As previously mentioned, the Taiwanese educational system 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, which literally translates to ‘supplementary learning class’) are akin to large tutoring centers that lecture students about mathematics, science, Chinese, and English.
After hearing about cram schools in dozens of interviews conducted throughout Taiwan, I was visit a bǔxíbān and actually see what one is like for myself. Thanks to some of my colleagues at Kaohsiung Girls High School, I was able to visit one of the most famous cram school teachers, Teacher Lin, at 志光公職補習班 (Zhiguang Public Cram School). When I first walked into the cram school, I was surprised at how elaborate the facilities are. I really enjoyed how this school celebrated academic success and had a “Hall of Fame: of all the university acceptances form previous students. This learning center had several floors and different rooms for different needs: The main classroom (four different rooms for different subjects), a study room with a “teaching assistant” (but is a full-time licensed teacher), a computer room, and a “relax” room where kids can get water or tea. The classroom I visited was about twice size of a typical American classroom and had over 100 seats, but somehow does not feel crowded.
One of the most interesting aspects of the cram school structure is that all lessons are recorded for kids that are absent or were confused with a particular topic and wanted “extra help.” The school has a library of videos that teach students any topic imaginable and is akin to an old-school version of Khan Academy (with their current teacher). The students can watch the videos of the lesson anytime they want and can rewind or slow down the video at their own discretion at any time.
During the class, I was interested in how engaged the students were in the lesson. Teacher Lin has created his own resource (books) for each math topic, and each problem has a similar problem with a given answer for more practice. The use of multiple representations is rampant and is very strategic about using different colors to highlight how different parts of the pictorial representation relate to the procedural applications. Another interesting tidbit is that the teacher uses different parts of the board for different parts of the lesson. The far-left part of the board is kept up and used as a defacto anchor chart Teacher encourages different methods to solve the same problem and uses jokes and brain-breaks to divvy up the lesson. Perhaps most importantly, kids can still be kids – eat, drink, get up and take a break or use the restroom, etc.
After class ended, I had a chance to have an impromptu focus group with the students in the class, which was an interesting learning moment, too. Class got out at 9:30pm, and even I was tired – but I was not attending school all day! I asked the students what a typical day looked like for them, and they shared that their public schools get out at 5, cram school starts at 6 and gets out at 9:30, with a 20-minute break at 7:50. Students get home at 10, take a shower, relax, and start HW/studying at around 11. Students spend 1-2 hours and then go to bed around midnight. I also asked if any of the students hang out with their friends or play video games, to which they replied: “Yea! On the weekends mostly. And sometimes during school (haha)!”
I also asked the students their perspective about the Taiwanese education system, and they shared that, “we wish there was more collaboration… I don’t like sitting and listening to a teacher for three hours. I went to school in Denmark for a year, and it was very different.”
While the practice of late-night tutoring remains controversial, I was really impressed with some of the aspects that I saw during my bǔxíbān visit. It should be noted, too, that although many public 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). While visiting a cram school was a tremendous experience and I gained a lot of interesting ideas about pedagogy, I am deeply conflicted about pushing our students too hard. I am all for high expectations, but to a point. After all, shouldn’t kids be kids?
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.