Preschool in Three Cultures Revisited: China, Japan, and the United States

Preschool in Three Cultures Revisited: China, Japan, and the United States

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Published twenty years ago, the original Preschool in Three Cultures was a landmark in the study of education: a profoundly enlightening exploration of the different ways preschoolers are taught in China, Japan, and the United States. Here, lead author Joseph Tobin—along with new collaborators Yeh Hsueh and Mayumi Karasawa—revisits his original research to discover how two decades of globalization and sweeping social transformation have affected the way these three cultures educate and care for their youngest pupils. Putting their subjects’ responses into historical perspective, Tobin, Hsueh, and Karasawa analyze the pressures put on schools to evolve and to stay the same, discuss how the teachers adapt to these demands, and examine the patterns and processes of continuity and change in each country.

Featuring nearly one hundred stills from the videotapes, Preschool in Three Cultures Revisited artfully and insightfully illustrates the surprising, illuminating, and at times entertaining experiences of four-year-olds—and their teachers—on both sides of the Pacific.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226805054
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 08/01/2009
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 280
File size: 2 MB

About the Author

Joseph Tobin is the Nadine Mathis Basha Professor of early childhood education at Arizona State University and the author or editor of several books. Yeh Hsueh is associate professor in the Department of Counseling, Educational Psychology and Research at the University of Memphis. Mayumi Karasawa is professor of cultural psychology at Tokyo Woman’s Christian University.

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Preschool in Three Cultures Revisited

China, Japan, and the United States
By Joseph Tobin Yeh Hsueh Mayumi Karasawa

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2009 The University of Chicago
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-226-80504-7

Chapter One


In Japan, the United States, and in urban areas of China, most four-year-old children attend preschool. It has not always been this way. Just a few generations ago in each of these countries formal education began with primary school and most children under age five were cared for, educated, and socialized in settings other than preschools. They were raised in their homes by full-time mothers; taken to the fields by parents who farmed; or supervised by nannies, maiden aunts, grandmothers, or older siblings. Published in 1989, Preschool in Three Cultures argued that preschools are relatively new social institutions charged with the task of turning young children into culturally appropriate members of their society. The core conclusion of that book is that preschools in Japan, China, and the US are institutions that both reflect and impart their cultures' core beliefs.

In Preschools in Three Cultures Revisited our focus is on what has stayed the same and what has changed over the last twenty years in Chinese, Japanese, and American preschools. In this book we describe how systems of early childhood education in these three countries reflect and pass on cultural values while at the same time responding to changing social pressures and expectations for what young children should learn, do, and be.

In 1984, as part of the original Preschool in Three Cultures project, we made a videotape of a day in a classroom for four-year-olds at Daguan You'eryuan, in Kunming, China. (In our 1989 book, given the political climate of the time, we thought it best to replace Daguan's name with a pseudonym, Dong-feng.) In 2002 we returned to Daguan (figure 1.1), where we made a new videotape as well as showing them the old one. As a group of veteran and retired teachers and directors at Daguan watched scenes in our old video that American, Japanese, and Chinese viewers had found problematic (children lined up at a long trough in a bathroom without running water, boarding classrooms, teacher-directed block activities, and patriotic songs), we worried that they might be embarrassed and want to distance themselves from their past. But this is not what happened. The Daguan teachers and directors watched the old video with obvious interest and pleasure, laughingly commenting on how they looked seventeen years ago and pointing out children now grown up and colleagues no longer with them. The discussion after the video focused on how and why Daguan You'eryuan had both changed and stayed the same over the course of a generation. Wang Xinglan, now retired, who had been the director of the you'eryuan in 1984, told us, "When I look at these images I realize that of course many things have changed. But I feel proud of how we taught then. In the video I see us all working very hard and doing the best we could with what we had to work with. Those were different times. Then, as now, the staff of Daguan You'eryuan was guided by the same sense of professionalism, hard work, and concern for children."

We start with this vignette of the reactions of staff at Daguan to our old Daguan (Dong-feng) video to emphasize that this book is not just or primarily our version of how and why Daguan and other Chinese, Japanese, and US preschools have changed and stayed the same over the course of the past generation. Instead, in this book we foreground the explanations of insiders, that is, the voices of preschool teachers and directors explaining why they do what they do in their preschools, their reflections on where they have come from professionally, where they see themselves as going, and why.

Preschools, Cultures, Societies, and Eras

Preschools are sites where a variety of domains, interests, and social actors intersect. Preschool is where child rearing meets education; where the world of parents and home first meets the world of teachers and school; and where the labor market's need for working women meets society's need for young children to be well cared for and prepared to be productive in the future. Our goal is to explore the connections in all three countries between what is happening in the early childhood education systems and what is happening in the larger society. In the chapters that follow we identify the forces that Chinese, Japanese, and American informants tell us are pressing on their systems of early childhood education and we describe how early childhood educators in these three nations experience and deal with these pressures. Or to put it more concretely, our task is to find explanations for why a day at Daguan You'eryuan in 2002 has come to look so different from a day there in 1984.

Our focus on understanding change in systems of early childhood education should not blind us to the importance of also understanding and appreciating continuity. Understanding why a day at Komatsudani Day Care Center in Kyoto looks much the same in the new millennium as it did a generation earlier is as compelling a question as understanding why Daguan has changed. Maintaining continuity in a program of early childhood education from one era to the next requires as much effort and creativity as it does to change. If we think of change as being caused by external forces, like the movement of a small boat in a rushing stream, we can see that it takes more energy to stay in place than to move with the flow. Absence of change over time in a preschool can reflect the inertia, stubbornness, or even laziness of the staff. But it can also reflect the courage of teachers and directors to stand up to political pressures to distort their practice in reaction to each educational fad and demand from grandstanding politicians. The challenge for preschools in each country is to strike the right balance between continuity and change. Each nation expects its preschools to change in order to produce children with the kinds of skills and attributes it believes are needed for success in a rapidly changing society. And yet, at the same time, preschools in all three nations are expected to function as sites of cultural continuity that reproduce in a new generation of children traditional ways of seeing, understanding, believing, and interacting. Chinese society demands that its preschools produce children ready to succeed in the twenty-first-century global economy. But they also want these children to be Chinese. The social forces working as pressures on preschools to function as sites of both continuity and change are economic, demographic, political, popular cultural, and intellectual. Factors we discuss in the chapters to come include Japan's continuing population drop and sharp economic downturn from the boom times of the 1980s; China's paradigmatic shift from a planned socialist economy to a strategy of participating aggressively in global capitalism; and the confluence in the US in the early years of the new century of such disparate forces pushing on early childhood education as President Bush's No Child Left Behind Act, new developments in brain research, and the concept of developmentally appropriate practice.

One potential source of change in each country's approach to early childhood education is the importing of ideas from abroad. World system theories of educational borrowing and lending see the world as an increasingly globalized system and chart a growing convergence, over time, in nations' educational ideas and practices (Meyer & Ramirez 2000; Ramirez 2003). Other theorists, in contrast, see the global flow of educational ideas as rising and ebbing over time with shifting political contexts, as policy makers in some eras use the foreign cachet of educational ideas from abroad to justify domestic policy reforms; at other times strip imported ideas of their aura of foreignness to make them more domestically palatable; and at still other times reject and expel foreign ideas as dangerous and unwelcome (Schriewer 2000; 2004; Steiner-Khamsi 2000; 2004). Educational ethnographers tend to contrast the homogenizing force of globalization with the resilience of local educational cultures (Anderson-Levitt 2003).

Because these competing theories make different predictions about continuity and change, they provide us with a compelling research question: Have Chinese, Japanese, and American early childhood education ideas and practices grown more alike since we did our original study in the mid-1980s? With these theories of the power of the global and the local in mind, we asked the early childhood educators we interviewed in China, Japan, and the US to reflect on the influence of foreign ideas on their thinking and practice.

Ethnography and Historiography

In his 1983 book Time and the Other Johannes Fabian argues that ethnography as a genre of research lacks a sense of time, as it locates its subjects outside of history, in a timeless ethnographic present. This accusation is somewhat less true today, as ethnographies increasingly are concerned with processes of globalization, cultural adaptation, and hybridization (Marcus 1995). But still, ethnography continues to be better at explaining continuity than change because ethnography, at its core, is the study of culture and culture is most often thought of as that which is passed on from one generation to the next. Moreover, most ethnographies are based on research conducted within a single time frame. Following Fabian's logic, we can fault Preschool in Three Cultures for in sufficiently historicizing the cultural practices it described. Our new study gives us the chance to address that shortcoming by adding an explicitly historical, diachronic dimension to the original study's synchronic focus on cultural comparison. Continuity and Change in Preschools in Three Culture foregrounds the question of historical continuity and change by analyzing preschools in China, Japan, and the US at two points in historical time-circa 1984 and 2004.

The challenge of diachronic ethnography is to add a sense of time to ethnography without placing the other cultures we study on our timeline. At its inception, cultural anthropology had a sense of history, as it conceptualized the cultures of the world in terms of their progress toward becoming civilized; anthropologists viewed the cultures they studied as versions of their culture's past. We need to see Chinese, Japanese, and American systems of early childhood education diachronically, as existing in time, without assuming that they are ahead of or behind each other and all moving along the same timeline, as, for example, the timelines of modernization, rationalization, or globalization. We need, that is, a theory and a method that allow us to think simultaneously about space and time, and to place preschools simultaneously in their historical and cultural contexts. As Robin Alexander writes in his study of primary education in five countries: "If making sense ... is one's principal goal in a study of this kind then culture and history have to be the basic frames within which one's attempts to understand and explain are set ... No educational policy can be properly understood except by reference to the web of inherited ideas and values, habits and customs, institutions and world views which make one, or one region, or one group, distinct from another" (2000, 5).


The method we used in the new study is an extension of the old one, a method we formally call "video-cued multivocal ethnography" but that others and we most often refer to as "the Preschool in Three Cultures method." In this method we: (1) videotape a day in a preschool in each culture; (2) edit the videotape down to twenty minutes; (3) show this edited tape first to the teacher in whose classroom we filmed; (4) show it to other staff at her preschool; (5) show it to early childhood educators at other preschools around the country; (6) and finally show it to early childhood educators in the other two countries. The result is a video-cued multivocal conversation—early childhood educators in three countries discussing the same set of videos.

This method has multiple origins. We took the original idea of using videotapes as an interviewing cue from the work of anthropologist Linda Connor and the ethnographic filmmakers Tim and Patsy Asch, who videotaped a Balinese shaman during a séance and then later showed her a film of herself in the state of trance and asked her to comment on her actions (Connor, Asch & Asch 1986). Several years after we began the original study we learned that George and Louise Spindler (1987) had made similar use of films in their comparative study of schools in Germany and Wisconsin, as did their students Mariko Fujita and Toshiyuki Sano (1988) in their comparative study of daycare centers in the US and Japan. More recently, Kathryn Anderson-Levitt (2002) used a video-cued ethnographic method to illuminate dimensions of similarity and difference in approaches to language arts instruction of French and American primary school teachers.

In traditional ethnographic fieldwork, the anthropologist spends the day among cultural insiders participating in and observing daily activities of the culture she is studying and then, in the evening, asking her informants to reflect on and explain those activities. The Preschool in Three Cultures video-cued method collapses and accelerates this process by replacing participant observation with a set of videotapes that provide a focus for the informant interviews. Because it replaces the traditional year of fieldwork with a video-cued interviewing method, some anthropologists would suggest that this study does not meet the strict definition of ethnography. While acknowledging this point, we would add that our work is nevertheless ethnographic in our concern with quotidian aspects of life (ordinary days in preschools in three cultures), our focus on culture as the central explanatory construct, and our privileging of insider explanations and of emic over etic analytic categories and theories (Spindler 2000, xxii).

Another source for this method is the tradition in psychodynamic psychology of using an ambiguous visual stimulus, such as an inkblot or a drawing, as a tool for allowing the investigator to uncover unconscious psychological processes (Henry 1956). Our idea of using ambiguous scenes in videotapes of typical days in preschools as interviewing cues was influenced particularly by the work of Henry A. Murray, the father of projective testing, who argued that people's personality styles and core concerns can be analyzed by asking them to tell stories about drawings selected to get at different psychological issues. In his development of a technique he called the "picture interview," William Caudill adapted Murray's TAT method, turning it from a method for analyzing the psyches of individuals to an ethnographic tool for analyzing cultural beliefs. In one study, Caudill hired an artist to make simple line drawings of scenes of interpersonal intimacy (for example, scenes of children bathing together in a tub, of a woman tending to a sick man, and of a man and woman sitting on a bed) and then showed these drawings to Japanese and American informants and asked them to tell him a story about each picture. Caudill (1962) analyzed these stories told by Japanese and American informants to explicate differences and similarities in the cultural patterning of physical and emotional intimacy in Japan and the United States. Around the same time, George and Louise Spindler developed a similar visually cued interviewing strategy to study Native American culture and personality dynamics using line drawings, a strategy they called the IAI or "instrumental activities inventory" (1965). In our preschool in three cultures method, each scene in our videos is like a moving, noisy version of the drawings used by Caudill and the Spindlers.

We were also influenced in the development of this method by the writings of Mikhail Bakhtin, a Russian literary theorist and social philosopher who introduced the terms "multivocality," "hybridity," and "dialogism." In his 1983 essay, "On Ethnographic Authority," James Clifford cites Bakhtin in his call for the development of "multivocal ethnography." We heeded this call in the original Preschool in Three Cultures study, which, like this new book, is organized as a series of voices commenting on the same scenes. Bakhtin's notion of dialogism also provides theoretical support for our decision to use focus-group rather than individual interviews at most stages of the research. Following Bakhtin, we believe that meanings arise out of dialogical engagement of speakers. Rather than viewing interviewing as a strategy to uncover preexisting positions of research subjects, we view interviews as occasions for the co-construction of meaning by our informants with each other as well as with us.

A final source for the method comes from the Akira Kurosawa film Rashomon (based on a short story by Ryunosuke Akutagawa) in which an encounter between three people on a path in the forest is described differently by each of the participants. The discussions we held with early childhood educators following the viewing of our videotapes show that these audiences often have different understandings not only about what the teachers should do, but also about what transpired in the videotape. Like the participants and eyewitnesses in Rashomon who give different accounts of the same crime, our informants reveal something about themselves and their worldviews as they comment on our videotapes.


Excerpted from Preschool in Three Cultures Revisited by Joseph Tobin Yeh Hsueh Mayumi Karasawa Copyright © 2009 by The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents


Chapter 1 Introduction

Chapter 2 China

Chapter 3 Japan

Chapter 4 United States

Chapter 5 Looking Across Time and Cultures



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