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).

Bangkok - 1
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 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/

Touring Pennsylvania Colleges with ESHS

As I alluded to in my last post, I once again had the opportunity to chaperone the annual student council trip to visit different colleges in the northeast. This year, the students wanted to visit Penn State University and the University of Scranton (where my sister is currently a junior), so that is exactly the two colleges we went to go see. 

In front of the Old Main building at PSU
After leaving before the crack of dawn on Thursday, we arrived at Penn State at around 10:00am, giving us plenty of time to visit the bookstore and eat lunch before our campus tour at noon. Having spent a few days at Florida State University, I was expecting Penn State to feel more like a city than a college, but I was (admit-tingly) very surprised at how Penn State managed to have a small-school vibe. 
The East Side High School Student Council
at Penn State University 
Thursday night was one of my favorite moments of the trip. After teaching students how to play some card games, I explained to them the math behind blackjack (as portrayed in the movie 21). Later, we played Taboo in the hotel lobby until 1 o’clock in the morning. I would be lying if I said it didn’t bring me right back to my college days, running programs as an RA. Once the clock hit 1am, it was officially lights out, as we had another long day ahead of us on Friday. 
With Kim overlooking the University of Scranton
After eating breakfast and departing from State College, we headed for the University of Scranton. Once at Scranton, we met up with my sister, who gave us our meal vouchers. We then had an information session, and I was able to see my sister give an outstanding tour of her school. (Note: My sister and I often have a rivalry over which school is better – Marist or Scranton. The U.S. News & World Report often ranks the schools pretty evenly, but they are both tremendous academic universities that are slowly growing onto the national stage). I have been to Scranton many times (mostly to help my sister move-in and move-out), but I was still impressed by how nice the University was.
The East Side High School Student Council
at the University of Scranton
And then we left to go back to Newark. It was such a great trip, and I once again learned so much in every way possible. When I got back on Monday, I found out that my fourth block, which is typically a great class, wasn’t well behaved for the substitute teacher during the trip on Friday. I was very disappointed in them, and explained this to the class the following Monday when I got back. After talking with them in a very quiet voice for a few minutes, I had every student sit in silence and write a letter of apology to the substitute and my vice principal (who had to come to my class to calm everyone down). I have never had to do that as a teacher, but you could most definitely tell how bad the entire class felt. After they started writing, not one student said one word for close to forty minutes. That period, there was such a profound feeling of respect, and I would be lying if I said that it wasn’t one of the most surreal experiences of my teaching career to date. 
My board when I walked in on Monday. 

Last side note – my birthday was last week, and the amazing students of East Side High School once again outdid themselves and couldn’t have made my birthday any nicer. Between signing my board, decorating my door, and singing “Sapo Verde” to me countless times (including five times in my last class alone), they honestly made my day. Below is a photo of some of the remnants of my birthday, and I honestly cannot thank them enough!

¡Muchas gracias por un cumpleaños fantástico!
Muito obrigado do por um aniversário grande! 

A New Room, A New Program, & A New Opportunity

These last few months have been busy, very fast, and quite exciting. Between subbing summer classes, working on random projects, and tutoring SAT prep sessions, I honestly feel that I started school a month early this year! In August, I found out that I would officially be changing rooms, and was going to be teaching in room 301. I was really excited to get a new classroom. Just like my experience last year, it took a lot of cleaning to get my room in order. After spending about two full weeks cleaning up the room and making everything look nice for the first day of school, I was ready to start year two at East Side. 
Panorama of Room 301 before the first day of school
On my first day of school, I tried out an activity my Vice Principal told me he used about working hard and achieving goals. In essence, I had a student jump as high as they could, and mark their jump with a marker. After leading a conversation with the class, I got a chair, and taped a $5 bill an inch above the mark on the wall. Each student then had a chance to jump up and get the bill. After all of the students were successful, we talked about how this related to life. Intrigued? I guess you’re just going to have to sit in on my class next year to find out…
East Side vs. Central football game at School Stadium in Newark
This year, I was appointed the school’s head academic coach, allowing me to run team eligibility reports, identify at-risk athletes, tutor them, and help council them on a wide variety of issues. I consider this a tremendous opportunity not only for myself and my personal ambitions, but for student athletes that often use sports as a coping mechanism for a wide array of issues they may be going through. Although this is my first year in this position, I see the potential this role has to really improve the school, and it should be interesting to see how this plays out.  
Working Breakfast Duty in the morning
In addition to being the head academic coach, I also started an official SAT preparation program this Fall. After privately tutoring a student this summer, I realized how much SAT prep classes were needed at East Side. After pitching my idea of starting this program, the administration loved it, and gave me the green light. Originally, we had over 65 students sign up for free SAT prep classes (that met on Saturday mornings)! To me, this is yet another indication of how hard our students want to work to attain success, loosely defined. This also reinforced my personal idea that many students want to do well, but are unsure of exactly how to get there and what to do to get them to their next steps in life. 
 
Early in October, I found out that I won a contest to take four students on a shopping spree at American Eagle. After randomly picking four students (and some hectic organization along the way), we all met up at the American Eagle in Jersey City; it was quite an exhilarating experience. I think it is safe to say that all of the involved parties were extremely grateful for this opportunity, and I personally cannot thank Teach For America and American Eagle enough for providing it to them.
In front of American Eagle after the shopping spree
 
My classes are going very well, also. Often times, my classes keep me laughing, especially when we are talking about sports teams, “growing corn,” yelling “Let’s Get Ready to Rumble,” or even using an exuberant amount of Lysol during class. Whether it is a student going back and forth in my first block about how funny I am (or not) or blasting songs to end the week in my fourth block, I recognize how fortunate and blessed I am to teach such a talented, amazing and fun group of students that truly make my day every day.
Halloween in the Math Office at ESHS
Between going to Marist, grad school at Seton Hall, running SAT Prep sessions on Saturdays, countless football and soccer games, and even going to my first Bar Mitzvah, I cannot believe how fast the first two months of school went this year. This upcoming week, I am once again privileged to join the Student Council on their annual college visit trip, which I expect to be just as powerfully moving as the previous trips I went on. There have been plenty of “new” things to start this year, but it seems as least one thing is the same: We barely have any school in November. If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em I suppose, so: Here’s to No School November!

Reflections From My First Year of Teaching

When one becomes a teacher, there is an often told piece of advice given from veteran educators that encourages a new teacher to “not smile before Christmas.” The idea is that, if you show your students that you are happy and having fun, you are indirectly showing them that you are “weak.” I thought long and hard about what I was going to be like as a teacher, especially since I was very young and had little experience. Sure, I student taught during college and worked in Harlem the summer leading up to my first year, but this was different. For the first time, I was on my own. 
Teaching an algebra class earlier in the year

And there I was, in September, standing by myself in front of a class of freshman ready to learn. I was a recent college graduate, I just moved to Newark a few weeks prior, and, at 21 years old, was the youngest member of the faculty by over a year. As an extremely young, new and inexperienced teacher, it was initially a challenge to gain the respect of the students and ever other teachers, some who had lived in Newark their entire lives. It was an interesting dynamic, but once people started to see who I really was and what my intentions were, things started to fall into place. My first semester had its ups and downs, and my teaching career had officially begun.

With the ESHS Student Council in DC for the
2013 Presidential Inauguration 

In addition to teaching, I was very fortunate for all of the amazing opportunities I had as a first year teacher. Perhaps most notably, I was able to chaperone three overnight trips with the Student Council, including college visits to Washington, D.C. and Boston and a trip to the 2013 Presidential Inauguration. As a result, I really got close with some of the Student Council members, mostly upperclassmen whom I otherwise would not have had a chance to work with and get to know individually. These students gave me tremendous insight into their lives and what it is really like growing up in Newark.
With the ESHS Student Council at Harvard University in Boston.
When I reflect back on my first year of teaching, it is the stories and conversations that stand out to me that are the most memorable. I have been so lucky to have had such amazing conversations with so many students this year, with discussions ranging everywhere from college life to immigration reform to living in poverty. I really enjoy having lunch with students and getting to know them on a more personal level. I often say that I feel that I learn more from them than I could ever teach them in a million years; I sure do hope that the ‘learning’ is mutual. I could go on and on about so many conversations I have had, like one about college with a rising junior till 5:00pm on a random Friday or standing on the national mall in DC listening to undocumented students from Brazil explain their struggles with things we all take for granted every day, like applying to college or even working a summer job. As I have stated previously, it is one thing reading about deep social issues such as the achievement gap or institutionalized racism, but experiencing it first hand is surreal.
With the 2013 NPS Math Olympics Pre-Calulus Champions!
Loved working with this team and these students so much. 

I also helped coach the Math Olympics Pre-Calculus team, which won first place in the Newark Math Olympics. I couldn’t be prouder of such a great group of hard-working students that gave up so much of their free time to learn math. It was also interesting taking this team to the Essex County Math League Competition, where our East Siders faced much more affluent districts such as Livingston and Milburn. It was interesting to watch the achievement gap unfold right in front of me, as these two school districts seemingly swept away the rest of the competition. Also in April, I went to Denver for the 2013 NCTM Conference, where I was able to network with so many educators from all across the country. To close the year, I chaperoned two additional field trips to the Museum of Natural History and the Bronx Zoo. Oh, and we may have also organized a few teacher-student kickball games after finals, as well…
With some other [awesome] teachers at the Museum of Natural History


I wish I could articulate every lesson I learned from my first year of teaching, but I would probably need to publish a book to do so. This has undoubtedly been the biggest life changing and eye-opening year of my life; my perspective of inner cities and social classes has changed tenfold. I wish everyone at some point in their lives has the chance to work at or visit an inner-city high school, as I think it offers great perspective into different people’s lives. It is an absolute privilege (and a unique challenge) to work with teenage students, and I promise you I never have a boring day at work! Sure, there were many times that I put in 12 hour days or stayed late to watch a game or advise a public speaking club, but it is these moments that really make it all “worth it.” I can honestly say that I love coming to work every single day. 
In May, the students voted me as Teacher of the Month.
I couldn’t have been more honored and humbled by this award,
especially since it was the students that selected it. 

Well, year one of teaching is in the books, folks. Almost exactly a year ago today I was heading into Newark for the first time, really unsure of what to expect from a city and school district I have heard so many negative things about. Looking back, moving to and working in Newark was perhaps the best thing that has ever happened to me. I love where I work, the students I work with, and many of my colleagues with like-minded attitudes that really care about our students. I have learned a lot from year one (including the fact that, against popular opinion, it is extremely important to smile before Christmas), and I am already thinking about what can be done better next year. 


I could not have asked for a better first year of teaching. Now let’s see what’s in store for year number two.

My First Marking Period is in the Books!

     After spending years in different classrooms observing, student teaching, tutoring and volunteering, I was both very anxious and excited to actually have a class of my own this year. Last week signaled the end of the first marking period; what an interesting first quarter it has been.
One of my students working on a problem at the board
     A week before school started, I finally received the keys to my classroom. When I walked in for the first time, the room was nothing like I had envisioned at all. I had six desks in my class, there was graffiti on all of the walls, everything was dirty, and to say I was disappointed would be an understatement. But it the midst of all the ruble, I saw the layout of a great classroom. I knew I only had a few days before school started, so I got to work right away trying to make the best classroom with the materials I had. I started by throwing away all of the broken furniture, ripped posters and frog dissection kits (you read that correctly) that were clogging up the room, and began wiping down everything covered in dirt and dust. I re-did the bulletin boards (which came out very well thanks to my experience from my RA days), found some new inspirational posters to hang up, and strategically hung them to cover gaping holes in the walls.
A before and after shot of my classroom in September


     Another aspect of my classroom that was rather disconcerting was the presence of a blackboard in my room. I never liked teaching with chalk, as my clothes always got very dusty and the chalk made me cough a lot as well. I decided that I needed to somehow turn the blackboard into a whiteboard, but I didn’t know how. I started by calling some companies that professionally installed white boards, but the cost was way too high (a couple of thousand dollars). As I was telling my co-workers about my idea of getting a white board, another TFA corps member told me about special white-board paint that I could buy that would easily turn my blackboard into a whiteboard. I went to the store and, for $50.00, I bought two cans of white-board paint, some paint brushes and other painting supplies. I asked some of my students to help me out, and we stayed around, ate pizza and painted for a few hours after school on a Friday. The board came out so great! Seeing my students want to stay late after school on a Friday to help me paint was one of the most memorable moments in my teaching career so far. 
An action shot of my students painting the blackboard
     After the whiteboard was done, I felt that our class would benefit from a projector so that I could show powerpoint presentations and clips from Youtube, helping make math class more fun and engaging. Once again, we had no money for a $600.00 projector, but I knew how beneficial it would be to my students. After talking to many people about possible fundraising ideas to raise money, I went on Donors Choose and asked for an LCD projector for my room. Nine donors funded the $684.48 project in less than 48 hours, and the projector was at East Side a few days later. With the projector in hand, the white board ready, and my room starting to actually feel like a classroom, I knew that I was going to be able to drastically improve the effectiveness of student learning in the coming weeks.
One of my classes thanking the donors for the LCD Projector

     People are often surprised when I tell them how much I am enjoying working in an inner-city high school in Newark, NJ. Is everyday a great day? No. Are there many frustrating moments and days when I go home with a splitting headache? Of course. But there are so many small victories day to day that makes it all “worth it.” Last week, for example, one of my students said to me: “Mr. Paulsen, you have a gift. We walk into your class and we are so excited because you are the only teacher we like.” Now who knows how true that may be, but it made my day regardless.
Teaching my Block 4 class

     Every week I walk into school and I am inspired by the stories of my students and the struggles they face everyday. The more I walk the halls and the more students I get to know, the more potential I see in these students that, born into different circumstances, would be competing with the top students our country has to offer. After working in an urban district for three months and seeing what is possible, I believe that every student can learn and be successful if they went to a school that valued the importance of school culture and had great teachers. I believe now more than ever that “One day, every child in this nation will have the opportunity to obtain an excellent education.”