Friday, October 05, 2007

What is the educational system in Taiwan

Mark over at Doubting to Shuo muses on the educational system here:

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.

19 comments:

Marc Anthony said...

"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"

Did you mean to use "social", not "political"?

Michael Turton said...

No, political. An uninterested populace has obvious political effects.

Lee-Sean said...

I would be interested to know a bit more about the socio-economic dimension of the educational system in Taiwan. For example, in the US, many economically disadvantaged students are already "weeded out" by the educational system before they even start school because of the vast disparities in instructional quality in different areas based on wealth. I imagine that that Taiwanese students from richer families could afford the better cram schools, thus giving them better possibilities for advancement (and also thwarting any illusions of a a class-neutral meritocracy). Anyway, I would love to hear your comments about socio-economic class and education in Taiwan.

Mark said...

I wonder how much the fact that my buxiban specifically doesn't emphasize Ministry of Education vocabulary lists, or GEPTs affects the kinds of kids I get. Some of their well-roundedness may be self-selecting.

Still, I know an awful lot of people who grew up here, moved to the US and did extremely well in US colleges. Not all of them went to cram schools, either.

Arty said...

I once thought if I ever have kids I will have them send to Taiwan. However after meeting some American educated Chinese, I realize US education is far better for my kids. Because I believe, my kids will never be like David Liu if I send them back regardless how good they are at math.

Nobel prize is next week, I think a Chinese is getting it in Chemistry. I could be wrong though.

昆蟲 said...

I hated that system, even though I was a successful competitor in that system.

Now, I am a father of kids of both extremes (very smart and very challenging), I fully understand the reason I hated it. It is *not* for normal or under-normal kids.

The "weeding system" is such a good term for this.

The problem is that no parents think their kids could possibly be the weed. Only the others' kids are weeds. As a result, all focus is on the "good" kids, not on the left-over kids.

It is a very sick system.

Joseph said...

Wow, very well put, Michael. This unsurprisingly)sounds very, very much like the educational system in mainland China, and from what I hear, like education in much of Asia. I've seen many of those jaded, unmotivated, depressed students that were weeded out. It's sad and very difficult to reach them.

lee-sean: Don't know about TW, but in the mainland your family has to pay for tuition starting with middle school, I believe. If you don't have the money, too bad! Get to work! Many of the kids I see didn't even get to go to high school. If you can pay, the school you go to depends on where you live (nowadays anyway). Richer areas tend to have richer, better schools. Really, that aspect is much like the US. Of course, richer parents can, like you said, afford better tutors and whatnot as well.

Michael Turton said...

Still, I know an awful lot of people who grew up here, moved to the US and did extremely well in US colleges. Not all of them went to cram schools, either.

Of course!

Kaminoge said...

I'm reminded of a study I read comparing math scores between American and Japanese students (Taiwan's educational system is very similar to, and in many ways derived from, Japan's so it's a relevant comparison). It showed that while Japanese students' scores were higher on average, American students displayed a much greater range. In other words, those American students with low scores did very poorly at math, while those with scores at the upper end of the scale are the ones likely to major in math at college and win Nobel prizes and so on. The scores of the vast majority of the Japanese students, in contrast, were bunched together in a narrow range roughly in the middle between the American extremes. The Japanese educational system (and the Taiwanese one too, probably) is producing individuals with sufficient math skills for daily life, but is less likely to give the world its future mathematicians.

Mark said...

If you hate the idea of weaker students being weeded out by schools, then the US is the place for you. I had high school classmates who never really got a hang of basic algebra, and who had difficulties reading a newspaper. And they still graduated.

The true "weeding out" in poorer US schools is via violence and prison sentences.

Michael Turton said...

Mark, it's easy to locate failures and disparaties in the US system. But the US system does not have as its implicit goal the elimination of students. Up until the reforms a few years back, students who failed the test in junior high didn't go on. Hence all those comparisons between the US system and the local system were the purest bullshit, since they didn't -- and don't -- include the bottom.

In the US "weeding out" is a result of pernicious social problems. Here it is the goal of the System. And a lot more kids get weeded out -- arguably, the 80% who don't get into the academic track.

Michael

johan said...

Mark wrote:

"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."

Do you admire in Taiwan what you basically lack in the US, and just for that reason: sufficient students with high math grades?

If you have the money - as a parent and foreigner - to send your children to a good, often private school, do you spare a thought on why some other members of the public might complain?

I'll give a hint:
About half of Taiwan's schools are private, not public. Private schools charge high tuition fees. Add to this the economic pressure on parents to send their children to buxibans. Taiwan's poor cannot give their children what you or your students' parents can give yours.

The private school and cram school practice allows the governement here to lower their committment to public schools. The MOE is even pressuring rural schools to close, forcing rural (read 'poorer') children to go to school in a distant town, adding more financial pressure to their parents.

I doubt that the students Marc talks about are poor. I've read and heard similar comments before, from overseas Taiwanese or foreigners.
Have a GOOD look around you, however, beyond buxibans and private schools.

Anonymous said...

Mike, I think school education here has good record in allowing brilliant kids in lower socio-economic family to have better chance to get into white collar profession or become government employees and this form the basis of bureaucratic and education system. China has been doing this for hundred years so rich people will not grow too much to endanger the ruling royal family or previously KMT. And this also explain why the education system here train students Y/N and not free thinking and logics. Because it inherited what in the past , education is but a means to control the empire.
In US , top education becomes a gathering or club of the wealthy. I don't think there can be much difference for the average or lower.
If you don't want to spend too much money on education, You can take advantage of this by having children educated up to high school here (need to choose public school in good neighborhood ) and send them back to US for college and higher .
I think most important is in advance having a rough idea about what you think or expect your children to be and where they will most likely spend their life in . May be difficult. I always emphasize to my children languages and interpersonal skills and really not much on academic achievement.
Ken

Mark said...

Johan, you've made too many assumptions.

If you read the comments on my blog post that this one of Michael's is responding to, you'll see that math is NOT the only area in which Taiwanese students are ahead (though it is an important one). Music and art were almost completely missing from my public schooling in the US, but I've never met any students here who haven't gotten classes in both. Foreign language classes weren't required at all in any of my public schooling in the US until college. Obviously, Taiwanese students are ahead in that regard, too.

I should also point out that I've had a fair amount of contact with students who don't go to any cram schools at all. I have met poorer students via charity work, and in my experience, they seem to be doing better academically than similarly poor people I worked with back home.

One other thing I should mention is that in my first year here, I met some foreigners with kids who had gone all the way through high school in the local PUBLIC school system, and done so with good results.

johan said...

Thanks for the reply Mark,
.. in which case I will be following your blog more closely to keep informed out about your linguistic and comparative-educational personal assumptions.

v said...

NCLB is forcing positive change in my school district for students who pre-NCLB were left out of early efforts at accountability testing: special ed (ie students with learning disabilities) and ESL students. more teachers are being hired, reading programs with proven results are being adopted, etc.

my husband has tourette's which is often linked with OCD and acting out. his father left the family when he was two. he was put in the fang niu ban ('put the cow' class or maybe we can call it the 'holding pen' class). kids there just smoked and played cards. at 14 they went out to the factories. my husband is 44, so the system may be different now. he did become a liu mang.

taiwan and other countries that make no effort to teach their learning disabled population are wasting potential while at the same time creating social problems.

i am a teacher and deal with spec ed and esl kids in the US. i can not adequately describe the feeling i get when i turn around a child who has been a discipline problem (because he is frustrated academically) into a happy kid who looks forward to school. and no matter what the IQ of a student, any student can grow to have a love of learning. i have seen it happen. the US has the right goals/ideals, although we don't always reach them. i don't know if Taiwan has changed to care about its learning disabled students or not. anybody know?

Anonymous said...

i love sean 's comment about 'weeding out' listen sweetheart I'm one of those and i really hate this pooor child arguments i joined the army because i had no money, I now have an MA pai for by the gov't and I teach for the govt'.

Taiwanese or Chinese kids aren't any smarter either, they just study more. That's all.

Why do you people have kids that's the next logical question? Is the world not all ready screwed up enough for them? Are you that selfish that you need a clone like creature? Beleive me, most of the teccers i've met should be castrated and not allowed to spawn.

opit said...

It's quite a hiatus between comments, but I thought this thread symptomatic of the missing information in discussions about education. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ezTIYd5UFRY

Frog'co Kudx said...

Greeting
I'm now a student in Taiwan
after i read your Post
its Very consistent to my Status now
i mean in School
i am high school now
For a Studens in Taiwan,
and already been eliminated
only solution is to
Use our imagination
Even i have been eliminated
i can live very exciting and free

Thanks for your post

by the way can i translate your post (not all)
to Chinese? i will Assistant your Name