It might at first glance seem misguided to study cultural differences in learning by focusing on schools. Indeed, the surface features of school mathematics are more similar than different when compared across cultures, and even classrooms in different cultures appear to resemble one another in many respects. Yet schooling is a cultural institution, and more detailed analysis reveals the subtle and pervasive effects of culture as it impinges on children's learning of school mathematics – in the curriculum, in the organization and functioning of the classroom, and in the beliefs and attitudes about learning mathematics that prevail among parents and teachers. In this chapter, we will present some of what we have learned about the classrooms in which children learn mathematics in Japan, Taiwan, and the United States.
The decision to compare mathematics learning in Asian and American classrooms is, of course, not arbitrary. We have known for some time now that American secondary school students compare poorly on tests of mathematics achievement with students from many other countries, but especially with students from Japan (Husen, 1967; McKnight and others, 1987; Travers and others, 1985). More recently, Asian-American differences in achievement have been found to exist as early as kindergarten and to be dramatic by the time children reach fifth grade. Stevenson, Lee, and Stigler (1986), for example, studied children from representative samples of fifth-grade classrooms in Sendai, Japan; Taipei, Taiwan; and Minneapolis, USA.