The Brain Drained
I hadn’t planned on asking this when beginning the research into this article but what I found forced the question:
What is the point of education?
Forgetting theory for the moment, I think most might agree with something along the lines of “to learn”. But is it really as simple as that? To learn what? And how? Isn’t it in fact wider in scope than this?
Shouldn’t education also be about preparing students to deal with the real world, to better deal with life? And what about training people to think analytically. Or to think creatively?
The reason for these questions is that the kind of learning going on in schools in this country still follows the traditional, rigid, very Chinese methodology that has been employed since the 1950’s.
Students spend their time preparing for endless tests, largely through rote learning The teaching is mechanical and dull in the extreme. A high school English teacher baulked when asked about the methods employed in teaching the language. She seemed almost embarrassed when discussing it, as though she were doing something wrong and knew it:
“We teach grammar.”
And what about speaking? Using the language?
But isn’t it, well, kind of boring?
She baulks again. “I think so, yes.”
This is just one example. A university student told of how, at high school, they learned how to become proficient at answering the questions set in the many exams they must take.
They are taught to be excpetional in this skill, able to fire off correct answers to a multitude of questions at breakneck speed. However, she then went on to say, “But we didn’t learn why those answers were correct, you know.”
Now it’s my turn to baulk. “We just learn the answers. Nobody tells us how they were got to or why they’re useful.”
The thing that really stuck in my mind, though, was what a very thoughtful and articulate university student said. “We don’t think.”
This one stops me dead. “We don’t ask questions. We don’t learn how to find the answers out ourselves. We just memorise everything. We don’t think at school.”
So back to the question of the point of education. Why do people learn in this way?
One of the most important factors of learning should be transferability. We learn how to solve problems at school in the hope that we are better able to tackle them later in life.
We learn to argue a case so that our general persuasiveness is improved. And Taiwanese students spend their time learning to memorize masses of information, to the detriment of other important skills, so as to…?
High school education exists solely to train students to pass the all-important high school and college entrance exams.
Students endure sometimes daily tests and the memorisation of countless facts, all of which will be soon forgotten, in the single goal of entering the most prestigious university possible.
Then, upon gaining acceptance, it becomes time to relax. University students generally smile guiltily when asked what their experience of college education is like. “We don’t do much,” they admit, “it’s our time to relax.” Given that the high school suicide rate in Taiwan is one of the highest in the world, second only to Japan, it becomes fairly easy to sympathise.
School teachers are highly constrained in what they are able to. The system itself places such huge demands on students and teachers alike that there simply isn’t time to do more creative or thought-provoking work.
The teacher I talked to said she’d very much like to do more interactive learning and give students more opportunity use what they have learned but that, due to the huge demands on her time in the classroom, it simply wasn’t possible.
Numbers also play an important role in this. There were 53 stuents in her high school class alone.
On the positive side, it appears that the everyone – government and teacher both – is well aware of the various problems plaguing their schools and are determined to change the system, however slowly.
Or so they say, at least. The first attempts at reform followed the lifting of martial law in 1987.
Pressure grew in the following years, culminating in a march on April 10th 1994 and the formation of the “League for educational reform 410”, encompassing over 90 different associations all committed to change. The government then established an independent Educational Reform Committee in July of that year.
It made its final report in December 1996 and recommended extensive changes in both the system itself and methods of teaching employed.
Changes were made, but were far from extensive enough. Not enough changed.
The previous “standard curriculum” of the KMT was changed to a “guidance of curriculum”, meaning the government no longer had a monopoly on the reading materials to be used.
However, despite their vigorous attacks on the education system while in opposition, the DPP essentially changed little in practice. The guided curriculum still required all reading materials to be submitted to the Ministry of Education before publication.
They remain highly regulated and uniform to this day. Changes were made in the content of what is studied. Mandarin is no longer the only language of education and Taiwan’s history is no longer taken as a mere sub-plot of the larger Chinese story.
The fundamentals of the education system, however, remain in place. School students are still not taught social interaction or how to use their imaginations.
Enormous emounts of stigma are still attached to less gifted students and failure in the examinations remains the end of the world for student and family alike.
More chronically, students still do not learn the simple enjoyment that can be had in the learning process. The push for reform has now declined because of the lack of consensus on the goals to be attained.
Unfortunately, the new generations that will go to on to shape Taiwan’s future must first be subjected to the punishing and largely pointless years of information regurgitation.
- by Nathan Haslewood, Taiwanease magazine, 2008