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Education Reform

Excellent Teachers Nurture Creative Students


Taiwan’s newest teaching innovations focus on fostering creative thinking, deep understanding and active learning, rather than recalling facts.

Excellent Teachers Nurture Creative Students

By Sherry Lee, Alice Ting
From CommonWealth Magazine (vol. 384 )

A soft autumn breeze sweeps over the coconut palms on the campus of National Taiwan University . Teenage girls sporting ponytails and boys dressed in khakis hop from a tour bus and stroll toward an auditorium.

They are students from six selected senior high schools across Taiwan , including National Yi lan Senior High School , National Luodong Senior High School , Taipei Municipal Chien-kuo High School , and Taipei Municipal First Girls' Senior High School. The youngsters' common objective is attending a class with Academia Sinica member C.Y. Cyrus Chu.

This is a new teaching experiment. There are no designated textbooks, and classes focus on debate and analysis. There is no such thing as multiple choice – students are expected to find and formulate their own answers to questions. After all, rote learning does not teach you how knowledge relates to real life.

Teaching senior high school students with a university approach is certainly an earthshaking development in education.

The new approach is due to a special project by the Ministry of Education's Advisory Office that aims to strengthen the humanities and social sciences in Taiwan 's senior high school curriculum, which is heavily weighted in favor of natural science and math. Selected for the experiment were eight schools from across the island.

Aside from rekindling students' interest in the humanities, having professors teach senior high school has further spillover effects – they are revolutionizing high school education.

Dr. Michael M.C. Lai, a pioneer in research on RNA viruses including the corona virus that causes severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), bemoans Taiwanese education's emphasis on the reflexive thinking model. Lai, who is also president of National Cheng Kung University , feels that student creativity is severely neglected in such an environment. Most recently, Lai has also been keen to spread his ideas among senior high school teachers, reminding them, “Multiple choice questions are the most terrible weapon for damaging competitiveness.”

“Waiting for students to enter university and then changing things – that's too slow,” Lai asserts, voicing an opinion held by quite a few other university presidents, including those from National Chengchi University , Yuan Ze University and Soochow University , who have all called for reform in university lectures and other public settings.

After a comparison of educational approaches around the world, Lio Monchi, assistant professor at the Department of Political Economy of National Sun Yat-sen University, listed the four abilities that are generally most emphasized as follows: communication skills, problem solving, analytical ability, and the ability to work in a team. These four skills are widely seen as crucial in enabling people to learn by themselves.

Educational Reform, Round 2

The last ten years of educational reform could be described as being devoted to making education more liberal and less regimented. In the next stage of educational reform, Taiwan needs to teach students disciplined creativity and self-motivated lifelong learning.

These changes concern more than the examination system and the long-held attitude that the objective of learning is to pass exams into higher-level schools. What presently could and should also be done is overhauling faculty and reforming teaching content.

Several schools have already begun to revolutionize themselves.

Let's take a look at National Experimental High School , in the Hsinchu Science Park .

On the outdoor basketball court, a physics teacher uses 26 borrowed basketballs to have his students carry out a projectile motion experiment. At the other end of the campus, a biology teacher introduces students to various bird species – large striped doves, Japanese white eyes, Chinese bulbuls – by pointing out the birds sitting on a power pole.

Inside a classroom a physics teacher and a chemistry teacher jointly hold a compulsory “domino playing” class, aimed at cultivating students' integrative skills. For an entire semester, the students study the cascading patterns that result from the chain reaction of toppling domino tiles. Besides, they are asked to design a mechanism that will make a garage door open automatically when a vehicle that runs on tracks arrives in front of it.

Confronted with such practical problems, the students are forced to combine physics experiments and mathematical knowledge, and to actually apply what they have learned. Inspired by this creativity course, Spring Soft Inc., a Hsinchu-based software company, subsequently began to sponsor the annual “National Spring Soft Comprehensive Creativity Competition” which has become hugely popular among senior high school students across Taiwan .

At National Experimental High School , teachers emphasize problem solving, which is also known as problem-based learning (PBL).

Some senior high schools have also begun to implement project-oriented programs (POP) that focus on the discussion of special topics similar to those at the Hsinchu-based school.

When the project-based learning wave hit Taiwan , the projects were conducted during the summer and winter breaks, with university teachers organizing science camps such as the Yuan T. Lee Fun Science Competition and the Humanities and Social Sciences Summer Camps for high school students. But in recent years such initiatives have increasingly been integrated into the formal education system.

The difficult part about PBL and POP is that such learning requires teachers that are able to innovate teaching and to apply and integrate new technologies into the curriculum. Therefore, top-notch faculty is the key.

Taking National Experimental High School as an example, 60 percent of the senior high school section's 30 teachers hold a master's degree. They frequently develop teaching materials and teaching aides, emphasizing “do it yourself, learning by doing” with small experiments being part of lessons.

They also actively make use of outside resources.

Since the vast majority of the students' parents work at National Tsing Hua University , National Chiao Tung University , the Industrial Technology Research Institute (ITRI) or high-tech companies in the science park, their knowledge is highly sought-after as well. And most of the parents are very willing to impart their expertise and experiences to the students.

The effects are palpable. Over the years National Experimental High School has won the Yuan T. Lee Fun Science Competition eight out of ten times. The school has also repeatedly won medals at international science olympiads.

Teachers Determine Learning Attitudes

At National Experimental High School other keys for training thinking abilities are students' innate talents and a good learning environment. But even average students will be able to thrive if taught by outstanding teachers in special projects.

Taipei Municipal Lishan High School , which was founded only seven years ago in 2000, is another case in point.

This semester geography teacher Wan Yi-Bin has begun to establish “research methods” for her first-grade students. In the first lesson she asks students to solve two hypothetical “situational problems” that the school confronts.

Problem No. 1: Recently lime deposits have begun to appear on the school's natural stone pavement due to groundwater permeating the stone. She wants the students to research how much water is able to penetrate the surface to become groundwater. They are also asked to calculate at what point the quantity of rainfall would exceed the capacity of the school's water collection system.

Problem No. 2: the students are asked to plan a rainwater harvesting system. The collected rainwater is supposed to supply one toilet and one greenhouse.

Within less than three hours the students need to understand their task, find teammates, decide and execute their tasks and report their results in front of the entire class.

At Lishan High School teachers have to ask themselves virtually every day how to think up special projects, set learning objectives and spark students' interest.

Teachers at Lishan are an average 38 years old. Ninety percent of the faculty holds a master's degree, and a handful even hold doctorates. On top of that a sizeable number of teachers has practical experience in business or industry. The school's principal Chen Wei-hung notes that the school had a very clear objective when it was founded – to recruit teachers with research abilities, so that special projects could become the school's distinguishing feature. Each time when prospective new teachers are interviewed, Chen wants to see the applicants' track record and insists that they write a teaching research plan.

Why are teachers so important?

“Teachers are the engines that drive changes in teaching,” Chen believes. With more than 30 years of experience in the field of education, Chen is convinced that teachers can only devote themselves to teaching and teach their students well if they are able to motivate their students to realize their potential.

At Lishan teachers rarely use multiple-choice questions. Chemistry teacher Chang Yao-ching was once reminded by education consultants from the Taipei City Government that “students need multiple choice questions or else they cannot answer.” But Chang, who has worked in business, believes that students need to find answers by themselves instead of learning them by rote to pass exams.

In an Ageing Society, Every Child Counts

“I want to find out through small essays how much my students actually understand, and I will teach again what they didn't get,” says Chang, who does not want to sacrifice even a single student.

But teaching that does not aim for standardized answers is time-consuming, whereas many parents fear that their children will have problems passing exams for entry into university if teachers don't stick to the established pattern.

Principal Chen cites figures to convince the doubters that the school is on the right track. In 2004 as many as 52 percent of Lishan High School graduates made it into public university. This year that figure was even higher – 67 percent. “We would like to prove that different educational tracks can lead to the same result. On top of that, our children are able to conduct research and to study independently,” Chen declares.

Quite a number of companies and educators have made raising teacher quality their goal, so that project-based learning can be introduced into the exam-oriented junior and senior high school system.

In 2002 Nokia Taiwan Co. Ltd., the local subsidiary of Finish telecom vendor Nokia, launched a three-year experimental creativity-teaching program in Taiwan . Two schools in Taipei City , Taipei Municipal Zhongshan Junior High School and Taipei Municipal Zhongxiao Junior High School , were selected for the “Nokia CQ Project.” Eventually, the program is expected to be introduced at all junior highs in Taipei .

In cooperation with teachers from National Taiwan Normal University (NTNU), teacher teams at the two junior highs designed creativity-teaching modules. These included teaching math via billiards, and using human personalities to learn the chemical elements.

Each of these projects have drawn government attention.

Even the National Science Council, which is usually concerned with academic research and national scientific and technological development, has recently crossed over into promoting secondary education, with a series of special projects it calls Highscope.

The project expects senior highs to use their own initiative to submit suggestions on how teaching and curricula can be improved. It enlists the help of university professors in developing high school teachers' and students' ability to think independently.

One of the program's tutors, NTNU mathematics Professor Lin Fou-lai, says that thanks to this bottom-up approach, teachers have become the engines of change.

“It's not that we want the teachers to change. It's necessary for teachers themselves to want change – that's where the driving force comes from,” Lin explains. Now that the program has entered its second year, more than 100 senior high schools have applied for participation. He thinks that such positive feedback from the teachers shows they are keen to do away with exam-oriented thinking.

All these initiatives make educational reform move faster toward its goal of disciplined creativity and lifelong learning.

But reform still needs to move up a gear, since Taiwan 's population structure is changing rapidly. The question is whether Taiwan will have sufficient human resources in the future, given that the island's population is set to sharply decline.

Education Ministry statistics show that starting with 2007 the number of junior high school students will decline by 23,000 per year, which amounts to a reduction of 650 classes. In the 2010-2020 period the annual number of junior high school graduates will decline from 310,000 to less than 200,000.

If every single student is taught optimally, return on investment in education will increase: this is the best way to ensure the strength of the nation.

Fostering Every Disadvantaged Child

Student performance in Taiwan shows a gap that is growing ever wider.

The most recent Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) survey, which compares the performance of students on tests of mathematical and scientific knowledge, found that the ratio of underachieving students in Taiwan rose to 15 percent from 12 percent 15 years ago. In contrast, that figure stood at 6 percent in Finland , and at 10 percent in Singapore and South Korea . The distribution of student achievements in these countries is more concentrated than in Taiwan .

This year the top score on a Basic Competence Test (BCT) – a two-day compulsory exam for junior high school students who want to enter senior high school – was 312 points, but some students who scored just 30 points still managed to get into a higher-level school. Obviously, the performance gap between overachievers and underachievers is widening.

Academia Sinica research fellow Yi Chin-chun is currently conducting a tracking study of Taiwanese youth. Yi notes that social stratification has increased dramatically, meaning that more students remain disadvantaged from childhood through adolescence and face difficulties improving their situations.

As a scarcely populated country with just 5 million people, Finland early on focused its education reform on fostering every single child, arguing “we must not lose even one.”

Taiwan now faces globalization and a trend toward fewer children per family. Against this backdrop it is crucial for the island to teach its coming generations the ability to learn for themselves, if democratic and economic transformation are to stay on track.

Translated from the Chinese by Susanne Ganz