Monday, November 22, 2010
Education in Taiwan: Cram vs. Care
Yesterday I was walking around downtown Taipei. My head was beginning to spin from inhaling the car exhaust along the busy road, and I had to zip up my jacket to block out the cool evening air. I went to toss my coffee cup in the nearest garbage can but I stopped in my tracks before I even got close. There, stuffed into the top of the garbage can was a red and blue school backpack, unzipped and scuffed with dirt. The name of the school was printed across the front of the bag in gold, and the tiny size indicated a young student in the first or second grade of elementary school. I don’t know how the backpack got into the garbage, but this abandoned school bag seemed to me like an appropriate act of rebellion by a young, exhausted pupil against the school system. At ten o’clock at night, I have seen the subway crowded with worn out students going home from a fifteen-hour day in school and after-school classes, sleeping standing up on the train, or trying to get a start on their home work while they can still keep their eyes open. A few hours later I walked by the garbage can again and the backpack had been extracted from the trash, zipped up and carefully balanced on top. This intentional act seemed an attempt to place things back in order—the action of an adult to give the young one another chance to pick up their school bag and continue marching with all the others.
As in other Asian countries, there is enormous pressure on Taiwanese students to excel in the classroom. Taiwanese children can start kindergarten as early as two years old. There are six grades in elementary school, three in junior high school and three in high school. Once students complete junior high school, they can take exams to enter specialized vocational high schools. After three years in high school, Taiwanese students can enter universities in Taiwan through high recommendations from their high schools, or entrance exams. Through out a Taiwanese student’s schooling, there is the option for them to attend what are referred to as “cram schools”—academies that specialize in one subject such as English, math, computers, art, and offer evening classes after traditional school hours. Over 17 thousand such cram schools are currently in operation nation wide, serving over 4 million students. On one hand, these “cram schools” can allow a student to focus on one subject that they enjoy, to socialize with their peers and to spend less time at home alone. Yet they can also end up as a babysitting service for parents who work late, and don’t know what to do with their children. In addition, “cram schools” often becomes mandatory for students who have parents that push them academically, and believe that taking additional classes is the only way to scholastic success. Attending classes until ten at night leaves little time for students to enjoy recreational activities, or to relax during unstructured downtime. Not all parents require this of their children, but in such a competitive environment, children are also left feeling like they must take extra courses to keep up with their classmates.
It has been a challenge for me to find a teaching environment here in which I feel that the children’s creativity and unique personalities are being nurtured. The environment is often cutthroat, and the system offers little room for free and creative thinking. After teaching for two years in a very constraining academic environment in Turkmenistan, I am eager to teach in an institution that values originality and fosters imagination. Unfortunately, I am beginning to realize that my ideal teaching environment is atypical in many countries around the world. In a system where children have their identification number embroidered on their school uniforms and bags, there is often more importance placed on compliance, order and repetition than there is on individuality. In a paper presented at the Annual Meeting of the Comparative and International Education Society in Washington D.C., professor Shen-Keng Yang of National Taiwan Normal University (NTNU) wrote:
Serious educational problems [in Taiwan] are also caused by the imbalance between competition and social justice, between power of private sector, parents, school and government. Most of the teachers are in need of in-service training to adapt their teaching methods and attitudes so as to meet the challenges of educational reform.
(Dilemmas of Education Reform in Taiwan, pg15)
This is not to say that the education system here produces individuals who completely lack creativity. Taiwan prides itself for being on the forefront of technological design and production—a reputation that it has gained because of talented and ingenious individuals. In his Inaugural Address, former President Chen Shui-Bian stated, "We will seek a consensus among the ruling and opposite parties, academics and public to carry on with educational reforms and build a healthy, proactive, lively and innovative education system, which will allow Taiwan to cultivate first-class, outstanding talents amid the fierce international competition. We let Taiwan move gradually toward a "learning organization" and a " knowledge-based society.” The Humanistic Education Foundation, whose mission is to promote development of human-centered education in Taiwan, is a leader in the education reform movement in Taiwan; it has after school programs for at-risk children, and frequent meetings with the Ministry of Education about permissible punishments and practices in schools. There is a growing awareness of alternative educational methods, but the government is showing little sign of shifting away from its traditional methodologies. There are a few international schools, Montessori schools and alternative schools, but these are far outnumbered by the State run schools. The educational reform that is currently under debate is largely in response to the increase of globalization and internationalization. As the global economy becomes more competitive, Taiwan’s government feels the added pressure to produce students who are exposed to other languages and cultures in addition to a strong knowledge base about local traditions and social identity. On this small island, there is big pressure on the students currently sitting behind desks.
When I saw the little backpack crammed into the trash can, I couldn’t help imagining a little child stuffing it in there using all the strength in their eight year old arms. As global economic and social trends have strong impacts on educational development, the big wheels that turn this world are weighing down on the shoulders of those who are too young to understand the source of this immense pressure. While I believe that academic success should be encouraged, and achievements should be rewarded, there is much more to education than a 15-hour school day—a child’s education takes place both inside and outside the classroom.