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.

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).

Reflection Pool
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

Gove, M. (2012). Classroom crush. The Economist Retrieved March 07, 2018, from

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

Kristof, N. (2011). Pay Teachers More. The NY Times Retrieved March 07, 2018, from

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,9171,2094427,00.html

Turton, M. (2012). The View From Taiwan. Retrieved March 04, 2018, from

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

Standardized Testing: A Brief Overview

“Educators today face a dilemma. Should they support current presidential, legislative, and corporate initiatives that claim to ensure a quality education for all children through the escalation of standardized measurement of predetermined learning outcomes? Should they accommodate standardized testing within a contemporary learner-centered paradigm, which endorses a more eclectic “toolbox” approach to assessment that allows the informed educator to select among diverse gauges of learning progress” (Gallagher, 2003)?” The answer remains to be seen…

One of the most controversial aspects of American education in the 21st century is the widespread use of standardized tests within our public schools. Teachers and parents alike worry about the high-stakes nature of these assessments, which are increasingly used to sort students and evaluate teachers worldwide. Even many educators disagree with local testing policies, while others debate whether these exams are valid metrics to assess student learning. Understanding the results themselves can even be confusing: U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos made national headlines in 2017 when she fumbled through the difference between proficiency and growth during her confirmation hearings.

Long before No Child Left Behind, Race to the Top, and the ‘Every Student Succeeds Act’ were used in our daily lexicon, the American Psychological Association was asking powerful questions about the use of standardized testing in our schools. Specifically, the APA wanted to know why “American schools continue to rely on group-administered, standardized test scores for educational decision-making purposes” and how this “powerful historical tradition become a foundation for educational practices.” (American Psychological Association, 1993)?

Let us consider that last question: How did this powerful historical tradition become a foundation for educational practices?

Professors of education have longed used international benchmarks, such as the PISA, to compare countries, often to mixed results. As previously noted, many countries outperform the United States on these standardized metrics, most notably in Scandinavia and Asia. Recently, comparative education researchers have looked to these countries to better understand why these countries are so successful, especially in east Asia.

A contemporary belief many Americans hold about Asian countries is the high cultural values eastern countries attach to education. In reality, this belief is “an illusion at best and a cruel glorification of authoritarianism at worst” (Zhao, 2014). One author has noted that this perceived culture is actually, “a survival strategy the Chinese people developed to cope with thousands of years of authoritarian rule that has been glorified as China’s secret to educational success” (Zhao, 2014).  It is important to know the rich history behind this phenomenon, leading back centuries to Confucius’s time and when the majority of Asia was under imperial rule:

“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 exam system, known in Mandarin as 科舉 or keju, was originally viewed as an equitable way to ensure that all students had a chance to rise up from their current caste. From the perspective of those in power, “keju was a tool to identify and recruit the most capable and virtuous individuals into government instead of relying on members of the hereditary noble class” (Zhao, 2014). Perhaps most notably, and because of its perceived fairness, objectivity, and openness, “keju gave birth to the idea of meritocracy, a core value in many eastern countries” (Zhao, 2014).

A painting of the ancient Chinese keju (科舉) system

Even hundreds of years later, Sun Yat-sen, the founding father of the Republic of China, often praised keju as the underpinnings of the world’s best education system. Dr. Young Zhao often refers to a fable that Sun often told about the drawbacks of a society without standardized tests. In the story, Sun talked about an election in the west between a doctor and a truck driver. “Of the two candidates, the doctor is certainly more knowledgeable that the driver, but he lost. This is the consequence of popular election without examination” (Zhao, 2014). When Sun Yat-sen set up a new government after overthrowing the Qing dynasty (the last imperial dynasty of China), the new constitution included an entire branch of government focused on standardized testing; this Examination Yuan continues in modern day Taiwan.

The rigorous, day-long written keju tests were quite different than what the academy offered elsewhere. In the Western world, for example, “examiners usually favored giving [oral] essays, a tradition stemming from the ancient Greeks’ affinity for the Socratic method” (Fletcher, 2009). These oral exams, which were typically held once a year and in public, “were more in the nature of public displays or exhibitions to show off brilliant pupils or to glorify teachers.” (Kandel, 1936, p. 24) These tests were often highly subjective, and by the mid-nineteenth century, “it was clear to [western] philosophers, scientists, and educators that the popular college tradition of oral qualifying examinations was flawed” (Gallagher, 2003).

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Raphael’s The School of Athens, one of the most famous frescoes on display at the Apostolic Palace in the Vatican, highlights education in ancient Greece.

It was during this time period that Horace Mann argued for widespread adoption of the common school, “a free, universal, non-sectarian, and public institution” (Warder, 2015). The father of public education, Mann was a revolutionary who saw schoolhouses as “the best means of achieving the moral and socioeconomic uplift of all Americans” (Warder, 2015). As such, Mann “persuaded the Boston Public School Committee to allow him to administer written exams to the city’s children in place of the traditional oral exams. Using a common exam, he hoped to provide objective information about the quality of teaching and learning in urban schools” (Gallagher, 2003). Similar to the Confucian tradition of keju, Mann thought that these common exams would be more equitable than the centuries-old tradition of oral exams. In doing so, “Mann’s goal was to find and replicate the best teaching methods so that all children could have equal opportunities” (Gershon, 2015).

One of the first Common Schools

Unfortunately, unlike Mann’s exam, “many of the first widely adopted standardized school tests were designed not to measure achievement but ability” (Gershon, 2015). Thus,

“as early as the mid-19th century, there existed a belief in the role of testing as a vehicle to classify students ex ante, commonly viewed as a necessary step in providing education. Also emerging during this period was an interest in uses of tests ex post: to monitor the effectiveness of schools in accomplishing their purposes. Visionaries like Mann saw testing as a means to educate effectively; administrators, legislators, and the general public turned to tests to see what children were actually learning. The fact that the first formal written examinations in the United States were intended as devices for sorting and classifying but were used also to monitor school effectiveness suggests how far back in American history one can go for evidence of test misuse” (U.S. Congress, 1992).

Written intelligence tests grew in prominence in the early twentieth century, and had an aura of scientific objectivity (Gershon, 2015). By the turn of the century, French psychologist Alfred Binet “began developing a standardized test of intelligence, work that would eventually be incorporated into a version of the modern IQ test, dubbed the Stanford-Binet Intelligence Test” (Fletcher, 2009). Less than ten years later, the U.S. government developed the Army Alpha and Beta test during World War I to “sort soldiers by their mental abilities, which soon became a model for schools” (Gershon, 2015).

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The original Army Alpha & Beta tests

Shortly thereafter, the College Entrance Examination Board started administrating exams in the 1920’s, which was later renamed as the Scholastic Aptitude Test, or the SAT. Similar to the goal of the Chinese keju system and Mann’s push for more objective common exams, “the SAT was designed partly to make top colleges into places for clever young [people] from all backgrounds, not just the children of the elite” (Gershon, 2015).

These early standardized tests were still somewhat subjective, however, as they were often short essays and almost always graded by hand. In 1936, IBM released the first rudimentary automatic test scanner, which allowed standardized tests to be graded faster than ever before. In 1959, “an education professor at the University of Iowa named Everett Franklin Lindquist (who later pioneered the first generation of optical scanners and the development of the GED test) developed the ACT as a competitor to the SAT” (Fletcher, 2009). And in 1965, The Elementary and Secondary Education Act in particular opened the way for new and increased uses of norm-referenced tests to evaluate programs” (Alcocer, 2014), which was further exacerbated by the infamous No Child Left Behind Act of 2001.

The first SAT

A millennium after the Tang dynasty started the eastern practice of keju, centuries after Mann advocated for the use of common exams, and decades after the SAT tried to level the playing field for underprivileged children, standardized tests are just as controversial today as ever before. “Modern critics note that standardized test scores largely reflect socioeconomic privilege,” but it is unclear whether those differences are due to the inequities amongst schools or the tests themselves (Gershon, 2015). In fact, “tests don’t necessarily create more social stratification. Instead, they mostly seem to reflect the academic advantages that go with socioeconomic privilege among American kids. But, of course, that’s evidence that despite Horace Mann’s hopes for standardized tests, equal opportunity for all children still hasn’t become reality” (Grodsky et. Al., 2008)

In other words, what was originally thought of as an innovative way to increase equity has actually made our system more inequitable. Even in Taiwan, a country where the OECD reports as having one of the most equitable public education systems in the world, the practice of after school bǔxíbān (cram schools) are quite pervasive. Although many schools in Taiwan, South Korea, and Japan are remarkably equitable, these night classes are one way that parents with means use their resources to give an unfair advantage to their children, at often an incredible financial and emotional cost.

Compared to the United States, many countries have a more effective and efficient method to assess their students. In Sweden, for example, “standardized examinations are used as scoring benchmarks to help teachers grade students uniformly and properly in their regular classes” (U.S. Congress, 1992). In Taiwan, all students take a national two-day exam at the end of junior high school, which is administered by the Ministry of Education. Students interested in looking to attend university then have to take two tests at the end of high school, specifically the Subject Competency Test and the Designated Subjects Examination. And contrary to popular belief, even students in Finland take a standardized test, called the “National Matriculation Exam, which everyone takes at the end of a voluntary upper-secondary school, roughly the equivalent of American high school.” (Partanen, 2011). In many of the best education systems around the world, Finland included, teachers focus more on formative assessments, which an abundance of research has shown to have incredibly positive effects in the classroom (Black & William, 2010).

Another major problem with standardized testing in the United States is that private companies with heavy financial incentives are often the entities that administer these tests. These large companies also have significant lobbying power and have tremendously affected domestic education policy. As it has been said, “only in the United States is there a strong commercial test development and publishing market. The importance of this sector, in terms of research, development, and influence on the quality and quantity of testing, cannot be overstated. Even when States and districts create their own tests, they often contract with private companies. In Europe and Asia, testing policies reside in miniseries of education” (U.S. Congress, 1992). This should be a major wake-up call for all parents, educators, and policy-makers alike.

Looking forward, more colleges than ever are participating in the FairTest movement, which encourages universities to consider allowing students to apply without submitting any standardized test scores. Some critics point to the fact that “while our understanding of the brain and how people learn and think has progressed enormously, standardized tests have remained the same” (Fairtest, 2012). In other places, many parents have opted their students out of taking high-stakes common core exams, such as the PARCC exam or ‘Smarter Balanced Assessment.’

Although we are centuries removed from the keju, the United States still uses remnants of the imperial exam system today. Every major professional field, from accountants to teachers to the foreign diplomatic corps, requires some sort of standardized test to become licensed in their field. This ideology in deeply ingrained: would you want a doctor to examine you or a lawyer to represent you without passing their qualifying exams? It remains to be seen how standardized tests will impact our future, but it is important to understand their history if we are serious about engaging in a policy debate over how to best serve our youth moving forward.

If you are interested in learning more about the history of Testing in American Schools, feel free to read the OTA report on the subject matter here


Works Cited

Alcocer, P. (2014). NEA Education Policy and Practice. History of Standardized Testing in the United States. Retrieved February 01, 2018, from

American Psychological Association (1993). Learner-Centered Psychological Principles: Guidelines for School Redesign and Reform, American Psychological Association, Washington, DC. Google Scholar

Black, P., & Wiliam, D. (2010). Inside the Black Box: Raising Standards through Classroom Assessment. Phi Delta Kappan, 92(1), 81-90. doi:10.1177/003172171009200119 (2012). What’s Wrong With Standardized Tests? Retrieved February 15, 2018, from

Fletcher, D. (2009, December 11). Standardized Testing. Retrieved February 4, 2018, from,8599,1947019,00.html

Gallagher, C. (2003). Reconciling a Tradition of Testing with a New Learning Paradigm. Educational Psychology Review, 15(1), 83-99. Retrieved from

Gershon, L. (2015, May 12). A Short History of Standardized Tests. Retrieved February 1, 2018, from

Grodsky, E., Warren, J., & Felts, E. (2008). Testing and Social Stratification in American Education. Annual Review of Sociology, 34, 385-404. Retrieved from

Kandel, I. L. (1936). Examinations and their substitutes in the United States. New York: Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. Google Scholar

Partanen, A. (2011, December 29). What Americans Keep Ignoring About Finland’s School Success. Retrieved February 1, 2018, from

U.S. Congress, Office of Technology Assessment (1992). Testing in American Schools: Asking the Right Questions, OTA-SET-519. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office

Warder, G. (2015). Horace Mann and the creation of the Common School. Retrieved (February 4, 2018) from

Zhao, Y. (2014). Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Dragon?: Why China has the Best (and Worst) Education System in the World. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.