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Life Education:

A Competition that Has No Losers


A Competition that Has No Losers

Source:Kuo-Tai Liu

More students are losing their way than ever in Taiwan's test-driven education environment. How can the system be changed to help each one of them win at life?



A Competition that Has No Losers

By Fuyuan Hsiao
From CommonWealth Magazine (vol. 435 )

In the children's story Alice in Wonderland, a curious Alice follows a talking rabbit into the strange and magical realm of Wonderland. When she arrives at a crossroads, she is unsure which way to go.

"Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?" she asks the Cheshire Cat.

"That depends a good deal on where you want to get to," he replies.

"I don't much care where."

"Then it doesn't matter which way you go."

This is one of the classic dialogues from the famous novel by British author, philosopher, mathematician and logician Lewis Carroll. If you don't know where you're going, then where you are now, and how far you have traveled compared to others, is truly insignificant.

Similarly, the concept of not allowing children to "lose at the starting line" has terrified many parents and threatened many children, but it only covers the initial stage of life.

If a child wins at the starting line, then what? Where should the child head? 

Doubt: Which Way to Go in Life?

In the first floor coffee shop of National Taiwan University Hospital (NTUH), philosophy professor Johannes Hsiao-chih Sun and two top NTUH surgeons Ko Wen-je and Sheng-jean Huang get together for a rare encounter. Sun, who also serves as director of the university's Life Education Center, says of the prominent doctors: one can keep people alive without a heart, and the other can keep people alive without a head. They are discussing the meaning of existence with him, pondering the questions, "When should a patient's life support machine be turned off?" and "What does it mean to be called ‘alive'?"

From kindergarten to masters' or Ph.D. programs, Taiwan's education system crams specialized knowledge into students' heads, fearful they will not learn anything or be unable to find a job after they graduate. It's a "survival" education system that enables everybody to meet their material needs. But schools do not bother with the life education that can affect the lifelong well-being of students by helping them plot their life's direction and show them how to get there. This is one field of study that can never be completed, yet is valuable throughout life.

Sun, who lost his mother and wife at a young age, appreciates that more than most. He contends that Taiwan's education is too geared toward survival, overemphasizing "know how" while neglecting "know why." The system cultivates shortsighted people who are unable to differentiate wants from needs, and who "lack understanding." As a result, a host of absurd phenomena play out at all strata of society.

Life education has become the hottest topic among Taiwanese education experts in the past 10 years.

Strength: Taking Ownership of Life

Eleven years ago, the United Nations Educational, Science, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) held a high-level education summit in Paris. Education experts in attendance concluded that to be competitive in the 21st century, individuals would have to be able to think critically and analyze problems. In his book "A Whole New Mind: Why Right-Brainers Will Rule the Future," trend-watcher Daniel Pink argues that those in demand will be individuals able to unleash their potential, who are skilled at working as part of a team and who can use their senses and empathy to give meaning to things.'

These all come under the purview of life education. 

Chen Si-chi, director of National Taipei University of Education's Graduate School of Life Education and Health Promotion, observes that we are living in an era where life can be cloned and values can quickly disintegrate. Things that were certainties in the past are no longer certain. In the mighty torrent of life, how people can take ownership of their lives and not be influenced by momentary ups and downs "is what life education can bring to people," Chen says. In an age of uncertainty, life education can help children build a broader perspective on life so that they can cope with a constantly changing world.

As for the meaning of people's lives, the generation of Taiwanese young people born in the 1980s and 1990s increasingly seem to have lost their way, with the incidence of suicide and depression in this age group gradually rising. 

According to Department of Health data, the suicide rate among Taiwan's teenagers, though lower than in most other Asian countries, has risen by over 40 percent over the past decade. (Table 1,Table 2)

A survey of high school and university students conducted by CommonWealth Magazine as part of its special edition on education found that 37 percent of high school respondents lack self-confidence and 42 percent of university students are most distressed over not knowing what they want to do in life. 

Regardless of their specialized knowledge, students are incapable of answering the fundamental questions of life.

Awakening: Focus on Contributions

As economists have begun to ponder the use of happiness indices to measure a country's competitiveness, what really should be compared are the results of each country's life education.

Mon-Chi Lio, an associate professor in National Sun Yat-Sen University's Department of Political Economy, believes a consensus exists within the field to use three yardsticks to measure happiness – maintaining a relatively affluent life; building a life with dignity and respect for others; and having freedom of choice. Lio says that of the three, Taiwan's children are most deficient in the second measuring stick.

"Respect is not only about manners. It's about realizing that your life has meaning and value and that you can make contributions and build meaningful relationships with others and through that identify your own values," Lio says. Through his interaction with students, Lio senses that not being able to interact with others and not understanding how to respect others are the biggest impediments to the competitiveness of Taiwan's youth.

"What you see in Taiwan's education system is competition, not contribution," Lio asserts. He contends that Taiwan's students are forced to beat out others to squeeze through the narrow openings that allow them to gain admission to the best schools. In terms of interpersonal relationships, students only know competitive scores. They do not understand cooperation, respect and empathy.   

Eight years ago, the Ministry of Education strongly advocated life education, but then-education minister Ovid Tzeng now admits that the policy's benefits have yet to become evident. Though schools, teachers and parents conceded the importance of such life skills as character management, emotional management and resilience in the face of setbacks, they felt these areas could wait until students had passed their tests to gain admission to high school or college. One Taipei junior high school originally held a highly regarded and popular life education course once per week, but when the principal discovered graduates' scores on their Chinese proficiency tests had fallen, the school canceled the class and changed it to Chinese.

Daisy Lan Hung, the director of National Central University's Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience and a forceful advocate of life education, still remembers her late father telling her that in life, "use your mind for small things and your heart for big ones." Only many years later did she understand that the "mind" referred to survival skills and the "heart" to life skills.

Hung contends that if a country does not have an effective life education program, it cannot be strong. "A country's strength is not a function of its territory but of the quality of its people. Life education is the foundation for being an upstanding person and cannot be done without."

Participating in Personal Growth

Education administrators also appreciate the issue's urgency. Over the past decade, the focus of life education in Taiwan has evolved from preventing suicide and depression to guiding students to build active, positive outlooks on life and encouraging the younger generation to strive to find life's meaning. The first step is encouraging the country's youth to engage in meaningful public service activities.

Qing-shui Luo, a member of the Ministry of Education's Student Affairs Committee responsible for promoting life education, explains that in the past, Taiwan's life education program concentrated on psychological counseling and tried to purge negative views of life among the country's youth. The goal was to transform their attitude toward life "from a negative five to zero." Now what is needed, Luo argues, is to cultivate progressive attitudes toward life and stimulate each student's strengths and moral character, "taking them from zero to plus five."

Enthusiastically getting involved in society and being eager to serve is the optimal starting point for one's well-being and happiness. According to the CommonWealth Magazine survey, what nearly half of all high school and college students most hope to learn in school is how to participate in society. 

Canadian children's rights activist Craig Kielburger, who at the age of 12 rallied other youngsters his age to organize the charity Free the Children, adamantly feels 15 years later that happiness is choosing what one wants to do in life, because only by helping people can you help yourself to reevaluate what a rich and fulfilling life really consists of. Helping others is the most effective life-saving tool to save yourself. Kielburger notes that once individuals suffering from severe depression realize that others need them, they come to believe that life has meaning and their sense of self improves.

Change: Everybody Is a Winner at Life

Those worried about the direction of education in Taiwan have grown increasingly resentful of the concept of "not losing at the starting line." In an interview with CommonWealth Magazine, Education Minister Wu Ching-ji stressed that the concept is an advertising slogan used by cram schools to draw parents' attention, rather than a proven axiom of education. Only through life education, which cares little about winning or losing at the starting line, can a person's true competitiveness be cultivated.

Huang Yue-fang, the chief guidance counselor at Tainan Municipal Sie-jin Elementary School, who launched a life education program at the school 10 years ago, is a true believer.

"Life education is education without any losers," she says. "Every child can be winner at life."

Translated from the Chinese by Luke Sabatier

What is Life Education?

Life education is a concept developed within Taiwan's educational community, designed to cultivate essential skills for living. These include understanding oneself, respecting others, developing moral character, managing one's emotions, and being resilient in the face of setbacks.

Over a decade ago, National Taiwan University Department of Philosophy professor Johannes Sun began actively promoting "life education," with three questions at its core: Why am I living? How should I live? and How can I live the life that I should live?

Nine years ago, when Ovid Tseng took over as education minister, he inserted life education in school curriculums. In junior high and elementary schools, an immersive teaching method was used, using incidental teaching to plant the seeds of life experiences. Beginning next year, all high school freshmen must take a one-credit course on life education that will include exploring life and death, love, ethics and marriage. At the university level, life education usually ends up under "general education." Service learning, which is now highly popular at many universities, is also a form of life education.