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that the current state of education in Taiwan is inhibited by the age old adherence of Asian cultures to face and outdated teaching methods.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