“Many of the things I know are because teachers or family have taught me, not because I went out looking for my own answers.” This statement from a Taiwanese friend really struck me as I began my research into education in Taiwan. Taiwanese culture and the current education system create an environment that, for the most part, develops hard working, obedient, respectful young adults. On the other hand, what are some of the unwanted side-effects of this environment? How does this environment impact students who do not do well in this system?
Across the generations, from student to teacher, the most common response to questions about education in Taiwan… “too many tests!” followed closely by “a lot of homework!” Starting as early as three years old children have homework to do after school hours. And although the classrooms are much more relaxed in elementary school, even providing half days of school on Wednesdays, once students enter into junior high the quantity of tests increase and students are told it’s time to get serious about school. On average, students have about 2-3 hours of homework each day while in junior high. In 9th grade students take a huge test that determines which high school they will attend and which education track they should pursue. In the case of one family, the son did not meet the expectations of the parents and failed to get into the top high school in their city, so the son was sent to live with his relatives in a different town because of the embarrassment (loss of face) he brought to them.
Again in high school, students take a huge exam their senior year that will determine which colleges they can apply to and which majors they qualify for. In order to prepare for this test, homework increases to around 4 hours each day. Unlike most students in America who choose a university based on the major they are interested in pursing, I was informed that many students will often select a field of study that has been pre-determined by their parents. Or in the event that a student qualifies for a higher level major (let’s say lawyer) at one university but qualify for a lower level program (let’s say nursing) at a more well-known university they will choose the well-known university over the higher level program because of the status of the school and the opportunities it could bring about as a result of studying there. Currently, personal interest in a specific field or major is not a primary factor in selecting a university.
Extracurricular Activities & Bushibans…
What about after extracurricular activities? Families that can afford it will pay for their kids to take music or art lessons, learn martial arts, or join a special club. When they have free time, students will play basketball (a Taiwan favorite), play video games, or hang out with friends. Some students may attend anxinban, which is an after school program that provides childcare and enforces homework completion for younger students. However, most of these activities take place during the elementary years. Once students enter into junior high extracurricular activities drastically decrease for a majority of students.
During the school day, junior high and senior high students have the opportunity to take a class or attend a club that interests them. But once the school day ends, most students then attend a buxiban. Buxiban is a sort of remedial school after regular school lets out. Many parents feel it is necessary for their children to attend a buxiban in order to succeed in school. On the other hand, we have met a handful of parents who have decided not to send their children to buxiban because the pressure in academics is already too high.
Buxibans are very competitive, and buxiban teachers can have very high reputations. Some buxiban teachers are in such demand that they travel the island to teach at a different buxiban each day. A buxiban may cover a range of subjects studied during the school day or may specialize in one specific subject. Leading up to the entrance exams for high school and university, buxibans will have special courses to prepare students for these tests. At buxiban students complete homework from the school day, then attend additional classes and are given even more homework. We regularly see students leave for school as early as 6am and return home as late at 10pm on weeknights. Even on the weekends, we see kids going to and from buxiban.
Parents work hard to send their kids to anxinban and buxiban, as they are paid programs outside of the public school system. For families who cannot afford buxiban, their children will come home and help them with the family business, or if they are too young play nicely at the back of the shop. In the case of some working class families, the children are left to their own devices while their parent/s are at work. Other students are not allowed to attend anxinban or buxiban because they have emotional-behavioral needs or physical disabilities that are beyond their capacity to meet. Statistically, these students tend to come from working class families who already have fewer resources available to them.
Families and Education…
The pressure put on students to do well by their parents can be extraordinary. Many parents demand high grades and push their children to attend schools with high reputations and to get jobs that pay well. Because of the strong family relationships in Taiwan they desire to please their parents above themselves. One parent I spoke to said that parents always look for what their child did wrong. So even if the child got 96% on their work, the parent would focus on the missing 4% and scold the child for what they got wrong. Even though she didn’t like it when her parents did that to her, it’s so engrained in their culture that she found herself doing the same thing to her children. Additionally, Taiwanese culture does not show much affection, even to family members. Many households are also double-income families so there is little family time and relationships are further strained as youth enter into junior high and high school where the pressures on students increase. Furthermore, one teacher explained to me that more and more women are sent from China, Vietnam, or other countries to marry Taiwanese men. She sees how differing cultures and languages has created communication issues between husband and wife, teacher and parent.
On the other hand, newer generations of parents (usually more well off families) are looking for their children to be more well-rounded. Several of the families I spoke with want their children to have broader experiences (volunteering, music, sports, leisure, etc.) while growing up and are more interested in having their children select what job they feel suits them. Private, montessori school provide this but are expensive and have long waiting lists. However, where does this leave those with limited income and resources?
Classroom management has certainly changed over time. Many of the parents I interviewed shared stories of the great fear their teachers imposed upon them through yelling at or hitting students who were not listening or doing well in class. Nowadays, some may be more strict and some more relaxed, however physical punishment is no longer allowed. This past summer when I participated in our church’s summer camp I was stunned! Every day I witnessed students sitting up straight, criss cross, in straight lines, fists in the air to answer questions and receive points for participation. And this was a more casual summer camp atmosphere. These kids are well trained!!
Many teachers have been trained and prefer to use positive intervention techniques. The teachers I met with say they try to build relationships with students and show care for life outside of school, not just academics. When needed, they will talk aside with children and explain why behavior isn’t acceptable. However, they still do not involve kids in problem solving process. It’s more of a positive redirection method. Resource rooms are also available for students who need extra help with behavior/academics. Currently, more schools are moving toward the “inclusion program” model which involves doctors, psychologists, social workers, etc. to help meet the needs of students, especially those with learning disabilities or emotional/behavior disorders.
An interesting side note: In America we call teachers “Miss so-and-so” or “Mr so-and-so” but in Taiwan they refer to them as “so-and-so Teacher”. This title gives great respect and authority to people in this position. It’s the equivalent of having “PhD” or “CEO” at the end of your title.
Although teaching techniques have somewhat diversified over the years, the primary form of teaching is still lecture. The expectation is that the students will then directly memorize the material and regurgitate it later on the test. We have experienced this first-hand in our Mandarin classes. My newest textbook gives a list of new vocabulary words and then a short story with four correlating pictures. My initial instructions were to memorize the story and use the pictures to help with recall. That would be approximately 30 vocabulary words and a single spaced, one page story memorized each day!
Of course, this does not work well for all students. Other forms of current teaching techniques include group discussion/small group work, giving incentives to kids for doing well (prizes, stickers, candy), and teaching assistants for students who need extra help.
Kids are tired! And I would be too if I left for school around 7am and returned between 7pm and 10pm, five days a week, and then attended extra classes on the weekends.
There is also a very high level of competition. Relationships become very performance based. Kids want to succeed and do well but if they do poorly they feel worthless, then do worse the next time, and feel more worthless…a downward spiral. Teaching strategies are also limited. Students who really struggle will drop out of school. Some will join gangs or end up in low skilled, low paying jobs.
There is also a lack of critical thinking or creative thinking skills. Students’ lives are under the complete control of school and parents and the emphasis on rote memorization causes students know what but not why. Many students and young adults we spoke to found it difficult to answer questions outside of factual observations (IE. what do you like, how does this make feel, why do you…?). One young adult said that she even struggles with where to go to eat because up until recently, everything has been decided for her or she has been told what to think by adults in authority.
Outside of the influence of the family unit, I believe that schools and teachers have the greatest impact on children and youth. Furthermore, they already have a place of authority and respect within Taiwan society. So how can we work with schools and teachers to reach out to children and youth?
Firstly, it is important to build trust first. A superintendent that I interviewed recommended that we get together with school administration and teachers and ask about their needs. Then we can share our vision and purpose and discuss how we can work together to accomplish this, and thereby build a partnership with the local schools. To this end, it will also be helpful to connect with people of influence who can connect us with the local schools. Building this relationship first will lend us authority and credence with the families in the surrounding neighborhoods.
Of course, this means we need to have a clear plan of the needs we see, how we plan to meet these needs, and how we can work with the schools to accomplish this. So I brainstormed a little bit and came up with a few ideas based off of my experience working in the schools in America, growing up and working at a Christian summer camp, and my current knowledge of Taiwanese culture and education system.
- Provide after school programming in the place of a bushiban or anxinban to prevent students from dropping out or to reach students who already have dropped out (primarily working class and immigrant families). What would this look like?
- Low or no fee.
- Extracurricular activities that are relaxed, fun, and investigative, giving students the opportunity to explore different areas of life and learn a variety of skills.
- Academic enrichment that parallels classroom studies but meets a variety of learning preferences (visual, physical, social, experimental, musical, logical,etc.) through varying teaching techniques.
- Provide opportunities for students to develop social and problem solving skills.
- Mentoring relationships that go beyond the classroom.
- Partner with schools’ “inclusion program”. What would this look like?
- Teach Champion classes during the school day. The Champions Project was developed in the early 1990s to help young people manage stress, deal with conflict in a healthy manner, and make positive life choices. The program is run by volunteer mentors in schools who request the program to help meet the needs of their student body.
- Develop and offer clubs in junior and senior high schools, as schools are already seeking volunteers to lead clubs for their students.
- Other partnerships will depend on the needs of the schools and how they feel we could best serve them.
These partnerships with the schools then help us gain legitimacy from the perspective of the family and the community to further develop relationships with them and open a door for the Gospel. Then they too can know the One True God who can bring the rest and truly abundant life that they are looking for.