What you need to know
A 24-year-old experimental school in Taipei exemplifies Taiwan’s role as a leading advocate of alternative education.
It was a sweltering late May afternoon when a bunch of first and second graders, ages six to eight, bounced into Secret (秘密) class at The Seedling Experimental School in Wulai District, New Taipei City.
Teacher Huang Wei Ning’s (黃瑋寧) lesson plan was to uncover the ‘secret’ of tooth anatomy with her students. But the kids chimed: “It’s so hot! Can we go to the creek instead?” The weather forecast predicted an afternoon downpour. After deliberating with the kids, Huang led them to the creek, a stone’s throw from school.
For two class periods, the kids splashed and waded in the crystal-clear water, caught and released fishes and frogs, tasted the first drops of rain and smelled the scent of earth fresh from a summer downpour.
Just before the rainstorm hit, they returned to classroom, drenched but elated.
Germinating young ‘seeds’
Founded in 1994, Seedling is a primary school that eschews Taiwan’s traditional education – notorious for its rote learning style and pressure-choked exams.
Instead the school values students’ individuality, plugs mixed-age learning and designs its own curriculum. Aside from compulsory subjects like Chinese, Math and English, it offers a plethora of electives: from nature studies and yoga to dessert-making and mountain biking skills.
Students are free to choose their classes or opt for free periods. There is no grading or exams. Every semester, teachers evaluate each student’s personal development via detailed reports and face-to-face meetings with individual parents. With a student body of 97, each grade averages 16 students, and each homeroom averages 12 mixed-age students.
Nestled in a valley framed by forested mountains, the school boasts Neidong Forest Reserve and a stunning gorge in its backyard. A treehouse, an ecological pond, a central kitchen and nearby hiking trails double as learning spaces, alongside regular classrooms.
“Seedling is more a learning ground than a school,” explains Huang, a senior teacher and former principal. Using the concept of ziran (自然, natural) at its core, the school dogmas include words like daziran (大自然, mother nature) and zizai (自在, unrestrained or at ease) as teachers guide the kids to embrace ziyou (自由, freedom) and zizhu (自主, autonomy).
“But freedom comes with boundaries,” says Huang who has taught at Seedling for 12 years. The kids had the freedom to choose to play in the creek versus learning about teeth anatomy that day. But Huang set the boundary: if safety is compromised, for example torrential rain could possibly flood the creek, they will forgo the plan.
The same goes for self-study autonomy, for instance.
“You don’t necessarily make the best choices, but you must be brave enough to make [them],” says Huang. “And even if you don’t like the class you chose, give it your best shot and take responsibility for your decision.
“We use these values as nutrients for our ‘seeds’ to grow,” she adds.
Instead of authoritative figures, Seedling teachers are mentors to their protégés and on a first-name basis with students. Like democratic schools, students have equal say with the teachers and principal in all areas of school life. During the weekly Life Seminar (生活讨论会), anyone can raise an issue which will be discussed by the student body and teachers.
“Just last month, a fifth grader asked: “why can’t we go barefoot in school?” Huang cites an example. “We deliberated on that for a month before the kids reached a consensus on how to tackle the safety issues and public hygiene (of going barefoot).”
The school’s tribunal system, helmed by students on a rotational basis, settles disputes and deals with bullying. Any student can file a complaint against his peer or a teacher, take them to ‘court’ and go through a judicial process.
Experimental education in Taiwan has its roots in the social reforms sparked by the lifting of the four-decade-long martial law.
A local government-accredited school, Seedling doesn’t receive public funding except for a subsidized lease on the land the school sits on. Its legal status falls under the “New Taipei City National Primary and Secondary Schools Entrust Private Management Methods" (新北市立國民中小學委託民間辦理辦法))
Seedling recruits its own teachers and teachers don’t require a teaching license, unlike public school educators.
“We hope to nurture kids who can be true to themselves, love others and stay curious about the world,” says Principal Cheng Wan-ju (鄭婉如). “Our core objective is to guide these kids to embrace the passion and fortitude for lifelong learning.”
Experimental education - the early years
In Taiwan, schools like Seedling fall under the ‘experimental’ category which covers public and private schools, homeschools, self-study groups and schools that adhere to the educational philosophies of Steiner/Waldorf and Montessori.
To date, the country has 50 public experimental schools, including 15 aboriginal schools, three private schools, nine “non-school” institutions and a total of 12,544 students, based on 2017 figures from the Ministry of Education (MoE) K-12 Education Administration Division.
Experimental education in Taiwan has its roots in the social reforms sparked by the lifting of the four-decade-long martial law in 1987.
“Demand for political democratization, cultural pluralism, and social liberalization triggered a series of demonstrations and movements for education reforms throughout Taiwan,” says Professor Chuing Prudence Chou (周祝瑛), a senior professor in education at National Chengchi University and co-author of “Taiwan Education at the Crossroad: When Globalization Meets Localization” (2012, Palgrave Macmillan).
The first alternative grade school, Forest School was set up in 1990 by Humanistic Education Foundation (HEF), founded by a group of scholars as a riposte to traditional schooling. Four years later, a group of 10 families cobbled together a homeschool group with 30 students, which grew organically into the Seedling of today. One of Seedling’s founders, Lee Ya-ching (李雅卿), the mother of Taiwan’s first digital minister Audrey Tang (唐鳳), based her inspiration for Seedling on her experience raising a child prodigy (Tang) who did not fit into the mainstream mold.
From fourth grade to high school, students are only preoccupied with one goal: to prepare for university entrance exams. — Cheng Tung-liao, National Chengchi University, Department of Education
“One of the main principles of the Taiwan Education Reform plan (1994-1996) was to deregulate education - easing the MoE’s control and deregulating private, charter and experimental schools. And giving alternative education more room to develop,” explains Chou, a longtime critic of Taiwanese education policies and reform.
The 1999 Educational Fundamental Act (教育基本法) provides the legal basis to set up private schools with approval from local governments, the right to use unconventional educational approaches, and protect the right to education.
“These events marked the beginning of the rise of alternative education.”
Plugging alternative methods
In 2014, the MoE proposed three experimental education laws to widen its scope, provide more choices for education and bolster students’ rights. A MoE-sanctioned research hub, the Taiwan Experimental Education Center (TEEC) at National Chengchi University, was set up in 2015 to promote experimental education based on these laws.
Led by Associate Professor Cheng Tung-liao (鄭同僚) of Chengchi’s Department of Education, the center has seven ‘principal investigators’ (協同主持人) made up of professors from various universities, and 13 full-time staff.
TEEC projects include running rural areas school-based experimental education and teachers’ training program, hosting experimental education forums and consulting for pilot experimental schools. In 2017, TEEC published an experimental education handbook for teachers, administrators and homeschooling parents.
“Students who lack enthusiasm for learning and creativity are the by-products of Taiwan’s traditional education,” says Cheng, an experimental education advocate for over 20 years. “From fourth grade to high school, students are only preoccupied with one goal: to prepare for university entrance exams.”
The child is trained to respond swiftly and correctly to exam questions. Rote learning trains a child’s memorization skills, but not their analytical and problem-solving skills, he explains.
“[The child's] intelligence is seriously stifled, not to mention qualities like compassion and interpersonal skills,” adds Cheng, also the President of Taipei Waldorf Education Association and board director of Taipei Tungshin Waldorf School.
Hence, experimental education can be the yardstick for traditional education system.
“Through the comparison, we can identify problems with traditional education, and provide solutions to these problems,” says Cheng, whose son, now a second-year undergraduate, is a Seedling alumnus.
In recent years, Taiwan’s mainstream school system is showing signs of change. High schools are now offering a wider variety of subjects to attract students, and 15 public senior high schools adopted a pilot exam-free admission program in 2017.
“Maybe someday experimental education can become mainstream. For example, in the UK, an increase of charter schools allows for a variety of education concepts/teaching methods,” adds Cheng, who has set up eight experimental educational institutions in Taiwan within the last three years, including Taipei Media School.
Seedling’s Principal Cheng believes that the Seedling model can contribute to Taiwan’s education reform. The school plans to set up an education exchange center in the future to encourage exchanges and dialogues between the public sector, private schools and experimental institutions.
“We hope to cultivate more cooperation and mutual trust between the public sector and our school, understand each other and find a middle ground,” the principal adds.
Exclusivity and trade-offs
But it is not all a bed of child-reared roses. Alternative schools like Seedling have been perceived as being exclusive and elitist due to their relatively high tuition fees and low admission rates. At Seedling, parents fork out NT$62,000 (US$2,051) per semester, not including transportation and meals, versus the average NT$3,000 per semester for a child studying at public elementary school. At its annual trial class for first graders or transfer students, 32 students would show up for 16 allocated spots.
“Parents who can afford alternative education tend to know how to pursue their children’s best interests. But for many Taiwanese parents, they are just making ends meet,” says Chou. “In reality, you can’t expect quality education if you want to pay low taxes.
However, alternative schools here still cost a fraction of what private conventional schools charge “Ultimately, choice and options are things we need to respect. If people do not like this (mainstream education) system, at least they have alternatives,” Chou says.
Transition to mainstream
Critics also raise concerns over whether students graduating from these types of experimental schools will be able to adapt to mainstream Taiwanese education institutions. Aside from Holistic Education School, an experimental boarding school catering for junior and senior high school kids, experimental primary school graduates have limited options. They can opt for homeschooling, join mainstream schools or go abroad to further their studies.
“The weakest link in experimental education is the transition to high school and university levels,” says a Seedling parent, Lee Chen-tang (李振棠). His eight-year-old daughter is a second grader at Seedling and his 15-year-old son is a Seedling alumnus.
“The entire education system still uses the exam-oriented system so children have to switch back to the mainstream track (at some point of their education journey), which can be challenging.”
Lee’s son, Joseph (李中允), joined a homeschool group after elementary school. After junior high school, he decided to prepare for high school entrance exams just to gauge his academic abilities versus public school kids.
“He devoted an extra year to self-study, and to improve his academic aptitude, which I find truly admirable,” says Lee. “Though Seedling graduates may initially struggle to catch up with students in mainstream schools, they will close [the gap] eventually.”
So, is experimental education as good as it’s made out to be? Or is it lofty notion of ‘ideal’ education and philosophical posturing?
In Chou’s “Taiwan Education at the Crossroads,” she writes, “the Taiwanese Waldorf system has garnered positive feedback related to students’ mental and intellectual maturity and their higher motivation for self-learning, as well as their physical and psychological well-being,” based on Taiwan’s Government Information Office data (page 80, “Taiwan Education at the Crossroads”).
TEEC is yet to produce any data on the efficacy of experimental education versus mainstream education, Cheng concedes. TEEC’s large-scale experimental education projects started just three years ago.
“It’s too early to ask for a definitive comparison results in only a few years of large-scale education reform,” he explains. “But individual schools should have specific observations of their own progress.”
“Empirically speaking, past Seedling students have had no adjustment issues or academic problems when it came to transition to mainstream education after sixth grade,” he adds. “Parents can’t just say, I send my kids to school and they’ll be fine. Most importantly, they can help nurture their kids’ reading habit and the curiosity to learn.”
The Seedling ‘family’
At Seedling, it’s usual to see alumni and even their parents visiting the school to hang out or volunteer in the ‘family’ kitchen. Seedling parents have to take turns to whip up daily lunch for the entire school.
For alumnus Chuang Yi Lin (莊以琳), her happy childhood in Seedling inspired her to become an educator.
“Because I interacted with kids from different ages, I discovered I love kids and get along with them well,” says Chuang, 22, a fourth-year undergraduate in Chengchi University’s education department. Chuang helps out at Seedling’s annual trial class sessions and visits the school just to interact with students and teachers.
“Seedling had a huge effect on my self-development,” she adds. “I realized the importance of human communication to resolve conflicts. And I learned empathy by putting myself in other people’s shoes.”
Another Seedling alumnus, Ronald Pan (潘杰), recalls the culture shock when he transferred to Seedling from a mainstream school during third grade.
“When the teacher asked, ‘what do you think?’ I was taken aback,” recalls Pan, 22. “In Taiwanese society, whether in school, at home or in public, an eight-year-old is expected to listen to and obey adults. I was never asked to think.”
And thanks to his teachers’ support, Pan had the guts to shun a group of so-called friends turned bullies.
“My world opened up because I learned to say ‘no’,” says Pan who speaks English eloquently. He made new friends and discovered basketball and exercise - two passions that stayed with him till adulthood. “Seedling gave me the space to think and find myself, explore my passions, to learn how to deal with my emotions and to actively learn and keep that curiosity.”
Of course, Seedling isn’t perfect, TEEC’s Cheng admits. “There is certainly room for improvement, especially some of the educator’s teaching skills,” he says. “But no matter how (inefficiently) you teach in experimental schools, you’re still better than a mainstream school.”
“Some skeptics say: ‘kids are happy...and then what?’ And experimental schools just churn out ‘happy pigs,’ says Cheng, a self-proclaimed social activist.
“I say ‘no, they produce ‘Happy Socrates!’”
Editor: David Green