Good education, made in Taiwan

By Bill Costello  / 

Thu, Jul 09, 2009 - Page 8

Recently I was invited to observe classes at two public elementary schools in Taiwan — Dan Fong Elementary School and the Affiliated Experimental Elementary School of Taipei Municipal University of Education (ESTMUE).

Dan Fong Elementary is located in Taipei County. With more than 2,000 students, it’s considered a middle-sized elementary school.

Some Taiwanese elementary schools — such as Kuanghua Elementary — have as many as 5,000 students. By comparison, the largest elementary schools in the US have less than 3,000 students.

ESTMUE is located in Taipei City and serves more than 1,600 students. It conducts research with the Taipei Municipal University of Education in order to promote educational development and innovation.

As a US educational researcher who believes that cultures should borrow the best practices from each other, I wanted to find out if Taiwanese schools use practices that schools in the US could benefit from.

The Taiwanese education system produces students with some of the highest test scores in the world in science and math.

The two primary international assessments that examine the performance of students in science and math are the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) and the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA).

The former assesses science and math performance in grades four and eight, while the latter assesses the science, math and reading literacy of 15-year-olds.

In science, Taiwanese fourth graders ranked second in performance when compared with their international peers; eighth graders ranked second; and 15-year-olds ranked fourth. All three ranks represent performances significantly above the international average.

In math, Taiwanese fourth graders ranked third in performance compared with their international peers; eighth graders ranked first; and 15-year-olds ranked first. Again, all three ranks represent performances significantly above the international average.

The high test scores are impressive, but it’s difficult to draw firm conclusions from them because school systems vary significantly by country. For example, the US tests a wider array of students than Taiwan.

At Dan Fong Elementary and ESTMUE, I observed six excellent practices worth adopting by US schools:

1. Serve nutritious lunches: Unlike in the US, Taiwanese school lunches do not consist of processed foods high in fat and sugar. Instead, they generally consist of rice, soup, meat, fruit and vegetables. Studies show that improving nutrition boosts academic performance.

2. Keep students active: While US schools have cut back on or completely eliminated physical education and recess, Taiwanese schools provide physical education classes twice a week and 10-minute recess periods four times a day. Both Taiwanese elementary schools I visited had athletic tracks, which are rare in US elementary schools. Studies show that increased physical activity leads to higher academic performance.

3. Require school uniforms: School uniforms are the norm in Taiwanese public schools. Only 15 percent of US public schools require them. Studies show that school uniforms raise academic performance, while lowering violence, theft and the negative effects of peer pressure.

4. Use hands-on learning: I observed more hands-on learning in the Taiwanese schools than I have in US schools. For example, Taiwanese students went on a field trip to a castle they studied in social studies; they collected local plants and used them to make a dye in science; and they worked with compasses and rulers in math. Studies show that hands-on learning involves students in real-world activities and thereby improves their academic performance.

5. Use interdisciplinary learning: Based on my observations, US teachers tend to teach one curricular discipline at a time, while Taiwanese teachers try to incorporate several into a lesson. For example, I observed a science teacher and art teacher in Taiwan collaborate in guiding students through a science project that involved drawing. Studies show that interdisciplinary learning helps students apply their knowledge in various contexts and thus enhances their academic performance.

6. Instill personal responsibility: In US schools, janitors clean up after the students. In Taiwanese schools, the students clean up after themselves. Cleanup time is a daily ritual wherein Taiwanese students clean the school building, sweep the school grounds and dump trash. Studies show that students who become more responsible tend to improve their academic performance.

While the Taiwanese education system is excellent, it’s not perfect. For example, critics say it favors rote memorization over critical and creative thought, puts too much pressure on students to pass entrance exams and relies too much on buxibans — or cram schools — for educating students.

Nonetheless, US schools could improve by adopting some of the excellent practices used in Taiwanese schools.

Bill Costello is training director of Making Minds Matter, which teaches parents and teachers strategies for educating children.