Monday, November 21, 2011

For educators... former, current, and future.

I've been somewhat reluctant to address this subject because I wanted to experience it in its entirety before I reported back to my curious American friends, but I think I'm ready.  Education in Taiwan.  (I should warn my readers--this post might be a little bland if you haven't pursued a career in education.)  I've found throughout my travels, a lot can be learned about a culture by taking an analytical look at their education system.  When you think about it, a school does so much more than teach core subjects... it sets the very principles for what is and is not acceptable in a society, instills and supports values that may or may not be enforced at home, and serves as a child's first step outside of their family's cocoon, independently experiencing what the world has to offer.

San-Min Elementary School
It's hard to know where to begin when you tackle such an issue, so let's begin at 7:15 AM... that's when the kiddos are expected to be at school every day to serve as the San-Min Elementary janitorial staff.  That's right... no janitor, only students raking, sweeping, mopping, shining, and dusting every room on campus.  Each homeroom is assigned a different section of the school, with one student from each homeroom named the monitor who is given a master key and a checklist of what needs to be done in each room.  This type of responsibility begins as early as seven years old.  Not surprisingly, there isn't one piece of trash found on campus... no bubble gum stuck underneath desks, no remnants of a sack lunch scattered on the playground, no markings or shoe scuffs on the walls... The kids are responsible for cleaning the school, therefore they learn to take pride in keeping it clean.  Novelty, I know!

Dust pans and brooms in hand, sweeping the front of the school.
The bell had just rung so they're running to class.  Cute, cute.
7:15 AM... sounds a little early for a young child to begin when they have to be productive all day.  TRUE... except that 1st and 2nd graders only attend school half the day except on Tuesdays, when a full schedule is practiced.  (Side note: Students are admitted to Kindergarden when they're four, but stay in Kindergarden until age six.  School is not mandated by the government until the child turns seven and begins the 1st grade.)  Taiwanese children are on a 40/10 schedule.  Forty minutes of work, followed by ten minutes of outdoor, very loosely monitored free play.  That ten minute break is extended once in the morning and once in the afternoon to twenty minutes for more free play, followed by an hour set aside for eating lunch, (and you guessed it) free play!  After lunch the entire period is dedicated to nap time.  Everyone takes a nap... if you're in first grade or sixth grade--it doesn't matter, you're sleeping on top of your desk between the hours of 12:50 and 1:30.  It's mandatory for students, but some teachers partake as well.  Oh, and did I mention the entire school has a half day every Wednesday?  So... how on earth, my 'No Child Left Behind' supporters ask, do the Taiwanese children produce some of the highest test scores in the WORLD, specifically in math and science, when they don't seem to be spending much time in a classroom?!  I'll leave that notion for you to ponder for a few paragraphs.

Nap time!
4th graders taking a midday snooze.
Teachers are held in high regard in Taiwan; the significant role a teacher plays in the lives of young people is recognized and the position is paid as such... tax free.  Teachers are expected to be on campus forty hours per week, but only teach twenty.  (Students begin rotating classes very early, which provides the freedom to implement this type of schedule.)  The remaining twenty hours of a teacher's work week can be used to grade papers, plan the following week's lesson, respond to emails... basically what every American teacher does in their free time is done within the parameters of their paid forty hour work week.  But alas, the tax-free gravy train is coming to a halt at the end of the 2011-2012 school year... but since teachers will have to pay taxes next year, teaching hours will be reduced from twenty to sixteen.  Salary having a correlation to the number of hours being inputted?!  *Gasp!*  It's a crazy concept to American educators, I know.

There is, however, a dark knight esoterically lurking in the shadows of this public education dream world where children magically perform well on tests while being allotted adequate time to enjoy their childhood, as well as teachers being paid well and respected... the buxiban.  (Also known as the cram school or directly translated "make-up class" or "catch up class".)  Roughly half of my little ones attend some sort of tutorial class after public school hours, with that percentage increasing as children get older.  Students may focus on math, science, computer skills, English, other foreign languages, or exam preparation.  This is perpetuated by a meritocratic culture that measures merit through testing, with entrance into high school, college, graduate school, and government service decided entirely on test scores.  These classes are used to supplement their regular education in light of the intense pressure placed on students to achieve.  Students begin taking midterms and final exams beginning in the first grade.  Depending on the number of classes a child's parent deems necessary (or can afford), a student's school day could last until 9:00 or 10:00 at night.  On top of being an arduous schedule for a small child to endure, the system creates an enormous discrepancy in ability when they come together in one public school classroom.  The children from more privileged families (those that are able to afford the best buxiban courses) rising to the top, while the commonality are left playing catch up.

Buxiban in Kaohsiung.
Taiwanese education is constantly developing and changing.  The existing system has been heavily criticized for placing excessive pressure on students and evading creativity in favor of rote memorization.  Debates on these issues continue, as well as public school tuition (no free education here), the implementation of a compulsory twelve-year education program by 2014, extending education to Vietnamese brides and their children, as well as the elimination of Japanese colonial influence and escaping from China-oriented nationalism.  But with a 98.04% literacy rate and 92.6% of students pursuing higher education, it's hard not to take a hard look at what they might be doing right.

Don't get me wrong... I'm not one to sing the praises of Taiwan's education system, nor the current system in the United States.  After all, the state of public education in America is part of the reason why I'm teaching in Taiwan in the first place.  Those who know me well would probably agree that with many issues I could finish the sentence, "Well if I was Queen of the World..." fairly easily.  This is no such case, although I do believe that the basis of some Taiwanese educational ideals can be seen in current reforms in the United States.  With a heavier emphasis placed on testing, and funding plummeting as each American school year passes I can't help but to wonder... are we inching further towards a nation placing emphasis on the private education sector, furthering the separation of the upper and middle/lower classes?  Is the free education provided in the U.S. enough?  Or will we eventually resort to a supplementary "buxiban system" to further pressure children to achieve higher on that ever present, dark cloud lingering over every classroom in America?

I would like to end with a story... when I was in the third grade, I had THE teacher.  Everyone has one... it's that one teacher that has such a profound impact that you carry them in your heart for a lifetime.  She told us stories about growing up on a farm, and she would read aloud the Little House on the Prairie books, which initially sparked my interest in history eventually leading me to pursue it as my major in college.  One day we were learning about the Italian Renaissance and all the fantastic painters during that time.  We learned about the brilliance of Michelangelo and the four years he spent laying on his back on giant scaffolding painting the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, permanently damaging his eye sight as a consequence to his great achievement.  My teacher distributed pieces of construction paper, and instructed us to tape the paper to the bottom of our desks.  We laid on the floor under our desks for quite some time with a pencil and watercolors attempting to paint the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel just like Michelangelo.  Being one that struggles artistically in general, I found the task compellingly difficult.  After that day, I knew I had to see the Sistine Chapel someday for myself.  At twenty-two as I ascended the steps of the Chapel in Vatican City, finally living my dream created by my eight-year-old self, my third grade teacher, Mrs. Becky Upsahl, was on my mind.  That, my friends, is learning.  In the third grade I couldn't tell you what year he began painting or when he died, but I did experience a piece of his hardships, realizing his unique talents which stayed with me into my adult years.  That type of deep-rooted influence can not be translated on a standardized assessment.

Ceiling of the Sistine Chapel
At the end of the day I think we need to ask ourselves what role we want education to play in our society.  Specifically over the past few years, the United States has placed emphasis on comparing our system to others around the world; analyzing why American children are not performing well on standardized assessments in comparison to children from other countries.  It's hard to deny that the drill and kill method often used in Asian countries is effective in improving test scores, but should test scores be the focal point in determining intelligence and success?  Should being a successful student add up to a seventy-plus hour week?  Where do we draw the line between the importance of a good education and the loss of a childhood?  Should we teach to the masses or the individual child?  Should creativity play a role in education from both the perspective of a teacher as well as a student?  To me, regurgitation of information is not learning and if we continue to drill and kill, measuring intelligence and scholastic success based on that ability I fear the unimaginative leaders of tomorrow that have been conditioned to feel comfortable inside a box, aspiring to be just like everyone else.  What needs to be done?  I'll let you know in 2041 when I retire... I'm hoping I'll have a better idea then.