Columnist: David Willson David's Beyonder Story
This month for my column, I am shifting briefly away from corporate social responsibility.
Education is a huge passion of mine, and has been for many years. I think that there is nothing more important in shaping the future of a young person, than their early education.
In Taiwan, I believe that we are standing at the juncture of many crossroads and only a few of the ways lead to a successful future. The choices we make now regarding education are crucial to that future.
If Taiwan is to have a long term future as more than just an OEM producer to the world, education reform must be at the top of the new government’s agenda.
It is an open secret that education in Taiwanese primary and high schools (and very arguably, universities) is not teaching the skills that students need for success in the 21st century. Instead, it is mired in the antiquated approach used for centuries in Confucian-based education, where only success in exams is valued and one simply repeats, verbatim, and without discussion, the information given to you by a textbook or teacher.
Publicly, everyone applauds the success that Taiwan gains in international rankings for maths and science, whilst privately acknowledging that these results are achieved by rote memorisation, and that the education system as a whole is systematically crushing creativity and independent thought out of students. Business leaders privately discuss the stark lack of independent or critical thought in their employees, and how badly that lack of independent thought is hurting their companies. Many CEOs, Taiwanese and international alike, have expressed to me behind closed doors that their employees show zero initiative in their roles, exactly as school has taught them to do.
The Ministry of Education states that creating innovation in education is its top mission. I have no doubt from my interactions with senior people, that they are trying. Unfortunately, I have also seen that it is difficult to implement such change from inside a system that is so stuck in the past, and where there is a seeming reluctance to engage with anyone, or any ideas from outside the system.
Go to a local high school and ask a room full of students a question. Any question. Maybe even something as seemingly simple as “What is your favourite food?” Whether you ask the question in English or Mandarin, students are uniformly afraid to offer an answer of any sort.
Most students will actively avoid your eyes, hoping to not get singled out. Many of them simply don’t know the answer, as they have been taught that their opinions are completely without value, so they have none. Some will tell you, if forced, that they need to ask their parents first what would be the ‘good or ‘correct’ answer. Others, who actually do have an answer, will rarely offer it, because it could be deemed ‘wrong’ by the teacher, and therefore leave them open to ridicule.
At present, rigid conformity and conditioning to never question authority form the backbone of the education system in Taiwan.
I offer these comments as both an educator and a father.
A couple of years ago, my son’s year six class at a local school banned laughter in the classroom, with enforced detentions and other punishments meted out if children laughed during the school day. This may have been an appropriate approach if we were living in the feudal Confucian society that the Chinese-style educational system was designed for. When it was first developed, this style of education clearly helped to maximize social stability, by limiting change, and enforcing top-down authority. Can the same feudal Confucian style of education be considered appropriate or relevant in the modern world, one fuelled by constant innovation and creative thinking?
In Taiwan I run an organisation teaching entrepreneurial skills to teenagers. In our efforts to introduce educational reform in Taiwan, to teach critical and creative thinking, leadership and communication skills, we have been called ‘immoral’ many times by teachers who resist and oppose the idea of independent thought in their students. Students who think for themselves are a direct threat to the view that teachers should be the sole source of knowledge for students. Teachers often have a view of the world wherein they believe that their authority is diminished if they cannot answer a question. As a result, teachers’ errors are never pointed out and questions are usually frowned upon, if not actively banned, in many classrooms.
I once sat in a meeting and had the opportunity to observe a senior school Principal flippantly refuse to consider allowing education around coding and programming in his school. I learned later that coding and programming had not been taught to the Principal when he did his teacher training, and he therefore could not, or would not recognize any educational value in the topic.
His teacher training had occurred over forty years ago.
It is time for Taiwan to take serious action to modernize the education system in order to allow the country to thrive in the modern world, and to proactively deal with the very serious stagnation (some argue, decline) that the economy currently faces.
To bring Taiwanese education into the 21st century, the new government must:
1. Develop ways to encourage questions and intellectual risk-taking in students. Employees and entrepreneurs (or indeed, intrapreneurs or policy innovators) cannot learn initiative and independent thinking in an environment that actively frowns upon questions and punishes any form of variance from the official line. Students must be allowed to form and express their own views and ideas, and to be guided and supported in this process. Forcing students to memorize ‘correct’ answers to problem sets and essay prompts, and filling up every spare hour they have after school with cram schools, where they are forced to memorize and regurgitate ‘correct’ answers, is no way to position Taiwan to chart a successful future.
2. Encourage and teach the skills that support innovation. Innovation education is now quite advanced in its teaching methods (although of course new innovations are always being made!) Taiwan must invest in sending people overseas to learn these approaches, and in bringing experts to Taiwan to help integrate these skills into the Taiwanese context. While experts in innovation education may be more expensive than local educators, Taiwan must recognize the need to invest in teaching skills and methods of thinking relevant to the modern age.
3. Introduce the use of technology into schools, supported by technology education for both teachers and students. Not only is technology barely used in Taiwanese classrooms, there often seems to be a view that it has no place in education. While I don’t believe that technology is the panacea to all ills, I do believe that it is a very valuable tool, and that its absence is part of the reason that Taiwan’s efficiency levels outside of factories lag so far behind the rest of the world. My son’s ‘technology’ classes in school took the same form as my own in Australia more than 30 years ago: groups of students huddled around one aging computer, and a teacher who didn’t have a clue about how to teach ‘computers’ as a subject (instead of it being integrated into all other subjects), so just let students do whatever they want with that single, lonely computer.
4. Embrace and learn from the best systems and reforms occurring around the world in education. There is too often a view in Taiwan that it is a small island, and a sense that, due to its political situation, it cannot engage with the rest of the world. It is time to forget this nonsense view. Most people around the world are barely even aware of Taiwan’s political situation, and nothing about it precludes Taiwanese educators from attending and learning at cutting edge education conferences and schools around the world. An unwillingness to be open to new ideas is the only real impediment, together with an island-wide unwillingness to spend money on employees and upskilling. This must change, and the investment to join the rest of the world in the 21st century must be made.
5. Encourage exams that test knowledge and application, rather than rewarding perfect regurgitation of facts. Seemingly such a simple change, but this will clearly be the hardest to actually achieve, as it will be actively resisted by both teachers and parents alike (who have resisted almost all attempts to date at educational reform). Both of those groups like the security of a system where there is seemingly a clear wrong and right answer. It is time to realize that adopting this approach is actively harming the ability of students (who later become employees) to engage with the rest of the world. No one, outside of Taiwan and a couple of other Asian countries, is impressed with a student’s ability to memorise word-for-word a textbook, if they cannot apply the knowledge that is contained in it. Memorisation is not a path to innovation.
I cannot pretend that these reforms will be easy. They will undoubtedly face fierce resistance from many teachers and parents whose views of the world were shaped before the information revolution took place, and therefore well before the subsequent knowledge revolution, and who have only a dim conception that the world has changed since they were in school.
In fairness, the Ministry of Education has to some degree been trying to reform education for many years, and has faced stiff opposition from parent and teacher groups in doing so. The new government must throw its full weight behind implementing educational reform, including real budget allocations, rather than rhetoric, even in the face of ignorant resistance from parents and teachers.
Whilst not easy, we owe it to the next generation to fight the hard battles now, so that they have a chance at a brighter future later.
The new government has a clear mandate to initiate change. I desperately hope that I do not see that responsibility, and the future of the next generation squandered. I hope with all my heart, that the new government will create a coherent vision for education in Taiwan, and not just a series of fragmented policy initiatives with no budget and no coherent vision for a better future.