Sun, Jul 30, 2006 - Page 17 News List

For Chang Shih-tsung, education is child's play

Education in Taiwan often involves cramming children full of as much information as possible, but there may be a revolution in the offing, one fueled by fun

By Ron Brownlow  /  STAFF REPORTER

Students in Chang Shih-tsung's graduate education class at National Taipei Education University form a human knot, as part of a class that teaches them how to create their own toys and games. Chang believes that play, which he calls ?ctive learning,?is key to reforming Taiwan's educational system.


Chang Shih-tsung’s (張世宗) pupils stand in a circle, lock hands with the students opposite them and weave under their classmates’ outstretched arms, forming a human knot. “Come on, you can do it,” says Chang, as he urges his 18 giggling students into ever more difficult contortions. “I can’t hold on,” one screams. “I’m losing my grip,” squeals another, as her classmates bend and stretch to let her circle between them. Then someone lets go, another trips, and the knot disintegrates, sending the group spiraling to the ground in a chorus of helpless laughter. Just like little children.

This is not your average class for teachers seeking a graduate degree in education, but then Chang — an energetic 55-year-old who favors sandals and rounded glasses, likes figure skating and always wears two belt-packs — isn’t your average professor. While many university instructors see summer school as a chance to lecture for easy money, Chang works hard to teach his students how to make toys and games themselves from whatever’s readily available: plastic straws and paper clips, toilet paper, even their own bodies. This isn’t just because Chang likes toys — he owns thousands — or because he likes to play — it’s what he does for a living. It’s because Chang, who originally studied architecture so he could build a children’s museum, is trying to change the way Taiwanese students are educated.

“Educators have forgotten that children learn in different ways,” Chang said in a recent interview. “When children are passive they are being taught, when they are active they are playing. The purpose of meaningful play is self-motivated learning.”

There is an urgent need for education reform in Taiwan, said Ni Ming-hsiang (倪鳴香), a professor at National Chengchi University’s Graduate Institute of Early Childhood Education, who met Chang in 1989 when she was the director of a progressive kindergarten. Students are being robbed of their childhood by a system that emphasizes raw academic performance. Teachers and students are under intense pressure to cram as much information as possible, while other aspects of education, such as personality and character development, are ignored.

Chang is creating an educational environment that children can enjoy themselves in, a rarity in Taiwan, she said. “He’s combining pleasure and fun with analysis and learning in a systematic way. And he’s training other teachers to do this.”

But reforming the educational system isn’t just about helping children lead happier lives; it’s also essential for Taiwan’s economic development. To this end, Chang is working to change the system’s focus from passive to active learning, said Wang Ding-ming (王鼎銘), chair of the Institute of E-learning at National Hsinchu University of Education, who collaborates with Chang as a researcher in digital learning technology.

“Taiwan is very strong in the manufacturing department, which needs very disciplined people, so our education system just trains people to be good at following the rules,” Wang explained. “Now the trend has become design-oriented, so we need a lot of people who … have the imagination and the creativity to make something new.”

At the core of Chang’s imagination is his childlike fascination with traditional toys and games, like the repeat-firing rubber band gun he keeps in his office at the National Taipei University of Education. The man who has been called “The Big Child” and “The Pied Piper of Taiwan” now heads the university’s Graduate School of Toy and Game Design. The rubber band gun’s design is reminiscent of a crossbow from China’s Three Kingdoms period. Taiwanese children born before the age of television and mass-produced toys made it from old chopsticks.

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