One final thought I'd like to share is that I see the school system in Taiwan as one of the biggest reasons to stay here long enough to have my own kids. Despite the complaints I hear from parents about the public schools here, the achievements I see in my nine and ten year-old students are so far ahead of what my peers in the US were doing at that age that it's almost shocking. Especially in math, art and languages, the difference is stark.It is indeed shocking that Taiwanese students are so far ahead of their American peers. But this observation, made by so many foreigners, begs a number of questions.
What is the function of all this advancement? First, it is important to stop thinking about Taiwanese education as education. Education means enhancement where Mark and I come from, but education in Taiwan is not an enhancement process, it is a weeding out process. In Taiwan we should stop thinking about education and start thinking about competition. The work is piled on at the beginning, in order to weed out the weak and the inferior and the lazy. This reaches a crescendo in the high schools: but notice the colleges -- they are nowhere near as good as their counterparts in the US. How can it be that such great kids in elementary school produce such awful colleges? People forget that the educational system is a system -- it starts in kindergarten and extends through the PHD programs. The US system, which does not exist to weed out kids, sensibly distributes its tasks throughout the school years.
This weeding out in high school is brutal and overt. There are high schools in which the best students on academic track are placed all in one class and given all the resources they need, and the best teachers, while everyone else is triaged into inferior classes with inferior resources. Some might enthuse about the system here...right up to the moment that they find their 16 year old son has been triaged into a class full of hopeless future local gangsters, an experience a friend of mine had. Then an epiphany about the system may strike.
By the same token, another part of the system often elided in discussions of the educational system here is the cram school system. It is dangerous to simply blink it out of existence simply because it is after school or somewhat illegal. In many ways it is the educational system here. Right up through college, innumerable teachers run cram schools at night, teaching the same students they teach during the day. The two systems interact in many ways -- they use the same teachers and curriculum, handouts, textbooks....and teaching methods. In some high schools you won't get passed in the class of teacher X unless you go to to teacher X's cram school classes. The effects are obvious: if students in the US went to class from 7 in the morning until 11 at night, they would also know lots and lots of stuff -- memorized, and promptly forgotten for the test.
The political effects of this system should not be overlooked. Students who do not do well often end up demoralized, uninterested in the world, and lacking in motivation to learn on their own, since they've been taught that education is hell and learning is not education (it's a weeding out process that weeded them out). The time demands are vast and inherently authoritarian: young people in class until 11 do not have leisure time for political action and growth, and parents who must oversee them every night and on weekends also have their time for political activity severely constrained. Students do not learn to think for themselves or to generate and express their own opinions; the system doesn't reward that, and in case, it won't help them ace the test. In passing, one should note the time demands on parents who must enforce this massive workload, as well as the need to discipline children who naturally want to play, and whose natural learning styles are ill-suited to the authority-centered discipline the system enforces on its children...thus the school system helps authoritarian discipline reproduce itself in every family in Taiwan. Nor should its gendered nature be underestimated, as I watch it shape my daughter in ways I frankly hate, into just another quiet girl, while boys are encouraged to perform and to speak out.
The world media carried articles this summer about the little girl in China whose father is putting her through a brutal training regime so that she can be a marathon runner, running her over hundreds of kilometers. Actually, the unusual thing about that father is not his "excessive" requirements for his daughter, but the fact that he chose the marathon in which to exercise them. In so many homes in China and Taiwan, that "excessive" regime is a metaphor for exactly what parents have to do to their kids each day, to get them to grapple with the enormous workloads that are dumped on kids who neither need nor want to learn in that manner.
UPDATES: Lots of ping-ponging around the blogosphere, with posts from nostalgiaphile and The Only Redhead.
[Taiwan] [US] [education]