Education Culture in Taiwan

“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

High School students working collaboratively
Student working collaboratively to solve a rigorous three-variable system of equations. A future blog post will further explore Taiwanese pedagogy.

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.

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The Taiwanese $1000 bill (about $34 U.S.) prominently features students learning.

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).

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At some Taiwanese schools, students take off their shoes before entering certain classrooms.

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).

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An example of a Confucian reflection pool. The Tainan Confucian Temple (臺南孔子廟) or Quán tái shǒu xué (全臺首學), is a Confucian Academy built in 1665 during the Koxinga dynasty.

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).

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A typical (and delicious) school lunch in Taiwan. Schools in the U.S.A. need to figure out a way to offer healthier and tastier lunch options.

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.

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A Tawainese educator utilizing mutliple modalities to teach sequences. A future post will further explore Taiwanese pedagogy.

 

Works Cited

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/

Celebrating Chinese New Year in Asia

Xīnnián kuàilè! (Happy Lunar New Year!) I just got back from celebrating the start of the annual Spring Festival. The Lunar New Year is one of the most important holidays throughout Asia (in Vietnam, the holiday is referred to as Tết; in Korea, it is called Seollal), and is based off of the Chinese Lunisolar calendar. 2018 is the year of the dog, and according to the Chinese Zodiac, “those born in the Year of the Dog are considered to be loyal, honest and selfless. But they can also be stubborn, cold and critical.”

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Celebrating the Chinese New Year in Tainan!

The history of celebrating the Lunar New Year goes back centuries to the Shang Dynasty in mainland China, where “oracle bones inscribed with astronomical records indicate that the [lunisolar] calendar existed as early as the 14th century B.C.” This holiday was originally celebrated to commemorate a fable in Chinese mythology about the Demon Nián, an evil Asian version of the Greek God Poseidon. Worried that Nián was going to attack a village during the Lunar New Year, a prophet appeared, and informed the villagers that, “The beast is easily scared. He does not like the color red. He fears loud noises and strange creatures. So tonight, spread red across the village. Hang red signs on every door. Make loud noises with drums, music, and fireworks. And to protect your children, give them face masks and lanterns to protect them.” The villagers did as the old man instructed, and Nián never returned again.

During the Chinese New Year in modern day Taiwan, it is customary to have a large reunion dinner with your extended family. I was so excited when Michelle invited me to Tainan (the former capital) to celebrate the occasion with her family, which was truly one of the most memorable experiences of my time abroad thus far. I quickly learned that “Chinese New Year’s Eve” in Taiwan is much more similar to our Thanksgiving and is a holiday meant to enjoy time with family, to cultivate luck, and to extend wishes of prosperity in the coming year. Michelle and her sister-in-law cooked an incredible dinner that was absolutely delicious! After the traditional New Year’s Eve meal, the entire family started to get ready for the famous red envelope ceremony.

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Family members offer red envelopes filled with money as a sign of respect and to wish the other members of their family a healthy and prosperous year ahead. The red envelopes get distributed in reverse chronological order (i.e., the person that is oldest gets their red envelope first). I also learned that one should never give money in denominations of four—because the Chinese word for the number four (sì/四) is a homophone for the word for death (sǐ/死). Yes, Tetraphobia is alive and well in East Asia…

Once all of the red envelopes were given out, we all sat together and watched a movie. We also played other traditional games, ate a bunch of snacks, and drank oolong tea. Later during the evening, we facetimed my students back in Newark; it was a lot of fun involving them in our holiday festivities, too! Unlike New Year’s celebrations in the west, there is no countdown clock to midnight or crazy celebrations once the clock strikes twelve. The party does not end on the first night of the lunar calendar, though: the Chinese New Year celebration actually lasts 15 days!

The final day of the Lunar New Year is known as the Lantern Festival, which is celebrated with a variety of cultural dances and music (and has also become commercialized as the equivalent of Valentine’s Day in Taiwan and Hong Kong). I really appreciated getting the opportunity to experience this unique holiday, and I really loved being a part of my adopted family in Tainan. It really was such a special night, and one that I will forever hold close in my heart. Talk about true cultural exchange!

I do want to take a moment on this joyous occasion to offer my condolences to all those who were impacted by the 6.4 magnitude earthquake in Hualien last week. This natural tragedy was my first time experiencing a vicious earthquake; I woke up in the middle of the night, shaking uncontrollably. At first, I thought I was having a seizure or other medical situation, and it was not until after the earthquake ended did I look on Twitter and realize what had happened. If I have learned anything in the last two months, it is how incredibly resilient the Taiwanese people are, and we can only hope that these earthquakes stop affecting a country with such hospitable residents.

In Taiwan, many people have off during the Lunar New Year celebration. I used this time to conduct research into the Chinese imperial examination system that originated from Confucianism, and how those ideals have permeated contemporary Taiwanese educational culture. I am starting to put these ideas together for my next blog post on the history of standardized tests, which will be incorporated into my inquiry project. Stay tuned for more information!

Learn Chinese!

English                                    Chinese

Red Envelope                        紅包 (Hóng bāo)

Happy New Year!                 新年快樂 (Xīnnián kuàilè)

Wishing you happiness & prosperity.   恭喜發財 (Gōngxǐ fācái)

 

Reflections from my first month in Taiwan

What an incredible month it has been! After spending a week in Japan, I arrived safely in Kaohsiung City and quickly settled into my new home for the next six months. In between filling out a stack of paperwork and several trips to the immigration office to secure my Alien Registration Card, I was able to explore the largest city in Southern Taiwan. I had a great time visiting the former British consulate, checking out the famous “dragon and tiger pagodas,” and traveling through one of the most beautiful subway stations in the world.

After my first week in Taiwan, I had lunch with a group of Fulbright alumni at a restaurant in the northern part of Kaohsiung. Michelle, Jhenyi, and Sandy (and her husband Andrew) were so welcoming, and I really appreciated the opportunity to have an in-person conversation after traveling by myself for a few weeks. In fact, we ended up talking for over three hours! I was also excited when Michelle invited me to her house to celebrate the Chinese New Year with her family next month. I cannot wait to experience this major cultural tradition here in Taiwan! Michelle is in the midst of writing her dissertation on professional learning communities; during her Fulbright to the states last fall, she researched the manner in which American teachers work together.

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After lunch with my new Fulbright family

Later that day, I had a chance to meet my advisor, Dr. Ping-Huang Chang, a professor at National Kaohsiung Normal University. This institution will host me as a visiting scholar throughout the spring semester. Dr. Chang and I worked out some logistics, including my observation schedule, and identified several possible classes that I might audit. He also organized a meeting and dinner with the principal and a few teachers from Kaohsiung Girls High School, the place where I will be conducting a lot of my exploratory research. I was particularly interested in the discussion we had about culturally relevant pedagogy and the math teachers’ interest in a new curriculum. The group also gave me copies of their government-issued math textbooks, which will be a helpful resource moving forward. Everyone was so welcoming and I could not be more excited to have the opportunity to learn from this exceptional group of educators.

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My advisor Dr. Chang (far right) and school team

It has also been intriguing to work through some cultural differences and misunderstandings. Although I had read a great deal about Taiwanese culture before coming here, I quickly discovered that it is one thing to understand something intellectually but quite another to actually experience cultural differences first-hand. For me, one of the biggest cultural differences that I have noticed between Taiwan and the U.S. is the way in which people view personal space in public. In this part of the world, people will often stand and sit very close to you on a fairly regular basis, and even sit next to you in an empty subway car.

Most restaurants also offer tea instead of water, and when they do offer water, it is often served steaming hot (I guess drinking “ice water” is an American thing?). One of the funniest examples of cultural differences that I encountered thus far is the way in which tomatoes are classified. In the U.S., tomatoes are often the focus of a somewhat whimsical debate over whether they are fruits or vegetables. Though tomatoes have seeds, the American taste palate often judges them to be a vegetable. Well, in Taiwan, tomatoes are always sold in the fruit section of a store; they are even found in fruit salads!

During my second week, I took the Taiwan High Speed Rail up to Taipei for the Fulbright Midyear Conference. I traveled with a group of ETA’s (Fulbright English Teaching Assistants) who have been living in Kaohsiung since August. During our trip, they shared some of their favorite things to do throughout the city and offered some nuanced advice, too. Many of the ETA’s are close in age to me, and I am looking forward to getting to know them better once we are all back in Kaohsiung at the end of the month.

The Midyear Conference was held at “The Great Roots Forestry Spa Resort,” which is a 45-minute bus ride from downtown Taipei. The hotel was built on top of a natural hot spring, which provided a relaxing way to wind down at the end of each day. During the conference, we learned about the history of Taiwan, received cultural adjustment advice, and listened to updates from scholars in the middle of their research.

As I alluded to this past summer when I was at the Fulbright Orientation in Washington, D.C., it is truly inspiring to be surrounded by thoughtful leaders who are eager to change the world in every field imaginable. We heard from researchers studying public health efforts, North Korean deterrence, and even water flood policy. One of my favorite presentations was given by a professor who was translating Buddhist chants into western-style music for his students in Utah. There were also two professors studying the Taiwanese legal system, with an emphasis on the legal rights of indigenous people. Each ETA group also gave a quick presentation that highlighted fun activities in their host cities, many of which were given through a humorous lens. I was one of three scholars that recently arrived in Taiwan; our presentations were more focused on our research plans moving forward.

Several sessions really challenged me intellectually, including a provocative address on Indo-Pacific policy chaired by Dr. Alexander Chieh-cheng Huang. Dr. Huang served as a Taiwanese diplomat in Washington, D.C. for 15 years and, consequently, has a unique perspective to offer. His presentation helped me realize how much I have to learn about the far-reaching politics of Asia and the increasingly important role China, Taiwan, and India will play in global affairs moving forward.

After the conference ended, I explored Taipei on my own for a couple of days. During my first night in the capital, I ran into fellow Fulbrighter Chris Upton, who is a lawyer and Ph.D. candidate that is researching the rights and rule-crafting processes in Taiwan’s indigenous rights framework. He grew up in Taipei, the son of two Baptist missionaries. He graciously showed me around the 228 Peace Park, the controversial Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall, and took me to dinner at his favorite hóngshāo niúròu miàn (braised beef noodle soup) restaurant in the entire country. It was a memorable evening. The next day, I visited the National Palace Museum, had lunch at the famous Din Tai Fung, and took the fastest elevator in the world to the top of the Taipei 101 building.

As I look forward to the month ahead, I am excited to start visiting schools. The concept of time remains quite disorienting for a multitude of reasons. Even though I am 13 hours ahead of Daylight Savings Time on the east coast, I feel as though I am a day behind on the news. For example, when I am going to bed on a Tuesday night, I am often getting the news from Monday in the United States (I have been watching the international version of CNN, which is noticeably more worldwide in its scope when compared to the largely domestic programming found in the states). In addition, the major holiday break in Taiwan falls over Chinese New Year, meaning that I have heard a lot of people talk about their break as we often talk about our winter break during the last week of December. In other words, it feels more like late November here than February!

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The beautiful, albeit controversial, Cheng Kai-shek Memorial

To close, I am looking forward to celebrating the biggest American sporting event of the year: Super Bowl Sunday! Well, maybe I should refer to it as Super Bowl Monday while in Taiwan. Who knows? Anyway, I found a local British pub that will be offering a “Super Bowl breakfast” for expats that are interested in watching the game. It should be interesting celebrating this uniquely American “holiday” in Taiwan. If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em I suppose: Let’s Go Eagles!!

 

Learn Chinese!

English                              Chinese

Hello                                  你好 (Nǐ hǎo)

Thank You                        謝謝 (Xièxiè)

Nice to meet you            很高兴认识你 (Hěn gāoxìng rènshi nǐ)

Why Taiwan? (Part 2: A Cultural Perspective)

“There are these two young fish swimming along, and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says, ‘Morning, boys, how’s the water?’ And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes, ‘What the hell is water?’” -David Foster Wallace, This is Water

At the end of World War II, many world leaders realized that they needed to take steps to prevent another great war from ever happening again. One of these people, Senator J. William Fulbright, set an ambitious goal: he believed that if potential leaders could learn about one another’s cultures and build strong relationships with people abroad, they would be less likely to support future wars against those countries.

To achieve this end, Senator Fulbright introduced a bill in 1945 that called for the “use of surplus war property to fund the promotion of international good will through the exchange of students in the fields of education, culture, and science.” On August 1, 1946, President Harry S. Truman signed the bill into law, and officially created the Fulbright Program, the flagship international educational exchange program sponsored by the U.S. Government.

While I have long considered applying to the Fulbright Program, teaching a diverse population of students in an urban public school for the last several years has truly piqued my interest in learning about different cultures. Having previously had the opportunity to travel abroad, I have come to realize that my interest in visiting different countries centered on much more than tourism: I wanted to meet the people of other countries and come to genuinely understand their customs and way of life.

In the course of traveling, I have come to realize that you never really know where life will take you. I remember the friendliness of Patagonia’s indigenous people on my journey throughout South America and can recall the great conversations I had over dinner with locals while in Portugal two summers ago. When traveling through Havana last year, I listened to dozens of Cubans share their affection for the American people while at the same time respectfully disagreeing with U.S. government policy, particularly the failed embargo. I also have fond memories of my last night in Madrid, when six people from six different countries communicated using their newly acquired Spanish.

It is through these experiences that I have come to appreciate more fully the power of diversity. I also believe that traveling is one of the best ways to get to know the world, and perhaps more importantly, to get to know yourself. There is something about the serenity of traveling alone and the personal growth that comes about because of it that helps you look at life through a completely different lens.

Although I have been incredibly privileged my entire life, and have had multiple opportunities to travel throughout the America’s and Europe, I have never visited Asia before this trip. In applying for a Fulbright, I looked to study in a country whose customs are completely different from those with which I was familiar, a place that I ordinarily would not have thought to visit. I wanted to get to know the culture of a place to which few Americans have traveled to and come to appreciate the subtle nuances that make eastern culture so special.

As such, I was excited to see Taiwan, the Republic of China, on the list of Participating Territories for the 2017-2018 Fulbright ‘Distinguished Awards in Teaching’ Program. I was equally thrilled last April, when I received an e-mail letting me know that I will officially be spending 2018 abroad in Kaohsiung City, Taiwan. Once abroad, I will be hosted as a visiting scholar at National Kaohsiung Normal University in Kaohsiung City, the third largest city in Taiwan.

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Kaohsiung City at night

I am looking forward to conducting research and living in Taiwan, a country with a fascinating history. An island nation of 23.4 million people, its sovereignty has been hotly contested for over 500 years. After claiming Taiwan in 1895, the Japanese granted the land back to the Republic of China after being defeated in World War II. However, when Mao Zedong assumed power over the Chinese mainland in 1949 and renamed it the People’s Republic of China, the deposed government established a new seat of power in Taiwan. Currently, the mainland People’s Republic of China claims sovereignty over Taiwan, while Taiwan claims sovereignty over the entire mainland as the original Republic of China. Most international organizations, including the United States, do not recognize Taiwan as a sovereign state.

Although a founding member, Taiwan is currently the most populous state and largest economy that is not a member of the United Nations. Taiwan’s government represented the entirety of China until 1971, when the People’s Republic of China assumed China’s seat. Geographically, Taiwan is a few hundred miles to the east of Hong Kong, and is roughly twice the size of New Jersey (and with 23 million people, has almost triple NJ’s population).

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New Jersey overlaid on top of Taiwan for comparison

I also look forward to experiencing Taiwan’s universal healthcare system first-hand after having read so much about it over the course of the last several years. Other interesting facts about Taiwan: the country competes in international competitions as Chinese Taipei, was the first democratic country in Asia, and was nicknamed Ilha Formosa (Beautiful Island) by Portuguese explorers passing by the island en route to Macau as early as the 16th century.

As we move forward in a world that is increasingly changing and globally connected, the essential role each of us must play in fostering cross-cultural exchange becomes more apparent. For how else will we achieve a better tomorrow? If we can learn to listen attentively to one another, appreciate the wealth to be found in diverse cultures, and develop a stronger sense of the many different lenses through which one can view life—what Senator Fulbright referred to as “mutual understanding”—we might just start to care for one another in unprecedented ways. My only hope is that I can help contribute to Fulbright’s vision of creating a world with a little more knowledge and a little less conflict.

Perhaps David Foster Wallace said it best: “It is about simple awareness — awareness of what is so real and essential, so hidden in plain sight all around us, that we have to keep reminding ourselves, over and over: This is water, this is water.” Maybe in Taiwan, I will actually be able to see the water once and for all.

 

This post is the second in a two-part series that attempts to answer the question, “Why Taiwan?” The first essay, focused on an educational perspective, can be found here.

Why Taiwan? (Part 1: An Educational Perspective)

I was born to be a teacher. For as far back as I can remember, I have always loved school and valued education as one of life’s most valued treasures. While I have always had a passion for education, teaching has lit a fire in me; I truly feel alive when leading instruction in front of a classroom. Though I love what I do, I take my role as an educator seriously, as I fundamentally believe that we are teaching the future leaders of our world. As it has been said, we are currently preparing students for jobs that do not yet exist, using technologies that have not yet been invented, to solve a wide variety of complex problems.

During the 21st century, our international community will need to respond to these critical global issues, including food security, public health (and the so-called “death gap”), and world peace. To solve these obstacles, we will need a new generation of creative leaders: people who appreciate diversity, can think ethically, strategically, and divergently, and refuse to be satisfied with the status quo.

To create these transformational leaders, we arguably need an education revolution in this country. The achievement data is clear: a significant opportunity gap exists between middle- and upper-class students and those living in poverty. As our schools slowly become re-segregated, many of our most vulnerable communities are being left behind (Frankenberg, Lee, and Orfield 2003; Orfield, Kucsera, and Siegel-Hawley 2012). Although we have made some progress over the years, I must ask: how can we live in the richest country in the world and continue to allow the opportunity gap to be so wide?

Over the past six years, I have had the absolute privilege of serving the students and families of the Newark Public Schools. During this time, I have learned so much about the unique challenges facing urban communities and the incredible resolve of Newarkers fighting for a better tomorrow. Between the city’s inspirational residents, delectable cuisine, and exceptional transportation options, Newark has genuinely become one of my favorite places in the world. As it has been said, Newark, like ancient Rome, is “a living reminder of a glorious past, a predictor of a possible future, and a lesson in the persistence of the individual and of the human spirit.”

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Newark, affectionately known as the “Brick City,” at dusk.

While I have a deep admiration for the “Brick City” and the people that live there, I have also witnessed first-hand the educational inequality that has plagued our country for decades. I have previously written about the unacceptable transportation issues within our district bureaucracy, but busing logistics is just the tip of the iceberg. Last week, the Baltimore City Public Schools made national headlines when the press learned that some of their schools had broken heating systems and children needed to wear their jackets to  class. Year after year, I have watched students fight an uphill battle within a system that, arguably, was not designed with their success in mind. If I have learned nothing else over the course of the last six years, it is that we have a long way to go until every young person has the opportunity to attend a great public school.

To re-think education in the United States, we need to look critically at a number of issues both within and outside our current system. While we still have a great deal to learn from ideas, research, and innovation carried out from universities, think-tanks, and scholars in the states, there are also many creative developments underway in schools throughout the world. Over the course of the past decade, Finland’s unique educational philosophy has become a worldwide sensation. Although Finland has plenty of progressive schools, efforts to replicate their instruction model has had its fair share of challenges, and students living in Asia perform better in higher-level mathematics, especially in Taiwan, Japan, Singapore, and South Korea. U.S educators and policy makers alike have only recently begun looking towards the far east in search of best practices beyond the primary school level. Though several white papers, policy positions, and research projects have tried to expand this effort to high school mathematics instruction, little success has been realized.

Taiwan leads the world in mathematical performance among all students in their country. The results of the Programme for International Student Assessment, colloquially known as the PISA, are clear: for the most recent year in which data is available, Taiwan was ranked as the 4th best country in the world for mathematical performance. The United States finished 36th.  The OECD (who organize the PISA) also uses a so-called “snapshot of equity in education” to determine how equitable the education system is in any given country. In this category, the U.S. currently ranks 25th, while Taiwan ranks 4th. It is worth noting that the Republic of China’s success in education stretches beyond the area of mathematics, as Taiwan currently ranks 8th internationally in reading comprehension and 13th in science, too.

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Using another standardized metric, the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS), eighth graders in Taiwan ranked 2nd internationally in science and 3rd in mathematics. Taiwanese students also achieved outstanding results in the International Mathematics and Science Olympiad. The Ministry of Education also has a plethora of current initiatives that are aimed at increasing creativity through art and music programs. If you put any faith in these standardized metrics (which, to be fair, are inherently controversial), it is clear that Taiwan is doing something special when it comes to educating its youth.

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During my time abroad, I will have the opportunity to observe hundreds of educators teaching at dozens of schools, learn more about their pedagogical approach, and work to apply as much of it as possible to my work with under-resourced students back home. Although a few ideas in this area have emerged from Japan and Singapore, the approach taken in Taiwan has received little public exposure despite the tremendous success on international benchmarks. This Fulbright project looks to change this paradigm once and for all.

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Stock photo of Taipei, the capital city of Taiwan.

As we look forward towards an ever-changing global economy, we as educators need to do a better collective job preparing our students for the complex world in which they will live and work. Commenting on the results of the 2015 PISA, the report’s authors noted that, “while changing how teachers teach is challenging, school leaders and governments should try to find ways to make teaching more effective.” Perhaps I am hopelessly optimistic, but I do believe success is possible.

I have worked hard the last six years to ensure that all of the students whom I taught received a great education, but I must confess that I have learned far more from my students over the years than I have ever taught them. While I am truly excited for the year of personal and professional growth that lies ahead, I also want to ensure that my time abroad actually makes a difference for our most vulnerable students. I hope that my studies in Taiwan can be part of the revolution that is committed to giving all students the chance to attain a truly excellent education.

 

This post is the first in a two-part series that attempts to answer the question, “Why Taiwan?” The second essay, focused on a “cultural perspective,” will be posted next week.

 

Fulbright Orientation

“I am at a particular point on my journey. I have no clue if anything I think is right, but it’s the truest answers I have found thus far” –Tom Rademacher, It Won’t Be Easy

Fulbright swag!

I started to write this post on the Amtrak down to Washington, D.C. As I sat on the train, I could not help but be contemplative about the next major step in my life while simultaneously being reflective of the incredible journey thus far. This Fulbright orientation has been over a year in the making – I applied almost a year ago today, and found out that I was accepted into the program in April. As I read through the list of Fulbright grantee’s from around the world and their inquiry project proposals, I became increasingly excited to meet some of the best educators our world has to offer.

The orientation itself was genuinely one of the most inspirational weeks of my life. I was able to network with teachers from Morocco, principals from India, and counselors from New Zealand. It was surreal having the opportunity to discuss educational policy with teachers from Finland, talk about math pedagogy with educators from Singapore, and learn about the unique challenges of education in Botswana first-hand. And it turns out that I am officially the youngest member of this year’s cohort, too…

Sitting with educators from Singapore & Taiwan during the opening reception

During the orientation, we learned about intercultural discovery, communicating across cultures, and the extensive logistics of the program. Senator J. William Fulbright, who sponsored the landmark legislation that later became known as the Fulbright Program in 1946, had this vision that if we knew people from other countries, we would be less likely to go to war with those countries. In 2017, we are constantly confronted with serious and legitimate challenges in the modern world. I am of the belief that no one country can solve these issues alone; people from around the world must come together to solve increasingly complex problems such as climate change, global poverty, or even violent extremism.

Listening to Anthony Koliha, Director of Global Education at the U.S. Department of State

I am beyond excited about spending 2018 abroad in Kaohsiung, Taiwan. As I alluded to in an earlier post, once I arrive in Taiwan, I will be researching eastern pedagogical approaches at National Kaohsiung Normal University, and consider how to implement best practices in sustainable and culturally responsible ways. During the orientation, I was able to spend a lot of time with Michelle Nien-Ching Chuang, a Fulbright Teacher from Taiwan that is studying the American education system at Indiana University this fall. She taught me all of the ins- and outs- of the Taiwanese education system, the delicate challenges facing students in Taiwan, and how to pronounce Kaohsiung correctly (it is pronounced “gow – shuung” and is written in Mandarin as 高雄).

Skyping with Michelle and Jessica

Although I have had the opportunity to travel abroad many times in my life, I have never spent more than a month overseas. It will be hard saying goodbye to many people, but I am definitely looking forward to the extended time away from everyone that I know and away from western culture, too. I also wonder if I will experience culture shock, and, if so, to what extent. The Fulbright commission did a really great job explaining the various stages of culture shock that most people go through when they are abroad, including the “honeymoon” stage, initial culture shock, adjustment, adaptation, and re-entry shock.This week-long orientation was unequivocally the marquee event of my summer, which has truly been special. This has also been the first summer in which I have not had any graduate studies to worry about, meaning that I have had a significant amount of down time to recharge and reflect about life. I have been fortunate to have the time to read a plethora of books and spend a lot of time out on the golf course, too. I have also spent a considerable amount of time working as a teacher coach and educational consultant, which has been an incredible learning experience. I have spent a majority of my time this summer leading professional development and coaching teachers in the Philadelphia Schools, the Newark Public Schools, and the NYC Department of Education. In NYC, I was excited to help support the mayor’s “Excellence for All” Initiative, specifically in the DOE’s Algebra for All program throughout the city. My experience varied daily, as did the teacher quality from school to school. It is one thing to talk about educational policy on the 30,000 feet level, and another altogether to actually see the achievement gap being closed or expanded depending on which school I was at.

Some of the best educators our world has to offer. It truly was a pleasure working with them!

Just last week, I was honored to be featured on the closing panel of the annual conference of CMSM in Scottsdale, Arizona, which explored the future of religious life in this country. The panel, moderated by my friend and mentor Marist Brother Seán Sammon, explored what the leaders of religious congregations across the country need to better connect with the next generation. I lead a provocative discussion about the need for an inclusive church that truly looks out for the most vulnerable and those on the margins on society. I look towards the leadership of people like Cardinal Joe Tobin, who strives to build bridges, not walls.

 

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During the closing session at CMSM with Brother Seán, Ryan, and Duffy.

Anyone that remotely knows me understands just how much I love teaching, which I personally consider a vocation that means infinitely more to me than just a job. For me, there is no greater feeling than standing in front of a classroom of our future leaders, or helping a student learn something they previously thought they never could. I love serving the students and families of Newark, NJ, and know that I will miss them immensely when I travel abroad in less than five months. Many people have asked me what will I do when I return, but I am not sure yet. The State of New Jersey issued my principal certification a few weeks ago, but I honestly do not know where I will find myself when I return stateside at the end of next summer. As it could be said, I am at a particular point on my journey. I have no clue if anything I think is right, but it’s the truest answers I have found thus far.