Jin Li grew up in China during the Cultural Revolution. When the madness was over, the Chinese awoke to discover that far from overleaping the West, they were "economically destitute and culturally barren." This inspired an arduous catch-up campaign. Students were recruited to learn what the West had to offer.
Li was one of the students. In university, she abandoned Confucian values, which were then blamed for Chinese backwardness, and embraced German culture. In her book, "Cultural Foundations of Learning: East and West," she writes that Chinese students at that time were aflame — excited by the sudden openness and the desire to catch up.
Li wound up marrying an American, moved to the States and became a teacher. She was stunned. American high school students had great facilities but didn't seem much interested in learning. They giggled in class and goofed around.
This contrast between the Chinese superstudent and the American slacker could be described with the usual tired stereotypes. The Chinese are robots who unimaginatively memorize facts to score well on tests. The Americans are spoiled brats who love TV but don't know how to work. But Li wasn't satisfied with those cliches. She has spent her career, first at Harvard and now at Brown, trying to understand how Asians and Westerners think about learning.
The simplest way to summarize her findings is that Westerners tend to define learning cognitively while Asians tend to define it morally. Westerners tend to see learning as something people do in order to understand and master the external world.
Asians tend to see learning as an arduous process they undertake in order to cultivate virtues inside the self.
You can look at the slogans on university crests to get a glimpse of the difference. Western mottos emphasize knowledge acquisition. Harvard's motto is "Truth." Yale's is "Light and truth." The University of Chicago's is "Let knowledge grow from more to more; and so be human life enriched."
Chinese universities usually take Confucian sayings that emphasize personal elevation. Tsinghua's motto is "Strengthen self ceaselessly and cultivate virtue to nurture the world." Nanjing's motto is "Be sincere and hold high aspirations, learn diligently and practice earnestly."
When Li asked Americans to randomly talk about learning they used words like: thinking, school, brain, discovery, understand and information. Chinese, on the other hand, tended to use phrases common in their culture: learn assiduously, study as if thirsting or hungering, be diligent in one's learning.
In the Western understanding, students come to school with levels of innate intelligence and curiosity. Teachers try to further arouse that curiosity in specific subjects. There's a lot of active learning — going on field trips, building things.