Taiwan’s education system produces robots

A while back, I wrote about the stresses and intense academic life of a regular Taiwanese student.  This was largely based on my own observations and chats with students.  Basically, they begin their day early (6:30 – 7 am), and end late (11:30 pm – 12 am).  I’d imagine this is to prepare them for real working life in Taiwan, where 9 – 5, 5 days a week is actually a luxury, cushy job.  More often than not, it’s 7am – 7pm at the office, 6 or 7 days a week (depending on the job).

Taking away that this basically robs the children of any vestiges of childhood they may enjoy, and making them a serious, sour bunch, you would imagine that this intense training would put them at the forefront of being incredibly successful individuals – kind of like an academic version of the Spartans -when you put so much training time into something, the rewards should be nothing less than an intellectual version triumph of Thermopylae-ic proportions.

But this doesn’t happen.  Insead of producing visionaries and world changing, iconic people, the education system in Taiwan seems to produce robots – at least according to this article in Taiwan Today.

What is clearly observable in a classroom has been quantified by a study conducted by a joint team from the National Taiwan University, National Tsing Hua University and Taipei Municipal University of Education.  A few findings of the report:

…study has found that Taiwan university students are reluctant to ask and answer questions in class due to previous learning experience and considerations of face.

 …investigation found that students were conditioned in elementary and secondary school to apply rote learning through a top-down model of instruction in which the teacher is the sole source of knowledge, leaving them with comparatively weaker abilities to think critically and marshal evidence to support an argument.

While such training provides manpower well-suited to contract manufacturing, it is less likely to produce creative thinkers.

Basically saying that the current state of education in Taiwan is inhibited by the age old adherence of Asian cultures to face and outdated teaching methods.

The first obstacle seems to be the restrictions of FACE.  In Taiwan, you simply cannot lose face.  This concept relates to reputation, but has more connontations.  Translated into classroom behaviour, it means that you can never admit to not knowing something, ask what might be percieved as a stupid question or go out on a limb and try something new and fail.  These things will cause you to lose “face” in the eyes of your peers, and is a definite no-no in Taiwan.

This kind of thinking is obviously totally opposed to what a classroom should be – a place for discovery and making mistakes.  A place to try new things and learn from your mistakes.  A safe area to prepare you and give you the tools you need to cope with success AND failure in real life.  Take away the safety net, and no-one will learn how to develop anything new, simply because the fear of failure is too great.  And if students are scared of trying things at a young age, the fear will stick and inhibit them from exploring their real potential well into adulthood.

Next, the article calls teaching methods into question.  Wei Chih-fen a member of the Department of Psychology and Counseling from the Taipei Municipal University of Education is quoted as saying:

As many as 83 percent of college students feel that to pass a course they need only memorize textbook content and class notes.  Under these conditions, 72 percent of graduate students don’t know how to select a topic for research, which is a big obstacle to transforming the country’s economy to one based on innovation.

Now, I’m sure, at some point in our academic lives most of us have subscribed to this mode of thinking – I know I have.  Just memorize this stuff for the test without really understanding it, then dump it.  But while it was an occasional occurence for me, in Taiwan it’s a regular thing – simply because the students are forced to absorb vast amounts of knowledge all the time.  And the tests are based more around memory retention than actual understanding and application to real world situations.

For example, in the English classroom, students have to memorize a lot of vocabulary and phrases and spit them out, which they do incredibly well for the duration of the lesson, but a week later, these terms are forgotten and the student reverts back to spouting nonsensical and broken English.  Why? Not because they are stupid, but simply because the bulk of their education has conditioned them to “learn” in this fashion.  I’ve also discovered if one veers away from the material presented in the book – but still uses the same concepts, students have difficulty applying the concepts to a new area.  Imagination, creativity and innovation all take back seats – actually they exit the car altogether and are left at the bus stop.

So no wonder graduate students have difficulty picking a research topic and coming up with coherent arguments to support it.  This takes analyzing information and (innovatively) coming up with arguments based on the information – skills that they just haven’t developed.

The article goes on to say:

The researchers recommended that professors accommodate to these conditions by giving students sufficient time to think before they have to reply to questions, asking open-ended questions calling for exploratory thinking rather than standard answers, and using more group discussion and anonymous written responses to questions.

Which is definitely a step in the right direction.  Open ended and ambiguous questions are exactly what these students need to develop more of their cognitive abilities and give their creative side a boost.  Throw out the textbook, question what you’ve been taught and come up with your own answer.  This is something that is sorely lacking in Taiwanese students’ skill set.

Another thing that bears mentioning is that abstract subjects that encourage creative thinking are frowned upon by Taiwanese parents.  Art, philosophy, psychology and other liberal art studies are seen as having little value because they don’t have immediate practical applications in the tough job market.  Taiwanese overlook their usefulness as creative subjects that will condition their kids to be able to think outside the box and develop seriously lacking critical thinking skills.

For a culture as deeply rooted in tradition and observances of antiquated customs as Taiwan is, I can see how it will be difficult to shift educational ethics.    So far, Taiwan has done a great job of adapting and becoming a power in Asia, but as the times continues to roll on, unless changes are implemented, innovation will stagnate and Taiwan’s next generation is in danger of being left behind.  Hopefully the powers that be will heed reports like this and slowly evolve it’s educational system to produce fewer robots and more creators.  And maybe with this change, more emphasis will be given to thinking, and less to memorizing everything – freeing up more time for kids to be kids.

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4 Responses to “Taiwan’s education system produces robots”


  1. 1 MKL May 26, 2013 at 2:48 pm

    More often than not, it’s 7am – 7pm at the office, 6 or 7 days a week (depending on the job).

    Based on the few years in IT, which is a big part of the economy here and usually offers the most brutal working conditions, people mostly work from 9am to 7.30pm, 1 hour is meant for lunch break and it doesn’t count as working hour, and usually 1.5h is added for staying overtime to “gain face”. I don’t know of any company which would ask people to start working at 7am, it’s a logistic problem. Instead, 9-9.30am is common practice to arrive, but the problem is the overtime work. I know companies where people work until midnight every day without any extra pay (well, managers will say it will be beneficial for their year end bonus). One of my new colleagues said she had to work every day until 3am in the morning, imagine that! She had 18 hours long working days. That’s the craziest story I’ve heard so far in Taiwan. Weekends are usually work-free, unless the boss calls for a meeting or some other activity. This work culture is quite strong in and around Taipei. Most Taiwanese dream about a government office job, they say working hours are stable and it’s not stressful as jobs where goods are produced for export. I wonder how long can this practice last, the younger generation is already less willing to work so much for very little.

    • 2 islandsidechronicles May 27, 2013 at 12:00 am

      The 7 – 7 is based on a few business owners I’ve met, but I think you are probably right on the office working hours for regular employees. Thanks for the clarification.
      I haven’t worked at any Taiwanese companies yet (my Mandarin is at a toddler level), so most of my observations on working outside the English industry are based on talking to Taiwanese that do. You’re comments about overtime and “face” gain are pretty much bang on what my Taiwanese friends have told me – although the 18 hr case is absolutely mental – she must be SUPER ambitious, even for a Taiwanese person.
      In terms of the propensity of Taiwanese to do large amounts of work continuously, for what we consider very little, I think that little will change in the near future. The school system, and their very upbringing gears them to be able to handle such heavy workloads.
      While I don’t think I could ever do it, in some ways, I can’t help but admire the sheer bull headed stubbornness that allows Taiwanese people to put their nose to the grindstone and hammer away for so long with just a little reward. More so to the young ones I see every day.
      Anyway, thanks for reading and the informative comments!

  2. 3 Jay December 25, 2013 at 12:58 pm

    I stumbled across your blog while googling “Taiwan” plus this and that (just got back from my first visit there: nice place!). I think that what you write about is not just a Taiwanese issue, it’s an Asian one. I live in Japan and I found myself nodding with recognition a lot: I teach English in Japan and the exact same thing happens here, to the extent that it’s become a running joke between my wife and I: “is that going to be on the test?”

    Somewhat surprised to read about this in Taiwan, though: I found the people there to be far better at English than the Japanese (in Japan, being bad at English is nearly a matter of pride). The staff at the hotel were trilingual (the third language being Japanese) and even staff at convenience stores were able to use some English.

    Overall though I came away from Taiwan with a very good impression. I will read further into your blog.

    • 4 islandsidechronicles January 4, 2014 at 12:17 am

      I’ve heard other travellers say the same thing – Taiwanese speak better English than the Japanese. This might be because most travellers go to Taipei, where the level of English is much higher than the rest of the country. Anyway, thanks for the kind words, and I’m glad you enjoyed your time here in Taiwan.


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