“Education is the fundamental method of social progress and reform.” -John Dewey, School Journal vol. 54 (January 1897), pg. 78
Last month, I had the opportunity to speak at the FLIP x Education conference held annually in Kaohsiung. At the conference, I had the privilege of meeting Mr. Chen [陳光鴻], who is leading the “shifting landscape of math education in Taiwan.” It is so inspiring to listen to him talk about the future of math education, and I have often described him as the Dan Meyer of Taiwan.
Early in our conversation, Mr. Chen asked me what I thought PBL stood for, which I answered as most teachers from the United States would: problem-based learning. I first learned about this progressive approach to education when I was enrolled in graduate school and one of my professors lead a memorable seminar on the debate between constructivism (proposed by education philosopher John Dewey and advanced by icons such as Piaget and Montessori), and neo-traditionalism (lead by E.D. Hirsch). Hirsch gew up during the Jim Crow era in the segregated south, where “racism was automatic and rampant.” To help fight the opportunity gap, he advocated for a traditional school model where all students learn the same “core knowledge.” Dewey advocated for a more progressive school model that favored a collaborative approach where students learn dynamically through hands-on projects and from their peers.
Although we had a great debate in my graduate school class, what does the research suggest? The long-suppressed eight-year study famously noted that students “educated in progressive schools show more leadership, think more clearly, take a keener interest in books, music, and arts, and get slighty better grades in college than those of traditional schools.” Dr. Jo Boaler has a plethora of contemporary research that suggests the power of a progressive model of education is truly limitless and could help move our entire nation forward.
Back in Kaohsiung, Mr. Chen challenged me, and told me that we do not need problem-based learning; rather, we need Phenomenon Based Learning. At first, I thought this might be a translation error or perhaps a cultural misunderstanding. Mr. Chen told me that we need to strive for phenomenon-based learning, which he defined as a cross-curricular problem-based learning approach that gives students democratic ownership over their learning. He excitingly proclaimed, “there should be no kings or queens teaching a classroom!” He then laid out a vision of what school could be in Taiwan. Almost a hundred of years after John Dewey visited the Republic of China, he would be proud of educators like Mr. Chen that are looking to lead an education revolution.
We continued to talk about how teachers can transform high school classrooms, and how we can let students take true ownership over their learning. Mr. Chen asked me to describe my vision of an exemplar math classroom, and I talked about my experience implementing Agile Mind – a research-based platform that, in my perspective, is the best phenomenon-based learning curriculum currently available in the United States. As an organization that is dedicated to empowering students throughout the country, I have seen first-hand the impact that a progressive instruction model has had on my classroom in Newark, NJ. This is what my classroom looked like before Agile Mind:
This was taken in the beginning of my second year of teaching. Although the classroom management is pretty tight for a second-year teacher, the entire class is completely dominated by the teacher (me). Sure, we may have sung “Happy Birthday” to build some culture in the beginning, but I completely monopolize the rest of the class. By doing so, I inadvertently rob my students of any opportunity to meaningfully engage with the lesson. This video resembles a glorified version of show-and-tell, where the magic of mathematics has been reduced to forcing students to copy down what I write on the board. Also, consider how I had extremely-low expectations of my students, as I was teaching an elementary math standard in a high school algebra class.
During this point in my teaching career, I falsely believed that teachers were keepers of knowledge that had to exert control over their classes to ensure compliance. I was not happy with how my classes were going, and although my students generally respected me as a teacher, many still hated math class. I started attending every professional development session I could find, and I realized that something was fundamentally wrong with the way my class was structured. After reading dozens of books, attending conferences, and struggling through many internal biases, I realized that if I wanted to offer a transformational learning experience, I needed to change my teaching style and implement a progressive instruction model that would democratize the learning environment. Take a moment to consider what my classroom looked like a few years after Newark adopted Agile Mind and I implemented a more democratic classroom:
Notice who is leading the mathematics during this lesson. In this video, students are doing almost all of the heavy lifting, and my role has been reassigned from a lecturer to a facilitator of knowledge. One can gather the strong sense of community that has been developed, and it is clear that students have taken genuine ownership of their learning. The ideals of restorative practices have replaced a zero-tolerance approach to behavior management. The lesson structure of “I Do, We Do, You Do” has been replaced with “You-Do, Y’all Do, We Do.” Students believe in the core sentiments of academic youth development, and that mistakes are expected, respected, and inspected. While I am proud of the growth that I have made as an educator, I still have a lot to learn; this is one of the main reasons that I am currently in Asia researching education and pedagogy.
To be fair, it is not just the curriculum that has changed, but also the entire power structure of the classroom. Some teachers and school leaders wrongly believe that ‘power’ in schools is a fixed commodity. Rather, I vehemently believe now more than ever that empowering students and giving them ownership of their learning and academic trajectories can genuinely transform any classroom in any school throughout our country (a future post will consider specific ideas on how teachers can democratize their classrooms).
One of the struggles I have throughout Taiwan (and in the United States, to be honest) is that although some teachers are open to the idea of collaborative learning and PBL, they worry that their students will not do well on end-of-year assessments and college entrance exams. On the contrary, I honestly believe that a progressive style of learning will help achieve both ends. The proof is in the pudding: On the 2016 PARCC administration, I was so proud of my students for attaining the highest high school passing rate in the entire Newark Public Schools. In 2017, my students had a higher passing rate on the rigorous Algebra II PARCC test than the New Jersey state average. Although the 2018 results are not in yet, I am confident that my students will do equally well this year. To me, it is evidence to suggest that true phenomenon-based learning is essential if we are serious about helping students develop the intellect, character, and skills needed to solve the adaptive challenges of the 21st century.
I was also fortunate to see Mr. Chen lead a professional development session in Taichung, where he is slowly equipping an army of teachers with the mindset, skills, and rigor needed to go out and set the world on fire. Thank you, Mr. Chen, (謝謝,陳光鴻!) for your leadership, your dedication, and your awe-inspiring vision. To me, it is incredible that halfway around the world, we are working towards the same goal of transforming our schools. As I tell my fellow teachers often, keep fighting the good fight!
And thank you to all those back home in the states that have pushed me to become a better educator, including all of my incredible students over the years, Nick Romagnolo, Michael De Antonio, Jr., Honoré Hodgson, Abby Neumeyer, Michelle Lin, and Leeann Kerst. Let us continue to fail forward and resolve to work relentlessly until every child has the opportunity to attain a truly excellent education.
Note: This article was submitted to the Fulbright Taiwan Annual Research Journal.
When Portuguese sailors first sailed past Taiwan during the 16th century, they nicknamed the island Formosa after its natural beauty. In most countries throughout the world, these natural landmarks are prominently featured on currency, alongside images of memorable leaders and famous monuments that celebrate key moments in the course of their history. In contrast, Taiwan’s legal tender promotes a notably different message: the importance of education. On the back of the Taiwanese $1,000 bill, for example, we find a group of children gathered around a globe. This phenomenon is not surprising, as Taiwanese citizens vehemently believe in the innate power of public education (Hsiao & Po-Hsuan, 2018). This rich culture and deep respect for learning dates back centuries to the time of Confucius, a period when most of Asia was under imperial rule and civil service exams were omnipotent:
“The first examinations were attributed to the Sui emperors (589-618 A.D.) in China. With its flexible writing system and extensive body of recorded knowledge, China was in a position much earlier than the West to develop written examinations. The examinations were built around candidates’ ability to memorize, comprehend, and interpret classical texts. Aspirants prepared for the examinations on their own in private schools run by scholars or through private tutorials. Some took examinations as early as age 15, while others continued their studies into their thirties. After passing a regional examination, successful applicants traveled to the capital city to take a 3-day examination, with answers evaluated by a special examining board appointed by the Emperor. Each time the examination was offered, a fixed number of aspirants were accepted into the imperial bureaucracy” (U.S. Congress, 1992).
This imperial system of examination (known in Mandarin as 科舉or kējǔ) was originally considered to be an equitable way for all students to have an opportunity to rise beyond their current caste. Kējǔ also helped those in power identify and recruit into government service individuals who were capable and virtuous rather than to fall back on members of the hereditary noble class (Zhao, 2014). Seen by many to be fair, objective, and open, kējǔ eventually gave birth to the idea of meritocracy, a core value in many eastern countries (Zhao, 2014).
Centuries later, Sun Yat-sen, the founding father of the Republic of China, continued to praise kējǔ as the bedrock of the world’s best education system. Dr. Young Zhao reminds us of an oft-told tale of Sun’s about the drawbacks of a society without standardized tests. Sun related the story of an election in the west between a doctor and a truck driver. Although the doctor had received more formal education than the driver, he lost the popular vote. This outcome, Sun would insist, was the consequence of popular election without examination (Zhao, 2014).
After overthrowing the Qing dynasty, China’s last imperial dynasty, Sun Yat-sen set up a new government in Beijing known as the Republic of China. The founding document of the R.O.C. included an entire branch of government focused on examination; this five-power constitution continues in modern day Taiwan.
The Taiwanese system of education
While standardized testing is deeply engrained in Taiwanese culture, the country’s education system is unique for a multitude of other reasons. First of all, Taiwanese teachers are classified as white-collar professionals; they value the quality of their work and take pride in what they do (Huang, 2003). The reputation of teachers is second to none; teaching jobs are held in high esteem and the pride of place given to education in traditional Chinese culture enhances the social status of teachers (Hsieh et. al., 2009; Fenton, 2016).
Second, most Taiwanese educators believe in the concept of a growth mindset. Simply put: if a teacher believes that their students can do better, they will; if a teacher gives up on their students easily, then their students will give up, too.
Third, Taiwanese pre-service teachers are exceptionally well-qualified academically; most have excelled in school. Consequently, university education departments are quite selective, and only the best available candidates are accepted. This situation stands in marked contrast to that of the United States, where the lure of Wall Street and Silicon Valley often attracts the best and brightest (Kristof, 2011; Zakaria, 2012). In fact, the results of a 2010 study suggest that the majority of U.S. education majors come from the bottom third of their graduating class (Kihn, P., Miller, A., & Auguste, B., 2010).
After a number of school observations throughout Taiwan, it has also been noted that, though the typical teacher in that country is present at school for more than 10 hours each day, he or she rarely instructs for more than three to four hours. Data from the Taiwanese Ministry of Education (2017) confirms that the average teacher leads instruction for 560-720 hours per year. In contrast, the majority of high school teachers in the United States spend almost double that amount of time leading instruction over the course of a school year (Ministry of Education, 2017). Consequently, Taiwanese teachers have significantly more time available each week to prepare lessons, mark classwork, and reflect on how best to improve children’s learning (Gove, 2012).They are also able to meet with colleagues in professional learning communities to plan classes and grade their students’ work collaboratively. Most importantly, they have an opportunity to reflect upon their pedagogy. This extensive reflection time enables teachers to act as action researchers, develop and evaluate new teaching methods, and keep tabs on one another’s performance (Gove, 2012; Liu, 2013).
Note, too, that the Taiwanese educational system includes more than government-run schools; it also encompasses a gigantic range of cram schools. However, it is virtually impossible to find stories in the mainstream media about east Asian education today that boldly confronts the existence of this parallel educational system (Turton, 2012). These cram schools (known in Mandarin as 補習班 or bǔxíbān) are akin to large tutoring centers that lecture students about mathematics, Chinese, and English.
The 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 in which parents with means use their resources to give an unfair advantage to their children, but often at an extraordinary financial and emotional cost (Williams, 2017). These bǔxíbāns are so pervasive in east Asia that neighboring South Korea passed a law in 2011 that enacted a strict 10:00 PM curfew to lessen the stress load on students (Seoul, 2011).
Today, considerable controversy exists with regards to education reform throughout the world. In Taiwan, the fundamental purpose of public education has long been debated. This ongoing debate has led to a learning system that “over-emphasizes academic performance and neglects other dimensions of learning. But recently, the Taiwanese government adopted the use of a constructivist approach to teaching mathematics. This new approach to teaching and learning focuseson the whole child” (Eisenhart, 2011).
Contemporary educational reform in Taiwan commenced during the late 1980s when a team led by Dr. Fou-Lai Lin decided to investigate the teaching of mathematics; they reviewed the literature and relied on research methodology rather than solely their own experience. As a result, mathematics teacher education entered a new phase, one that combined practical experience with empirical research (Hsieh et. al., 2009).
In 1996, mathematics teachers throughout the country began to focus on the way in which students thought, thus shifting away from a teacher-centered approach and towards a student-oriented method of learning (Hsieh et. al., 2009). The following year, the Ministry of Education implemented a new national curriculum for junior high school students. Many of the changes involved in this initiative centered on students and the cultivation of their creativity, thinking, and reasoning abilities, as well as the links that existed between mathematics and life. The message was clear: an attitude toward active learning and the appreciation of mathematics was being put into place (Hsieh, 1997).
These reforms shifted the emphasis in mathematics education away from simply memorizing and plugging into formulas and towards developing problem-solving skills and process-monitoring. Problem solving, through which one learns methods for acquiring knowledge, had historically been largely neglected in Taiwan. Now, however, it is gaining attention alongside an emphasis on mathematics education for lifelong learning (Hoyles, Morgan, & Woodhouse, 1999).
The Taiwanese Ministry of Education is currently piloting a new high school math curriculum which will be rolled out nationwide during the 2019-2020 school year. One of the Ministry’s noted goals is the progressive implementation of a12-Year Basic Education program, incorporating the development of adaptive learning along with a completely non-exam-based secondary school admission process (Ministry of Education, 2017). Policy makers plan to adapt the Taiwanese curricula so as to encourage problem solving that is creative. (Hoyles, Morgan, & Woodhouse, 1999). The Ministry has also made it clear that teachers must pay closer attention to the process of learning as well as to the way in which children conceptualize content and ideas rather than simply focusing on arriving at the correct answer (Eisenhart, 2011).
These proposed education reforms seek to address the pitfalls found in current educational practice and to foster collaboration among students through project-based learning and standard-based grading. One teacher noted that these reforms will set future generations of Taiwanese students in a positive new direction and prepare them to face the adaptive challenges found in our increasingly globalized world.
As the guiding vision of Taiwan’s new 12-year basic education program is further developed, the principles of “spontaneity, interaction, [and] the common good” that it promotes will be integrated increasingly with the educational ideas of John Dewey’s (1938), postmodernism, and complex thought (Morin, 1999; 1993). These structural shifts will encourage Taiwanese teachers to let students drive their own learning and to take ownership of their thinking with an aim to inspire rather than to control (Fan, 2016). After all, “if we continue to ignore the power of students’ own ideas and conceptions, we will only perpetuate the notion that mathematics and science (among other subjects in our school curricula) are irrelevant, uninteresting, and difficult to learn” (Sahlberg, 2018).
These progressive innovations are not unique to Taiwanese education. China, the United States’ leading economic competitor, is in the process of decentralizing its curriculum, diversifying its methods of assessment, and encouraging local autonomy and innovation. Singapore is also promoting a student-centered learning environment characterized by the principle of ‘Teach Less, Learn More’ (Sahlberg, 2015).
In other countries around Asia, leaders are ensuring that schools limit direct instruction and the mere recitation of facts and instead look for more innovative pedagogies that encourage students to design and produce authentic products (Wagner & Dintersmith, 2016). During many classroom observations throughout Taiwan, it is apparent that lesson structure also plays an important role both during class and while a teacher prepares for a class. This idea was featured prominently in Elizabeth Green’s critically-acclaimed book Building a Better Teacher:
“One striking example was the way teachers structured their lessons. American teachers rarely talked about lesson structure – the way class proceeds from a beginning to a middle to an end – and yet, watching each individual teacher at work, Stigler felt as though they’d all read the same recipe. ‘A cultural script,’ he called it… Some American teachers called their pattern ‘I, We, You.’ The Japanese teachers, meanwhile, turned ‘I, We, You’ inside out. You might call their version ‘You, Y’all, We.’ They began not with an introduction, but a single problem that students spent ten or twenty minutes working through. Next, the teacher brought them back to the whole group, asking students to present their different ideas for how to solve the problem on the chalkboard. Give the answer and the reason for the answer.Finally, a teacher led a discussion, guiding students to a shared conclusion – What did you learn from today’s problem, or what new questions do you have, if any?” (Green, 2015).
To capitalize more fully on the ideas and conceptual understanding of all students, many schools in Taiwan (and indeed throughout the world) are recognizing the importance of teaching students how to work collaboratively, to create viable arguments, and to critique the reasoning of others. In a number of Taiwanese math classes, students are encouraged to share their personal strategy on how to solve a complex problem. This is markedly different than some schools in the U.S, where students are often drilled in a few dozen scaffolded problems over the course of a lesson. In most Taiwanese high schools, students during a single math class might complete a few rigorous problems during each period, allowing students to be able to spend more time thinking deeply about a few hard problems and to reflect critically on their solution strategy.
When Taiwanese students are solving problems in class, the types of questions that their teachers ask them are also often noticeably different than those posed by American teachers:
“In comparisons of mathematics teaching in the United States and in high-achieving countries, U.S. mathematics instructions has been characterized as rarely asking students to think and reason with or about mathematical ideas. [American] teachers sometimes perceive student frustration of lack of immediate success as indicators that they have somehow failed their students. As a result, [American math teachers] jump in to ‘rescue’ students by breaking down the task and guiding students step by step through the difficulties. Although well intentioned, such ‘rescuing’ undermines the efforts of students, lowers the cognitive demand of the task, and deprives students of opportunities to engage fully in making sense of mathematics” (NCTM, 2014).
In contrast, some Taiwanese teachers are moving away from rigid algorithms toward more flexible and divergent thinking. Because Taiwanese students are encouraged to think divergently about algebra instead of rigidly following an algorithm, they were able to regroup certain terms and make the complex expression simpler. In many classroom observations, students were solving algebra problems using a multitude of different strategies, allowing them to think more concretely about algebra, thus increasing both their accuracy and efficiency in solving complex problems.
Another striking aspect of Taiwanese math pedagogy is the ability of teachers to include multiple modalities in their instruction. The National Council of Teachers of Mathematics has insisted that “effective mathematics teaching includes a strong focus on using varied mathematical representations” (NCTM, 2014). The results of multiple studies have demonstrated that students display greater mathematical understanding and enhanced problem-solving ability when they learn to represent, discuss, and make connections among mathematical ideas in multiple forms. (Fuson, Kalchman, and Bransford, 2005). Taiwanese teachers, in particular, focus their attention on providing different visual representations of abstract mathematical concepts thus helping students to advance their understanding of them. (Arcavi, 2003).
This article describes but a few of the pedagogies used by Taiwanese math teachers as they practice their craft. We still have a long distance to go as a global math community until we reach the point where math teachers everywhere have implemented research-informed best practices that can drastically improve their students’ ability to learn. Perhaps the NCTM summarized best the shift taking place in the global landscape: “Students must rethink what it means to be a successful learner of mathematics, and teachers must rethink what it means to be an effective teacher of mathematics” (2014).
Learning about the culture of education as well as math instruction in Taiwan has been a transformative learning experience of a lifetime. While some of the culture that surrounds Taiwanese education is deeply ingrained within the history of this incredible country, there are many elements found in the pedagogy of Taiwanese math teachers that can be effectively incorporated into public schools throughout the United States. Now, it is up to all of us to implement these best practices and transform our education system once and for all.
After all, our students are counting on us.
Let us rise to the challenge.
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