Several encouraging news reports over the past week show that some of the people in charge of education are finally getting the right ideas. Nothing solid has been implemented yet, but the public should keep a close watch on developments.
The biggest news is after decades of Taiwanese not being able to speak English well, if at all, despite compulsory classes from a young age, the Ministry of Education has decided that high school English classes should “prioritize listening and speaking skills over memorizing vocabulary.”
The Curriculum Evaluation Committee decided to “reduce the number of English words and terms students must be familiar with before graduation,” saying that it would encourage students to first listen, then speak, then write.
However, just how the ministry, schools and teachers are to come together to make this happen is another issue. It is not easy to simply transition from a force-fed education to a more creative and practical system, and there will definitely be growing pains.
That is why these things should be done in small steps, as the ministry is doing right now. English is a good place to start, because language on its own is a practical skill and has little use otherwise.
The problem with a non-force-fed education is that there are few strict guidelines set in stone. Will the schools and teachers be able to respond accordingly and take the initiative, such as holding speech contests or bring foreigners into classrooms to talk to the students? How will they judge what is too much rote memorization and when to clamp down on students not being able to remember basic vocabulary? How do they decide whether it is time to adjust the curriculum, as the ministry is encouraging them to do, or will some teachers end up tinkering too much?
We will have to wait and see. This is not a change that will happen overnight, but it is simply refreshing to hear that languages are “tools of communication” instead of “subjects to prepare for examinations.”
If this kind of teaching mentality becomes the method preferred by the government, it could also change the way teachers are trained today, which will make future changes easier to implement.
However, for now, let us just hope that these changes do not end with just English and that other languages — local or foreign — will also be taught from the vantage point of everyday usage.
In another development, National Taiwan University president-elect Kuan Chung-ming (管中閔) said there is a dire need for the university to “internationalize” and offer more exchange and international dual-degree programs by partnering with other schools.
He is right: Taiwan’s problem is thinking that it knows everything. There is no more place for that in today’s hyper-connected world, especially when the nation is becoming increasingly marginalized on the international stage.
This is also a good way to foster creativity — the nation’s education system will not change that quickly, and the students will surely benefit from even just a semester of overseas education. As Kuan said, they will be able to learn how to “discover problems and solve them,” another aspect that is lacking in Taiwanese education.
Finally, in a society that is oversaturated with college graduates, it is also good to see the government pushing for non-mainstream education — first through a new law that widens the scope of experimental education, including a push for experimental higher education which might be invaluable for older students to learn specific career skills.
On the same note, the ministry has decided to set up a monetary award for exceptional vocational teachers. The award program has been criticized for various reasons, but it nonetheless shows that the government is trying to pay more attention to and promote alternative schooling.
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