high performance has led many to try to understand how East Asian education actually operates. But at the same time, some critics highlight the cost to East Asian education’s success for students’ academic achievement. Due to the emphasis on standardized testing and academic performance, for example, East Asian education has been considered to be weak in enhancing students’ creativity and independent thinking. A typical argument against East Asian education goes this way: Because students and teachers rely on standardized testing as a way to measure academic success, students resort to rote learning and memorization — taking in and spitting information out, just like a robot. Are East Asian students really robots? In order to better assess the strengths and weaknesses of East Asian education systems, it is vital to look carefully at how students in East Asia actually learn in their schools.

In a study comparing creativity of East Asian and US students, Kyung Hee Kim (2005) identifies three reasons as to why East Asian education may not be conducive to creativity; 1) East Asian classrooms heavily depend on rote learning and memorization; 2) The East Asian uniform and standardized school curriculum and teaching processes do not grant the teacher flexibility; and 3) the very culture of East Asian societies inhibits creativity. East Asian education systems’ exclusive reliance on standardized tests to measure a student’s academic ability leads to widespread usage of rote learning — repeating, memorizing, then spitting back out textbook information. Many believe that rote learning leaves no space for discussion in the classroom, which can be conducive to cultivation of students’ creativity and independent thinking. Moreover, critics argue, that since the government creates and maintains uniform school curricula and testing programs that span across the entire country, teachers have limited flexibility in the classroom and are even discouraged to think of creative approaches to teaching. With East Asian teachers being confined to a very specific and uniform teaching plan, their students in turn have little room for their own creative cultivation. Finally, East Asian culture places much respect for teachers. As a result, East Asian students do not ask questions or speak up in class — however, in order to become more creative, one must challenge the norm and state their own ideas instead of being submissive. 

But what is creativity? It’s a concept, an intangible and immeasurable quality that we all strive to possess. It is important to acknowledge that the definition of creativity is vague and malleable, and that we don’t necessarily have strong evidence of cross-national differences in creativity. In fact, a study suggests that we can look up the issue of East Asian students’ creativity in cross-national perspectives by utilizing the results of the problem solving skills from an interest student assessment. In 2003, students across 29 countries participated in an assessment (PISA 2003) to measure their problem solving skills. 

Given the difficulty to objectively measure creativity, the study instead used students’ ability to solve a problem as a way to compare students’ creativity across the world. On this test, the highest scoring country was Korea, ranked at #1. Finland came in at #2, Japan at #3, and the United States at #24 out of 29 countries measured, already raising huge doubts at the validity of this common perception that East Asian students are robots. 

It is not clear to what extent problem solving skills really tap into creativity. Therefore, Park (2013)’s study does not provide a definite answer to the question of whether East Asian students are more or less creative than their peers in the US and other countries. One does not need problem solving skills to be creative as many problem solving questions are more logic based, which is why problem solving may not be an appropriate measure. A different way to measure creativity would be to examine students’ creative writing since one needs an imagination and creative energy to write creatively. 

This article is not to defend East Asian education with respect to creativity. But it just highlights how difficult it is to compare the creativity of students across cultures. By simply accepting the stereotype that East Asian students are robots, we are likely to overlook the strengths of East Asian education systems where their students show higher levels of problem solving skills, even if not creativity, than students in most other countries. 



Kim, Kyung Hee. 2005. “Learning from Each Other: Creativity in East Asian and American Education.” Creativity Research Journal 17(4): 337-347.

Park, Hyunjoon. 2013. “Do Japanese and Korean Schools Make Talented Students Mediocre?” Chapter 3 in Re-Evaluating Education in Japan and Korea: Demystifying Stereotypes. London and New York: Routledge

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