Harvard Educational Review
  1. Preschool in Three Cultures Revisited

    China, Japan, and the United States

    by Joseph Tobin, Yeh Hsueh, and Mayumi Karasawa

    Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009. 288 pp. $39.00.

    Twenty-four years after Tobin’s landmark study of international early childhood education, Tobin, Hsueh, and Karasawa invite readers to join a diachronic investigation—one exploring change and continuity across space and time—into how historic, economic, political, social, and demographic forces have shaped early childhood education systems in China, Japan, and the United States. An enticing sequel to the 1985 book, Preschool in Three Cultures Revisited longitudinally examines preschools across cultures and illuminates what has changed, what has stayed the same, and why.

    Revisiting the original sites eighteen years later, the authors revive Tobin’s methodological approach—video-cued multivocal ethnography—by collecting participants’ reflections on three videotapes for each country: the original 1985 videos; 2003 videos of the same preschools; and videos of innovative preschools that embody each nation’s current approach to early childhood education. As the researchers strategically use specific video clips to provoke discussions of key issues in early education and care, readers cannot dismiss the power of visual evidence to elicit intellectual and emotional reactions among the participants. These videotapes serve as critical interviewing tools by initiating cross-school, cross-regional, and cross-continental conversations about continuity and change in how preschools educate and care for four-year-olds.

    The authors successively introduce participants as five levels of voices: teachers whose classrooms were videotaped, directors and other teachers at these schools, focus groups of teachers and directors in the home country, early childhood educators from the other two countries, and professors of early childhood education. The book interlaces these voices to create an orchestral collection of cultural approaches to early education and examines why preschools do what they do and how they creatively adapt to and resist external forces across time. The authors probe and synthesize historical, ideological, and pedagogical traditions while highlighting resonance and dissonance among researchers and practitioners within and across cultures.

    While many discussions emphasize the importance of the quality of parenting and parental goals for their children, parents’ perspectives are kept in an analytical periphery. Despite the consistent acknowledgment of parents’ critical role in shaping the provision, management, and governance of early childhood education, the book almost entirely disregards the voices of children and their parents, whose daily interactions with staff and experiences with the system remain an untapped source of rich data. A provocative analysis could have further examined how parents and teachers—equally legitimate insiders—agree and differ in their standards of quality education and care.
    In conceptualizing preschools as frontline sites for instituting societal values and cultural practices, Tobin and colleagues excavate implicit cultural knowledge through an artful rendition of each nation’s deeply embedded cultural beliefs and collectively shared logic about child development and practice. As the authors argue, these cultural values maintain continuity in each nation’s educational practices and approaches within the broader context of economic determinism, modernization, and globalization.

    Unlike the 1985 study, when China heavily emphasized control and discipline through didactic pedagogy, this time readers listen in on conversations among Chinese preschool teachers, early childhood center directors, and researchers that emphasize child-centered, progressive approaches promoting the rights of the child, independence, and creativity while sustaining Confucian and socialist values. Though China and Japan similarly share social and emotional concerns regarding their rising singletons, the authors offer different explanations for this seemingly consistent phenomenon. Despite some demographic and economic shifts, the authors find that preschools in Japan have not changed much in practice, though many Japanese preschools have become eldercare centers in an era of shrinking birthrates. Although readers might stereotypically anticipate a regimented and highly structured training of young children in Japanese preschools, they instead encounter children resolving peer conflicts among themselves under a careful observation and nonintervention approach. Conversely, the book portrays American classroom teachers directly intervening to guide social interactions in what Asian observers likened to marriage counseling sessions.

    Distinct from preschools in China and the United States that prioritize cognitive stimulation and academic preparation, Japan urgently emphasizes the “education of the heart” in their growing societal concern over social isolation. In an era of assessment and accountability, however, U.S. early childhood educators are caught between contradictory pressures to be developmentally appropriate and academically rigorous, to satisfy accreditation regulations and national policies. The authors further draw on such cross-cultural comparisons to illustrate universal prekindergarten as a characteristically American policy debate—in contrast to Japan, China, and European countries, which provide comprehensive systems of early childhood education and care for all. Building on these comparisons, the undeniable strength of Preschool in Three Cultures Revisited is its complex, cross-cultural examination that avoids binary distinctions. By situating the United States between China and Japan across the spectrum of societal continuity and change, these authors further disrupt dominant notions of an East-West dichotomy.

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    Book Notes

    by Debra Chasnoff (director, producer) and Sue Chen (producer)

    How It’s Being Done
    by Karin Chenoweth

    Preschool in Three Cultures Revisited
    by Joseph Tobin, Yeh Hsueh, and Mayumi Karasawa