Wed, Sep 12, 2007 - Page 8 News List

What can Taiwan do about its education?

By Dan Ritco

It seems to me that there is a continuing cultural fascination among Taiwanese policy makers for everything foreign, especially when it comes to teaching English. Many Taiwanese seem to think that just because a curriculum or educational concept is foreign-based, it must be superior to existing ones employed in Taiwan.

This has clearly not been the case with the subject of math; Taiwanese students used to rank very high globally in terms of math skills until a European model was adopted some years ago.

The same can be said within the field of teaching English. I have seen many foreign EFL/ESL curriculums used with little success (we must not limit ourselves to British and North American, rather we must incorporate the fine programs out of Australia and New Zealand as well). Part of it has to do with the Taiwanese obsession for the new.

Many Taiwanese love to try something simply because it is novel, whether it is a new food product or an ESL/EFL curriculum. As such, many models adopted by the public and private school systems here have not been fully developed in the country of their origin before being used in Taiwan. Consequently, problems ranging from obtaining an adequate supply of teaching materials to basic "bugs" in some curriculums have not been worked out.

Equally germane, many foreign ESL or language arts curriculums were never intended to be used outside of the country of their origin. Therefore, critical cultural issues relevant to Taiwanese learners were never considered and yet entire curriculums have been imported and implemented without proper modification, obviously with limited success.

As an example, the theory of cooperative education in all subject areas should suffice. It was all the buzz in western Canada as the last century came to a close. I have seen it attempted in Taiwan, but with minimal success because of simple space considerations (too many students per class) and because Taiwanese learners are culturally not used to breaking into groups and working together as North American students are. It is worth mentioning that even among English-speaking countries, some educational concepts have not been so successfully transplanted.

When a pedagogically sound curriculum is imported and effectively adapted, often enough time is not allotted to see the results and it is abandoned too soon, often after considerable effort and finances have been devoted to its use in Taiwan. All too often, only a year or two is given to try a new curriculum when in reality it takes years of skill building to bear fruit. Again, I believe that this is a cultural phenomenon; many times I have had to explain to puzzled parents why their child is not fluent in English after only a few months of studies. It takes years to master Mandarin in a predominantly Mandarin-speaking environment, so why would they believe that it would be easier to learn English in a non-English environment like Taiwan?

This brings me to my last two inter-connected concerns: the role of the parent and the role of the teacher in Taiwan today.

Educators in general believe that learning can be maximized by direct positive parental involvement in their child's education. But during my time in Taiwan, I have seen many parents become less supportive of the teacher and more apathetic in terms of their child's education.

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