“Every so often someone asks me: ‘What’s your favorite country, other than your own?”
I’ve always had the same answer: Taiwan. ‘Taiwan? Why Taiwan?’ people ask.
Very simple: Because Taiwan is a barren rock in a typhoon-laden sea with no natural resources to live off of — it even has to import sand and gravel from China for construction — yet it has the fourth-largest financial reserves in the world. Because rather than digging in the ground and mining whatever comes up, Taiwan has mined its 23 million people, their talent, energy and intelligence — men and women. I always tell my friends in Taiwan: You’re the luckiest people in the world. How did you get so lucky? You have no oil, no iron ore, no forests, no diamonds, no gold, just a few small deposits of coal and natural gas — and because of that you developed the habits and culture of honing your people’s skills, which turns out to be the most valuable and only truly renewable resource in the world today… Sure, it’s great to have oil, gas and diamonds; they can buy jobs. But they’ll weaken your society in the long run unless they’re used to build schools and a culture of lifelong learning.”
-Thomas Friedman, NY Times, March 11th, 2012
As often put forward, Taiwan outperforms many countries on international benchmarks, including the infamous PISA. For the last two months, I have been conducting dozens of interviews with teachers and observed many lessons at a wide variety of schools throughout Taiwan. As one professor told me, most people in Taiwan, including parents, believe that education is universally important, which is often determined by grades, which are made up almost entirely of test scores. While the nature of standardized testing is deeply engrained within Taiwanese culture, there are many other aspects that make the Taiwanese education system so unique.
Teachers here are considered white-collar professionals that value the quality of their work and take pride in what they do as a profession. In Taiwan, teachers have a tremendous reputation, and a “high prestige to teaching jobs and a significant regard to education in the traditional Chinese culture place lofty social status to teachers” (Hsieh et. al., 2009). Most educators strongly believe in the concept of a growth mindset: If teachers believe that kids can do better, they will; if teachers give up, then their students will give up, too. Taiwanese pre-service teachers are of high quality, and most have done well in school. As a result, education departments at local universities are very selective, and only take the best candidates available. This is markedly different that in the United States, where the lure of Wall Street and Silicon Valley often recruit our best and brightest (Kristof, 2011; Zakaria, 2012). In fact, a recent analysis suggests that the majority of education majors in the United States come from the bottom third of their graduating class (Kihn, Miller, & Auguste, 2010).
Perhaps one of the most surprising aspects of the Taiwanese education system is how trusting teachers are of their students. At seemingly every level of schooling, students have a 10 to 20-minute break between every class and are allowed to do pretty much whatever they want to during this time (most students go outside and have an impromptu recess). Students are also allowed to use their phones, ask for extra help from their teacher, or even go to the cafeteria if they are hungry. What is most surprising is that there is little adult supervision during this recess – students are allowed to go wherever they want within the school grounds. When the break is over, a soft chime rings, and all of the students go to class. Even in the younger grades, students as young as seven years old are expected to go to their class by themselves (the teachers neither lead them nor make them line up as is common practice throughout the United States). Perhaps this trust is facilitated by an extensive early childhood education program: it is currently reported that over 96% of Taiwanese five-year-olds are enrolled in pre-school; on top of these extremely high participation rates, an astonishing 81.7% of the population “agree that the government should prioritize the implementation of compulsory education for five-year-olds” (Hsiao & Po-Hsuan, 2018).
In many of my school observations, I have noticed that although the typical teacher is physically at their school for over 10 hours daily, they rarely teach more than three or four hours a day; the average Taiwanese teacher leads instruction for 560-720 hours per year (Ministry of Education, 2017). To put this figure into perspective, the average high school teacher in the United States spends almost double the amount of time leading instruction over the course of a school year (Ministry of Education, 2017). As such, in Taiwan, “teachers have much more time to prepare lessons, mark classwork, and reflect on how best to improve children’s learning” (Gove, 2012). During this time, Taiwanese teachers often meet with their colleagues in professional learning communities, plan lessons and grade student work collaboratively, and perhaps most importantly, reflect upon their pedagogy. This extensive reflection time “liberates teachers to act as researchers who continually develop and evaluate new teaching methods, and who keep tabs on one another’s performance” (Gove, 2012).
While the idea of teachers performing action-research is not new, it is yet another example of a best practice that is rarely followed through upon in the west. In most public schools throughout the United States, reflection often becomes one more bureaucratic piece of paperwork that teachers need to complete, as opposed to becoming a natural and organic part of a teacher’s daily routine. Perhaps this is partly due to eastern culture: in the days of Confucius, many Academy’s had designated pools that teachers would walk around after their class had concluded to help them literally look at themselves and reflect back on their teaching. Contemporary scholars argue that teachers “should not only pay attention to the cognitive processes [how they reflect], but also the content of their thinking (what they reflect on), the goals of their thinking (why they reflect), and how their thinking influences their teaching practice in the classroom (what transformative learning they experience)” (Liu, 2013).
It is important to note that the Taiwanese education system is not “merely the government-run school system, but encompasses a gigantic range of cram schools. It is virtually impossible to find writing on Taiwan (and Asian) education in the mainstream media that sturdily confronts the existence of a parallel but gray educational system” (Turton, 2012). These cram schools, often called bǔxíbāns in Taiwan, are akin to large tutoring centers that lecture students about mathematics, Chinese, and English. These bǔxíbāns are pervasive in east Asia; in fact, neighboring country South Korea passed a law in 2011 enacting a strict 10:00pm curfew to lessen the stress load on students (Seoul, 2011). This practice of late-night tutoring is particularly controversial in this part of the world: Although many schools in Taiwan are remarkably equitable, these night classes are one way that parents with means use their resources to give an unfair advantage to their children, often at an incredible financial and emotional cost (Williams, 2017).
Learning about the educational culture of Taiwan has truly been an incredible learning experience. While some of the culture surrounding education is deeply ingrained within the history of the country, there are also many aspects of the operation of Taiwanese public schools that can easily be incorporated into our public schools back home. It is now up to us to implement these best practices and transform our education system once and for all.
Friedman, T. (2012). Pass the Books. Hold the Oil. The NY Times Retrieved March 02, 2018, from http://www.nytimes.com/2012/03/11/opinion/sunday/friedman-pass-the-books-hold-the-oil.html
Gove, M. (2012). Classroom crush. The Economist Retrieved March 07, 2018, from https://www.economist.com/node/21547854
Hsieh, F.-J., Lin, P.-J., Chao, G., & Wang, T.-Y. (2009). Policy and Practice of Mathematics Teacher Education in Taiwan.
Hsiao S., & Po-Hsuan W. (2018). Mandatory Education for Five-year-olds is Popular. The Taipei Times. March 19, 2018 Print Edition: Volume 19, Number 27.
Kihn, P., Miller, A., & Auguste, B. (2010). Closing the Teaching Talent Gap. McKinsey & Company. Retrieved March 06, 2018, from https://www.mckinsey.com/industries/social-sector/our-insights/closing-the-teaching-talent-gap
Kristof, N. (2011). Pay Teachers More. The NY Times Retrieved March 07, 2018, from http://www.nytimes.com/2011/03/13/opinion/13kristof.html?_r=0
Liu, K. (2013). Critical Reflection as a Framework for Transformative Learning in Teacher Education. Educational Review, 67(2), 135-157. doi:10.1080/00131911.2013.839546
Ministry of Education (2017). International Comparison of Educational Statistical Indicators. Taipei, Taiwan: Ministry of Education.
Seoul, A. R. (2011). Teacher, Leave Those Kids Alone. Retrieved March 03, 2018, from http://content.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,2094427,00.html
Turton, M. (2012). The View From Taiwan. Retrieved March 04, 2018, from http://michaelturton.blogspot.com/2012/03/friedman-on-taiwan.html
Williams, C. (2017). Teaching English in East Asia: A Teachers Guide to Chinese, Japanese, and Korean Learners. Singapore: Springer imprint is published by Springer Nature.
Zakaria, F. (2012). When Will We Learn. Retrieved March 07, 2018, from https://fareedzakaria.com/2011/11/28/when-will-we-learn/