Taipei's Heti Elementary School
Making Things Better – Kids Take Charge
From too much dog poop on the lawns to insufficient tap water, a group of Taipei grade school students are proving daily through their actions that they can rely on their own efforts to make life on campus better.
Making Things Better – Kids Take ChargeBy Chou Yuan
From CommonWealth Magazine (vol. 486 )
How is it possible that an elementary school in Taipei City could lack sufficient drinking water?
Heti Elementary School teacher Lien Rui-chi is leading a discussion among her fourth-grade students on just this issue.
Some of the kids relate how between classes long lines of classmates form up at the water fountains in the hallway. It seems that getting a drink within the ten-minute break between classes is somewhat akin to winning the lottery.
Those kids who don't make it to the head of the water fountain line or who don't bring their own water simply have to go thirsty for the day.
So what's the deal here? Too few water fountains? Or is there some other reason? Lien is hopeful her students can deduce the correct explanation.
Leading Student Discussion of Public Issues
At a tiny elementary school in Taipei, the drinking water is proving inadequate. But because of this minor problem, nascent social participation has begun to grow.
Lien Rui-chi has been a teacher for 20 years. Her philosophy in teaching her social studies class is that cultivating the capability to explore and solve social problems is a task equally as important as passing on knowledge.
"This must be accomplished through hands-on learning," she emphasizes.
Several years ago students found that balls belonging to the school's physical education department were routinely being scattered hither and yon across the schoolyard.
Within a week Lien had led her students in the retrieval of more than a hundred balls, which were then displayed before students and faculty at the morning assembly as part of an appeal for everybody to take better care of public property.
On another occasion, students wanted to recognize the efforts of security volunteers throughout the campus.
Lien taught students how to operate a profit-making sandwich shop, using the proceeds to purchase tea and snacks to be placed in the security office for the enjoyment of the volunteers.
The inadequate water supply for the drinking fountains is now the challenge for the new semester.
Using "Citizen Action Project" teaching materials from the Judicial Reform Foundation, Lien has been guiding her students in getting to the root of problems and formulating appropriate responses.
Four-Step Approach to Problem Solving
In the first step, the kids must come up with an issue to tackle on their own.
Lien divides her class into four groups of students to allow them to brainstorm together, pondering just which public issues are in most urgent need of attention.
"Too much dog poop in the grassy areas, not enough basketball hoops on the playground, screens need to be installed in classroom windows…" Lien doesn't place any limits on students' ideas, requiring only that the issues to be addressed be part of daily life and have an impact on a significant number of people.
After drawing up lists of issues, each group takes to the podium to make the case for their chosen issue, followed by a vote by the entire class to select the most important one. This time around, the lack of sufficient water fountains became the focus.
For the second step, the kids then interview policymakers and other interested parties to evaluate the severity of the problem and try to determine its root cause.
One student surnamed Kuo, whose younger brother is a first-grader at the school, led the work group in interviewing lower grade-level students. Other groups were formed to make contact with middle and upper grade-level students as well as faculty to determine their views on the issue.
They found that plenty of kids in other classes also went the whole day without a drink of water, suggesting the severity of the problem.
But the school's entire student body is only just over 500 students; with nine water fountains scattered throughout the school, why is drinking water supply still such a problem?
The students found the online contact details of a water fountain supplier and began to explore the issue from the supply side.
"As it turned out, our water fountains could not dispense hot water due to safety considerations," says Hsiao Yu-fang, a consultant on human rights in education for the Ministry of Education who also teaches at Heti Elementary.
Consequently, the supply of potable water was dramatically reduced, leaving only 40 percent of the original capacity.
For the third step, students submitted proposals for a solution to the problem.
"The students are able to come up with ideas a lot of people would never think of," Hsiao says.
If equipment cannot be procured or the safety features on the water fountains cannot be altered, perhaps limits could be placed on the amount of water each class could use. Other students suggested that it would be better to simply bring more water from home to drink.
For the fourth step, the students took action to see if their solutions proved feasible.
Some solutions that sounded simple and plausible in theory turned out to be fraught with difficulties on execution.
The water rationing idea, for example: The school would have to devise a set of regulations, then assign people to monitor compliance. Bringing extra drinking water from home would make students' book bags overly heavy.
"We allowed the students to find out for themselves whether proposed solutions were feasible or not," Lien says. That's because whenever they hit a wall they always come up with new ideas.
The students of Heti Elementary are still searching for their answer. Cultivating students' social participation capabilities is not part of the standard curriculum, so Lien is only able to use social studies class and other spare moments to engage her students with these concepts.
"It's definitely problematic and very time consuming," Lien admits. "And there are some people that are also worried about whether or not it's going to cause trouble for the school."
But what the fourth-grade kids in classroom number five are learning is not how to cause trouble, but how to harness their own energies to improve the living conditions for the entire student body and faculty.
The teachers could handle the minor issue of insufficient potable water themselves, or they could open it up to student participation and cultivate a new generation of citizens.
Translated from the Chinese by Brian Kennedy