The start of a new academic year this month has been drawing a lot of concern due to the implementation of the 12-Year Basic Education Curriculum Guidelines on Aug. 1.
The new guidelines are applicable to first-year students at elementary, junior-high and senior-high schools. This means that in three years, the General Scholastic Ability Test, one of the two university entrance exams, will be conducted in accordance with the requirements set forth in the new guidelines.
This year also marks the 25th year of the educational reform that started in 1994. Many people are wondering whether education, having undergone many changes and reforms, is moving along the right track and improving, or if it is deteriorating and falling behind.
The new guidelines drew a lot of attention as soon as planning started. Curriculum guidelines play a crucial role: Whenever the education system undergoes a major change, new guidelines are established to serve as the foundation of reform.
In 1968, the government established the Nine-Year Compulsory Education Curriculum Guidelines to accompany the implementation of the nine-year compulsory education system, and in 2001, it pushed for new curriculum guidelines with the launch of the Nine-Year Educational Program.
This time, the 12-Year Basic Education Curriculum Guidelines introduce a unified revision to courses across all school levels, and this will have an impact on future national education.
Given its vast influence, many aspects of the new guidelines have sparked debate in relation to the proportion of classical Chinese and modern Chinese, discourses on the history of Taiwan and gender education. Student representatives were also invited to participate in the discussion and review sessions for the new guidelines.
Unlike previous guidelines, which emphasized acquiring knowledge and cultivating skills, the new guidelines focus on “literacies,” which some students, parents and teachers find puzzling and worrisome, as it is not clear what “literacies” refer to and how they should be taught.
According to the Directions Governing the 12-Year Basic Education Curricula, “essential literacies” refer to the knowledge, competency and attitude a person should be equipped with to adapt to their current life and to face future challenges.
In an interview with the Chinese-language Liberty Times (the Taipei Times’ sister newspaper) on Aug. 28, Minister of Education Pan Wen-chung (潘文忠) said that, as the world is changing rapidly, the new guidelines attach importance to changing the way of acquiring knowledge and skills, with particular attention being given to cultivating learning attitudes and problem-solving abilities, including the ability to work with others.
The minister’s explanation will not dispel all doubts. From a common sense perspective, or from the perspective of a real-life education practitioner, a more pertinent and down-to-earth explanation would be that “the cultivation of literacies starts from everyday life” or “the ultimate goal of learning is to put knowledge into action.”
In any case, the new guidelines emphasize the cultivation of “lifelong learning” and focus on the combination of knowledge with real-life scenarios instead of being limited to dry subject knowledge and skills.
It is unlikely that some would argue with the goal, which essentially is to ask students not to study mechanically. The question is whether this goal is achievable instead of becoming yet another pretty slogan.
It is not without reason that there is a lack of confidence in education reform in society. The nation has gone through three large-scale educational expansions after World War II, beginning with the post-war universal six-year elementary school education, which was later expanded into the nine-year national education, followed by the increasing number of high schools and universities in 1990s.
The progress has undoubtedly raised the educational level of Taiwanese, but the supply of quantitative and qualitative improvements have outgrown demand, with the result that what people learn in their academic ivory tower has become disconnected from industry and society at large.
Most of the teaching is directed at helping students pass exams and there is less focus on adaptable education or paying attention to what is required to actually get a job.
In sum, the educational system suffers from a supply-demand imbalance and the credentialism that asks students to study hard for higher diplomas in complete disregard of non-academic performances continue to be deep-rooted to the present day.
Students have become “exam-taking technicians.” Countless exams are conducted throughout the school years, but they do not necessarily cultivate a habit of lifelong learning. After freeing themselves from exams upon graduation, many people simply forget what they learned at school and stop reading books.
As a consequence, the reading and learning habits of Taiwanese in general fall far behind that of Japanese. To make the situation worse, Taiwanese spend their childhood sleep deprived, preparing for exams, with few outdoor activities.
Nor is there proper life education in Taiwan. From the post-war era to the present day, the cultivation and practice of public morality have received scarce attention. Proper life education used to be implemented before the war, as evidenced by people who are now in their 80s and 90s — also known as the “Doosan” generation (多桑世代) — who grew up during the Japanese colonial era and received a Japanese education.
Life education to nurture one’s moral character was taught in kogakko, the public primary schools established by the Japanese government, to cultivate the virtues of consideration and politeness, refraining from inconveniencing others, and paying attention to one’s hygiene and appearance in the early period of personality formation.
Many other aspects of modern civic morality, such as punctuality, honesty, diligence, keeping one’s word, being disciplined and law-abiding, were also taught and practiced in school and daily life, and were then carried out throughout one’s whole life.
Life education received little attention after the war, and many people now even think that contravening the law and discipline is being clever and competent.
The model provided by the Doosan generation is often missed; Taiwan would be much more civilized if these characteristics were revived and cherished.
The example that the Doosan generation sets for the rest of us is not only one of life education, but also language proficiency, as many are fluent in their mother tongue Hoklo (commonly known as Taiwanese), Japanese and Mandarin.
Granted that their fluency in various languages was a product of time and environment, the younger generation today are hardly capable of understanding their mother tongue and their English proficiency also lags behind other nations.
Today, most of the younger generation are only able to communicate and understand the outside world through Mandarin. In the Internet age, the ability to use an additional language brings an extra edge, as well as respect for and an understanding of other cultures.
The younger generation’s general language competency, which has regressed rather than advanced, is not beneficial to long-term national development.
Education is a fundamental task that will be crucial for generations to come, as it plays a pivotal role in a nation’s social, cultural and economic development. The result will be compared not only with previous generations, but also horizontally, with other countries. Come hell or high water, education must be successful, because if it is not, there will be a heavy price to pay.
The public should also remember that the result of education cannot be attributed only to the responsibilities of government education departments. When the outcome is unsatisfactory, the government, politicians, the media, family and society as a whole should all bear the responsibility.
Even though the current educational system is far from ideal, Taiwan does not have the right to be pessimistic. Confronting problems with a pragmatic attitude and full implementation of corresponding measures are our only options.
Translated by Chang Ho-ming
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