Starting this academic year, the Ministry of Education has implemented the 12-year compulsory curriculum — also called the “108 curriculum” — for first-year elementary, junior-high and senior-high school students. The new curriculum has been in the pipeline for five years and has a budget of NT$45 billion (US$1.49 billion).
Unlike the previous nine-year curriculum, which focuses on mastering different subject areas, the new curriculum aims to foster students’ overall core competency, so that they can each learn based on their unique proclivity and talents, and develop a passion for life-long learning.
It is hoped that such a reform can better realize the talents of every student in a nation that has one of the lowest birthrates in the world, thus boosting its global competitiveness.
While the 108 curriculum recognizes the pitfalls associated with past educational reforms, its implementation faces serious challenges.
First and foremost is the readiness of teachers. Despite the ministry’s claim that about 80 percent of teachers have been trained in preparation for the new curriculum, it is far from certain that such training is sufficient to ensure a fundamental change in the day-to-day practices of teachers.
A recent survey conducted by the King Car Cultural and Educational Foundation found that only 10 percent of the teachers surveyed think they are ready to carry out their new mission. Part of this is perhaps due to the vagueness surrounding the concept of core competency.
Core competency involves a person’s knowledge, ability and attitude. It is not as easy to measure as quantifiable outcomes, such as standardized test scores.
Naturally, teachers might stick to doing what they are familiar with. As a consequence, any changes in pedagogical practices are likely to be incremental, rather than transformative.
Being a parent of a first-year junior-high school student, I have witnessed firsthand the amount of homework they need to complete to cope with the demands of the school the next day. The heavy study load and intense pace of learning is vastly different from the vision set out by the ministry.
Another big challenge is overcoming the deep-rooted, often unquestioned, practice of exam-based learning and teaching. At a recent parent-teacher meeting, the main concern for parents and school administrators with regard to the new curriculum was not about how students could learn better, but how the new curriculum would affect their chance of getting into a good senior-high school.
Despite the ministry’s goal of gradually reducing the importance of exams, most people still consider doing well on the standardized tests as the best guarantee of getting into a good high school and a reputable university.
With this fixation on the outcome of competitive national exams, how can teachers, students and parents be expected to devote time to the seemingly “useless” pursuit of proclivity and passion?
The imposition of testing as a common pedagogical practice instills passivity among students (Why study when there are no exams to study for?) and encourages selective learning (Is the material going to be in the test?).
Thinking in the language of numbers, or test scores and rankings, dangerously narrows the purpose of education and is detrimental to the exploration of a student’s interests and the cultivation of their competency.
Steve Jobs, the cofounder of Apple Inc, dropped out of college after six months and never graduated.
He often credited it as one of the best decisions he ever made, as it allowed him to “drop in” on courses that really interested him.
Giving advice to college graduates in a commencement speech in 1995, Jobs said: “You’ve got to find what you love, and that is as true for your work as it is for your lovers. Your work is going to fill a large part of your life, and the only way to be truly satisfied is to do what you believe is great work. And the only way to do great work is to love what you do.”
If we are genuinely serious about educational reform, we need to shake off the shackles of the exam-based system that has been so deeply ingrained, not only in our schools, but also in our minds. Business as usual in the classroom might give us a sense of security, but such security actually involves a greater risk is today’s increasingly uncertain world.
Cheng Shiuh-tarng is an English teacher in Kaohsiung.
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