Earlier this year, a group of 14 students from Yilan County led by teacher You Fan-qi (由樊琦) spent three months traveling in Europe as part of an experiential education project. The countries they visited included Denmark, Finland and Germany; students went to local schools and factories to immerse themselves in a foreign learning and working environments, observe different teaching methods and acquire a number of practical skills, all the while interacting with locals.

After returning to Taiwan, they spent two days conducting presentations and interactive discussions with their classmates, during which they shared their experiences and the knowledge they gained through observation and research.

As part of their journey, the students joined the International Democratic Education Conference 2016 which was held in Mikkeli, Finland from June 6 to 10. They had the opportunity to learn about sustainable energy, city design and cultural history, among other themes. They also interacted with a number of international students and teachers, exchanging ideas and theories about democratic education systems and methods.

The group returned eager to share new ways of thinking with their fellow Taiwanese. In an open letter to President Tsai Ying-wen (蔡英文), they speak of the importance of learning from European societies – not only when it comes to education, but values.

“The high school students in Denmark, the expression in their eyes is resolute,” writes Yang Yi-qi (楊逸頎). “They have a lot of self-confidence; they are always calm when talking to strangers. They clearly know what they are doing. In the subway, there is no place to check your ticket: everything is built upon a foundation of trust. Even if there is high taxation, people trust the government. They believe that those who have skills must invest a lot, and in the end, they will be rewarded.”

Lin Yu-chen (林昱辰) developed a deep interest in the Finland education system, which is internationally renowned for being unorthodox and having few exams, while simultaneously holding the top spot in international rankings: an apparent contradiction that intrigued her to research the issue. In her presentation, she noted that the Finland approach aims to teach future generations essential problem-solving and communication skills while fusing academic and "real life." She made a comparison between Finland and Taiwan and concluded, “What must change isn't necessarily the education system, but our values.”

According to Fulbright scholar William Doyle, the key to Finland’s success lies not only with the teaching content and material, but also the great freedom teachers have to innovate and experiment, and perhaps more crucially, their understanding and respect for children to suggest ideas, self-assess with their peers, and laugh or play in class instead of studying in a rigid disciplinary setting. There is little homework as it has been deemed counterproductive by research.

By contrast, while ranking high in international test scores (especially math and science), Taiwan’s education system has long been criticized for focusing on memorization and standardized exam results rather than creativity and critical thinking, while putting a tremendous amount on pressure on students who often attend cram schools in the evenings and weekends and have to deal with large amounts of homework. The highly competitive learning environment has also been subject to criticism. The Ministry of Education has attempted to tackle these issues in 2014 through a series of controversial reforms, including the creation of "exam-free" pathways, decentralization of curriculum, and improvement of vocational education programs. The year 2015 was declared Education Innovation Action Year, encouraging teachers and students to cultivate openness to more creative and action-focused learning approaches.

It is likely that students and teachers coming into contact with alternative education models that are more focused on communication, freedom and creativity, such as the progressive Finland model, will lead to positive changes in Taiwan's education system. One can hope more educators will take this kind of initiative in the future.

Editor: Olivia Yang