How Taiwan's Experimental Schools Help Students Think for Themselves

How Taiwan's Experimental Schools Help Students Think for Themselves
Credit: Depositphotos
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A bevy of alternative schools in Taiwan take novel approaches to learning.

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By Kathy Chen

Lunchtime is approaching and 18-year-old Tsai Jia-hao and his classmates are cooking seafood noodles in the sleek, open kitchen. Jia-hao expertly tosses the pasta in the pan, while other students chop cabbage and carrots for stir-fry. Their teacher looks on, finishing off the noodles with a sprinkle of Thai basil.

Jia-hao, a lanky kid in T-shirt and baseball cap, slides the noodles into a serving bowl, and his classmates gather around to serve themselves. “I love to cook,” he says.

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Credit: Xue Xue Institute
A class session underway at the experimental Xue Xue institute.

It’s all in a day’s classes at Taiwan’s Xue Xue Institute. Xue Xue isn’t a culinary institution, though, but rather an experimental school where teachers use cooking as a way to help students get in touch with their senses. It is also one of several dozen alternative schools that have opened on the island in recent years, as educators and parents seek to engage the younger generation in learning that will prepare them for the 21st century workplace.

Although Taiwan’s first alternative school was set up in 1990, the government didn’t codify its policy on experimental and home schools until 2014 when the Enforcement Act for School-based Experimental Education and two related laws were passed. An amendment last year paved the way for experimental education initiatives to be expanded from K-12 to include higher education.

The number of students engaged in experimental learning has surged since then, with more than 12,000 either enrolled in 62 experimental schools or being home schooled in 2017, says Nicole Lee, director general of the higher education department at Taiwan’s Ministry of Education. In 2015, just 5,300 such students were enrolled in 11 schools or being home schooled.

Still, the current numbers account for a mere sliver of Taiwan’s 4.5 million students and 10,000-plus schools, though Lee predicts that the numbers will continue to rise. “The world will lose a lot of jobs to artificial intelligence in the future, so teachers must change what they teach,” she says. “Education must provide an innovative environment for kids to develop their talents.”

The growing popularity of experimental schools comes amid broader changes to Taiwan’s educational system, including reforms to the curriculum and to the admissions process. Some traditional schools are adapting strategies pioneered by experimental schools, and companies are working with educators to introduce innovative programs.

Policymakers around the world are grappling with how to tailor education systems to equip students with relevant skills in a world being transformed by AI and automation. McKinsey Global Institute says in a 2017 report that 15 to 30 percent of work globally could be automated by 2030, potentially displacing 400 million to 800 million individuals. In another 2017 report, Accenture predicts that 65 percent of children starting school today will hold jobs that don’t yet exist.

Educators agree that such seismic shifts will demand different skill sets, including the “Four Cs”: critical thinking, communication, collaboration, and creativity. Other desirable traits include an ability to adapt to change, digital fluency, and the capability to work across cultures in a globalized world.

Such a skilled workforce is critical to President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文)’s goal to revive Taiwan’s lagging economy and reduce its economic reliance on China by focusing on “5+2” innovative industries. These include five pillar industries – the Internet of Things, biomedicine, green energy, smart machinery, and defense – plus high-value agriculture and the circular economy.

The island recently has attracted new investment projects from Google, Microsoft, and IBM. Multinational companies such as these see an opportunity to leverage Taiwan’s central role in the global supply chain and its highly educated workforce to turn Taiwan into a digital hub for the new economy.

But some feel the workforce isn’t adequately prepared. As part of its 2017 Business Climate Survey, the American Chamber of Commerce in Taipei asked hundreds of executives to assess the quality of human capital in Taiwan. Taiwan workers received top scores for being hardworking, trustworthy, and well educated, but were rated far lower for showing initiative, innovation, and creativity.

“This will affect how Taiwan remains competitive,” says AmCham Taipei Chairman Albert Chang (章錦華), who is also managing partner of the Taiwan office of McKinsey & Co., the global consulting company. “Singapore, Korea, and Japan are doing massive pushes to prepare business, students, and labor for this new economy. For Taiwan, the challenge is to connect education to build these capabilities in companies.”

Less focus on testing

Since the 1990s, Taiwan has sought to move away from a “stuffing the duck” approach to teaching, which emphasizes memorization of facts, especially those needed to pass the all-important college entrance exams. But even as some institutions have started to weigh written responses and other criteria for admissions, “everyone still feels changes are too slow and the education system is too restrictive, especially with the increasing digitalization of the world,” says Cheng Tung-liao, an associate professor of education at National Chengchi University.

As a result of the continued focus on testing, he says, “students enter college without a proactive interest in learning or any idea of what their life goal is.”

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Credit: Yang Chia-ying / CC BY 2.0
Taiwan's alternative schools want to avoid classrooms that look like this.

That’s one reason Lilin Hsu established Xue Xue Institute. Opened in the fall of 2017, the high school has 73 students, more than double last year’s 31, and specializes in art and design. Students must also take classes in basic subjects such as Chinese literature and English, but instead of math, the school offers more practical accounting and finance classes.

“We want students to explore different fields in creative and culture industries so eventually they can work in multiple sectors,” says Hsu, who serves as the school’s president. In addition, a background in art gives students “the flexibility to adapt to different situations and to discover new things.”

She adds that worker creativity will be critical for Taiwan’s economy, which is now dominated by OEM or ODM contract manufacturing, but faces increasing competition from China.

Xue Xue’s curriculum includes daily cooking sessions, which Hsu says stimulates the senses and promotes “synesthesia,” such as when a pianist recalls a certain painting to capture a mood to inspire his playing. Similarly, in a class on garment making “we will let students taste sour, sweet, and spicy, and then draw and pick their colors.”

Other courses aim to nurture creative thinking and a sense of global citizenship. In the class that Ann Liao teaches on the circular economy and fashion, students are working on creating a brand that represents a circular system and decreases waste.

“The class is a combination of social science, design, and branding,” she says, as she walks among rows of teens working on laptops. “Students need to figure out what they really care about and then use their talent to expand on their idea.” Final grades will be based on factors such as class participation and unique execution.

Sixteen-year-old Ian Shao envisions a chain of pop-up shops called “The Props,” which would rent light wands and other paraphernalia to concertgoers, so they wouldn’t have to buy them only to throw them away.

“What apps will you use to target different audiences?” Liao asks the students.

“At my old school, questions have a fixed response,” Ian says. “Here, you have to come up with your own answer.” What he also likes about Xue Xue is that unlike his old school, where he says the homework load often meant getting four hours of sleep a night, “there’s not a lot of homework here – mostly thinking.”

Many Taiwanese families have only one child, so parents tend to consider their children’s happiness, not just whether they can get into a good college or make more money. “Experimental education puts the focus on the child,” says Cheng, the education professor. “It preserves their natural-born curiosity and creativity, their most authentic quality, and develops it.”

Mary Teng says her 17-year-old daughter Erin chafed at the rules, homework load, and competition at her former high school, but has thrived at Xue Xue. “The classes here let you explore different views,” says Teng. “After a year, I feel she has her own way of thinking and analysis, and that she’s not afraid to express her views.”

Heping Experimental Elementary School Taipei, an alternative school which also opened last autumn, was flooded with 356 lottery applications for 23 slots for the first-grade class, says Principal Huang Chih-shun. (The other 35 first-graders are from the school district; as a public school, it is required to take 60 percent of its students from the district.)

It’s immediately clear to a visitor why the school is so popular. Behind the building’s tan façade lie bright, open classrooms and plenty of green space. Students sit or lie on the blond wood floor during class. Those who have finished their assignments are let loose to work in the school garden.

“Our core value is self-regulated learning,” says Huang. “In Taiwan, adults say do this, and kids do it. We want to change that.” Clocks are scattered around the school, so students take responsibility to get to class on time, instead of relying on bells.

As an experimental school, Heping has broad leeway in hiring teachers and designing its curriculum and learning materials. Teachers work in teams, with flexibility to tailor classes, which are focused on theme- and problem-based learning.

“Education must be applied to the daily and the practical,” Huang says. “What do you observe? How can you be a learner and a doer based on what you see? We hope students can eventually use what they learn, not just apply it to tests.”

A different culture

To that end, teachers don’t give a lot of exams, and report cards list learning goals with space for both teacher and student to reflect on how the student performed and how he or she can move forward. “Teachers don’t act like adults teaching children, but as a more-experienced person working with a child to inquire and explore,” Huang says. “This is very different from traditional culture.”

On one recent morning, Heping’s first graders flocked inside after first-period gym class. Wheeled cabinets and desks divide the spacious room into cozy spaces, where three teachers split up teaching the 58 students. For the fourth quarter, the theme is storytelling, with the kids studying an abridged version of the Chinese classic Journey to the West.

One group gathers in a circle on the floor around teacher Yu Hsiu-wen, who sits on a stool at kid-level. The students rehearse a song they will perform for a year-end show, then take turns summarizing the reading. Most classmates listen quietly, but a few boys start fooling around. Yu quietly walks over and taps them on the head, but she lets one rest-less, bespectacled boy alone because, she explains later, “he’s listening – he’s not affecting the other kids.”

“I like this school,” the boy, seven-year-old Jian Jie, says afterwards during the daily, half-hour free time.

“Because we learn ourselves,” a classmate chimes in.

“And there are no tests,” another girl says, adding: “My friend [at another school] says she has to study so much she wants to cry.”

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Credit: Depositphotos
Taiwan's alternative schools eschew traditional exam-based models and receive rave reviews from students.

Rather than teach through repetitive drilling or rote memorization, the teachers incorporate basic learning into the theme course. Chinese characters from Journey to the West decorate the walls and cabinets, and the class plays word games to help students remember them. The children also use the characters when they jot daily journal entries about their reading. Homework is to read these entries to their parents.

The course culminates in a final project of the student’s choosing: putting on a play, creating a board game, or writing their own storybook based on the Chinese classic. After lunch, some first-graders head to drama class to work on their play. They watch a video of a Japanese school’s rendition of the story, pausing every few minutes to analyze the performance as a way to inform and potentially improve their own acting.

Other students stay in the classroom to work on board games, which the teachers hope will be relevant to the story. But instead of directing the students what to do, the teachers pass out an exercise sheet asking the kids to list the characters, setting, and most important developments in the plot – “to help them focus their games,” one says.

Heping’s innovative approach has attracted considerable media attention, as well as observers from local schools and those in the United States, Europe, and elsewhere in Asia, Huang says. “We can serve as a model for private schools and traditional schools.”

Taipei Rixin Elementary School, which has made “maker education” a core part of the curriculum, is helping teachers from other schools learn about the program. Maker education promotes problem- and project-based learning through a hands-on, collaborative approach, and is closely associated with STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) education.

Besides holding workshops and school tours for students and teachers from other schools, Taipei Rixin is training some of its own teachers so that they, in turn, will be able to train other teachers, says Principal Ethan Lin. “Taiwan wants to be a leader in high-tech, so having a talented workforce is crucial.”

Taipei Rixin is a regular public school, with the exception that students take 24 maker-education classes each year, starting in kindergarten. The school receives annual subsidies from Taipei City’s education department and the Ministry of Education to fund the program and to pay for the 3-D printers, laser cutters, and computers that line four workshops. Here the students learn everything from woodworking to coding for OSMO games, Dash robotics devices, and the Scratch programming language, to the construction of remote-controlled cars and robots.

Lin’s office is filled with some of these student projects, including a wood-carved mini car that moves by harnessing a rubber band, and a controller designed by a student with allergies that gauges air quality and automatically turns on an air purifier as needed.

“Maker education, STEM, design thinking, and computerization are all our focus,” Lin says, as he proudly shows off models and the numerous awards they have garnered. “Maker education teaches students the practical use of these skills and how to create with their hands. These are all things our students will need in the 21st century workplace, and we hope they will take these skills away with them when they graduate.”

Companies such as MediaTek Inc. are getting involved in the promotion of maker education and other initiatives to revamp Taiwan’s education system, with an eye on developing the island’s future workforce. Cynthia Feng, MediaTek’s executive secretary, says the fabless semiconductor company based in Hsinchu aims to work with four cities each year to train teachers on how to use this approach. “Maker education strengthens people’s ability to discover and identify problems and come up with solutions,” she says.

MediaTek is also in talks with educators to help design information technology training programs as part of the Ministry of Education’s guidelines for Taiwan’s new curriculum, which will make IT classes mandatory.

Under McKinsey’s Emerging Scholars Program, partners at the firm mentor graduate students, helping them to apply what they learn at school to business challenges. “We work with them on cases like Taiwan’s aging population and low fertility rate, and ask them what is a business solution,” says Albert Chang.

Even as demand grows in Taiwan for experimental education, the approach isn’t for everyone. Some parents worry that such schools don’t give their children enough homework or a rigorous enough education. Another concern is the paucity of similar options at the high school and college levels, raising questions about the future path for students attending experimental lower schools.

Over winter break in 2017, five families withdrew their children from Heping Experimental Elementary School. Principal Huang puts it this way: “We sell beef noodle soup, another school sells pork chop rice, and both are good and nutritious. But the parents worried that beef noodle soup wouldn’t nourish their kids.”

The cost of private schools can also prove a barrier. Annual tuition at Xue Xue Institute totals more than NT$230,000 (about US$7,460) after accounting for government subsidies, an amount similar to the yearly cost of attending a top Taiwan university.

But for Xue Xue student Tsai Jia-hao, the school’s attraction is clear: “At my old high school, I hated to read or learn something just to pass a test. I want to learn things that I want to learn, and not just for a grade.”

After graduating with a focus on photography at Xue Xue this past summer, Jia-hao is taking a gap year to intern at the school before going to college. Eventually, he expects to work for his family’s tea company. Whatever he ends up doing, he says, Xue Xue “has made me more sensitive, made me better at analyzing, and helped me develop my own opinions. All of that should help me in the job market.”

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Credit: Seedling Experimental School
Sixth graders from Taiwan's Seedling Experimental School doing their Chinese homework at the creek.

Read Next: Nurturing ‘Seedlings’: The Story of Alternative Education in Taiwan

The News Lens has been authorized to repost this article. The piece was first published by Taiwan Business TOPICS. (Taiwan Business TOPICS is published monthly by the American Chamber of Commerce in Taipei.)

TNL Editor: Nick Aspinwall (@Nick1Aspinwall)

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