In the popular imagination, or at least that of liberally minded “good” parents, the one thing to be avoided at all costs is the grind of a Chinese-style education.

“Great at churning out grunts, hopeless at creating visionaries,” or so goes the thinking.

But, what if you looked at it from another perspective?

That is, Chinese educational models are based less on the idea of innate ability, and more on the idea that, if you just try hard enough, there is nothing that you cannot master.

It’s a wonderfully democratic way of thinking, and it’s probably why the children of Chinese cleaners outscore the children of British and Canadian doctors and lawyers on tests like the OECD’s Program for International Student Assessment (PISA).

The underlying Confucian philosophy might be paraphrased as: human beings are neither innately good nor bad, but through self-development and practice, we’re all capable of achieving something like moral perfection.

(Slightly off tangent, but not totally irrelevant, consider how, in Asia, women work hard to look put together, even going under the knife in pursuit of physical beauty, but in the West, the word du jour is “effortless.”)

In practical terms, this means putting in the time for learning. Interestingly, even in the West, time was identified as a crucial factor affecting academic achievement in studies dating as far back as the 1960s.1

Thus, Chinese educational policy has structured the school year to maximize the time spent in school. (As a working parent, I’m sold.)

Back in the 1990s, researchers Harold Stevenson and James Stigler estimated that Chinese children spent two hundred and forty days a year in elementary school, compared with only hundred and eighty days for their American counterparts. The learning didn’t stop when the school day ended either: even at the elementary level, Chinese students spent approximately thirteen hours a week doing homework, compared to four hours a week for American students. Additionally, teachers assigned the children homework during summer and winter vacations.

Fast forward to today, things haven’t changed much.

A recent study by researchers Yisu Zhou and Dan Wang focusing on fifteen-year-olds in Confucian-style educational systems gives an idea of just how much more time these students are putting in compared to everyone else.2

Students in Shanghai stand out for spending more than eighteen hours a week on after-school learning. More noteworthy, however, is the fact that they spend most of this extra time in unguided homework activity.

What that means is that no one is forcing these kids to attend cram school or to slog it out at the dining table under a parent’s watchful eye. Instead, the students themselves are taking the initiative to collaborate with each other or with senior students, or even seeking out their school teachers for a little extra instruction.

Such self-motivation is more likely within an environment where academic achievement is thought to be the only ticket to a better life, and everyone recognizes the role of hard work in getting there.

Of course, in other societies (or even China, to be honest), the road to success is not so narrowly defined, so it makes less sense to focus all one’s efforts on a single endeavor if one’s talents don’t lie in that direction.

But in an era of increasing inequality, when only successful parents can afford to secure their children’s advantages, a system where all that’s needed is the sheer force of one’s individual effort is an attractive alternative.