Asilomar #9: Asia

Session Title

“Putting a Face on Mathematics in Asia: Reflections on My Work of 20 Years”


Steve Rasumussen. President, Key Curriculum Press. Hawaiian shirt aficionado. Guy you want to buy a beer.


Generally awesome. Completely evenhanded, doing justice to all sorts of tricky issues facing education (NCLB, international competition, TIMSS) without once resorting to the pandering, cheap irony which plagued Friday’s keynote.

In his duties as publisher-in-chief with Key Curriculum Press he’s spent a good portion of the last twenty years in Asia. A lot of it was just as you’d expect. “You have no idea how easy our job could be,” he said, and cited:

  • students who stand up when a teacher walks into the room.
  • nations which devote extraordinary resources to education. (eg. 60% of Thailand’s paper went to its schools a few years back; during lean times schools are the last to cut spending)
  • schools so modern with desks and floors so clean you could safely perform an appendectomy on top of them.
  • teachers who must take 32 post-graduate classes before teaching math.

He adjusted my perspective in a couple of ways:

  • He called us out for a “tremendous national chauvinism.” He said, “If you ever hear competition [with Asia] in the same breath as education, either implicitly or explicitly, be wary of the person saying it.” He cited Thomas Friedman.
  • He explained why students in Asia outpace us in basically every benchmark except “skin whiteness.” He noted that Asian countries have huge populations with comparatively few universities. The competition for university acceptance is so fierce students take no exception to longer school days, longer school years, and three hours of math homework nightly, none of which the teacher ever grades.
  • Radical pedagogy in the U.S. involves online coursework, wikis, and podcasts. Radical pedagogy there, he said, involves a student initiating a question. Charge it to respect for their teachers and fear of appearing weak alongside their classroom competitors but it’s direct instruction all day long. Go figure.

Presentation Notes

PowerPoint for the occasional quote but for the most part he just commented over an iPhoto slideshow which was a really good way to go.


  • “I’ve basically got a secret life in Asia,” he said at the start, and then realized what that sounded like.

For Your Consideration

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I'm Dan and this is my blog. I'm a former high school math teacher and current head of teaching at Desmos. He / him. More here.


  1. hmm…dan, might i also add a caveat to be wary of speaking of asia as a monlithic entity?

    the modern well-resourced public schools, they do exist…but that’s at the top of the food chain. just as there are not enough universities for the number of students who might like to get in, there are likewise not enough strong prep schools to help a student get into university. china and india have huge rural populations, and the good old one-room schoolhouse is far from extinct there.

    most families in hong kong would love to have the money and the luck to land a seat at an international (read: western) school. at these schools, where i work, i don’t think the student population is so different from private independent schools in the states…except for the whole skin whiteness thing. my students are outside of the stress and high stakes of the public exam system, and while they are perhaps more respectful of teachers they generally don’t do much of their homework.

    funny thing about asia is that many places are looking to western pedagogy as a model. hong kong is beginning a complete overhaul of their high school curriculum, adding in “liberal studies” and an extra year of university (giong from three years to four) in the hopes of fostering the creativity and thinking-outside-the-box-ness that is the hallmark of a western education and outlook.

    …the times, they are a changing…

  2. I meant to request your response to this, Jeffrey. Thanks for adding it here. And, to the speaker’s credit, while I’m just homogenizing anyone from the Asian continent, he differentiated constantly between cultures and sub-groups.

    The speaker mentioned that our principles and standards are well-regarded in Asia (there I go again). Given how intensely critical we are of our own system, I didn’t write it in my post. I figured I must’ve misunderstood. Interesting to hear you confirm it.