Education: Made in Taiwan: educated clones

Reformers are cherry-picking ideas from the Far East and conveniently ignoring the drawbacks, says Richard Kimbell
Click to follow
As I was leaving Taiwan, where I have just completed a research exercise exploring the country's approach to teaching technology in the school curriculum and its methods for assessing pupil performance, I was appalled to discover that it has become such a focus of attention in the UK. In the process of doing this research in Taiwan, I have worked with schools, university departments, City and ministry officials, and with those responsible for examinations.

The banality of what I have read from England was horrifying. When Professor David Reynolds's report, Worlds Apart, is published, I hope to read a properly formulated piece of research with carefully balanced conclusions. But in advance of its publication, and in the light of the Panorama programme, it has been hijacked by the School Curriculum Assessment Authority to become another stick with which to beat teachers and teacher educators. Some factors in the performance of pupils in Taiwan are being spotlighted as if they were the only factors of any significance for pupil performance, while other factors are ignored. Mr Woodhead is reported, for example, as saying: "Whole-class methods [of teaching in Taiwan] is a key element in Britain's failure to match the educational progress of the Far East." How does he know this? How is he able to separate the effects of the multiple differences?

Let me offer SCAA and the Secretary of State a range of other factors that might be seriously affecting educational performance in Taiwan. The culture there is conformist and respectful. There is an immense respect for education and for teachers. Pupils are obedient and hard-working and their families strive extremely hard (and apply considerable pressure) to ensure that they do well in school.

Investment in education reflects this culture; Taiwanese see education as a means for national advancement and pupils as their principal natural resource. They invest accordingly. They spend 15 per cent of national tax revenue on education, and communities typically spend a further 50 per cent of local taxes on education (the law stipulates 35 per cent as a minimum).

Respect for expertise is a reflection of the culture; education policy in Taiwan is led by experts in education. The commissioner of education in Taiwan Province was a schoolteacher, a university professor and a university chancellor before taking up his current role. He has a PhD in educational psychology and a particular interest in special education. In fact the entire Cabinet in Taiwan is highly educated; 80 per cent hold PhDs, mostly in the fields for which they are responsible.

Classroom pedagogy reflects the culture. Teachers are right, and pupils do as they are instructed. In technology, I was unable to find any example of pupils making design decisions for themselves. They learn to make - in carefully regulated steps - what their teacher has already decided. In both junior and senior high schools, the work is similar to the woodwork and metalwork practices that were common in the UK 20 years ago. Pupils follow the rules - and they all end up with the same thing. Teaching and learning is therefore not differentiated. Since all pupils have to do the same thing, the brightest/best finish first and then help their classmates.

Pupil-testing reflects the culture: entry examinations for high school and university are almost entirely based on finding the "right" answer in multiple-choice tests, or true/false tests, or fill-in-the-blank tests. Pupils spend hundreds of hours rehearsing these tests, and many resort to crammer institutions that condition them to find the answer with greater facility.

In short, everything that goes on in schools and universities in Taiwan is a reflection of the culture from which it springs. It would be foolish to claim that any single component in this patchwork is responsible for educational standards; even more foolish is the proposition that one or two of these practices can be simply transplanted to improve performance at home. But if SCAA is determined to transplant ideas from Taiwan, should we expect the Secretary of State to announce that education has become such a national priority that it will in future receive 15 per cent of national tax revenue instead of the current 5 per cent? And might we further expect to hear that the Secretary of State for Education will be selected on the basis of expertise in education, or that undifferentiated teaching is now a "good" thing? I doubt it.

SCAA and the Secretary of State are cherry-picking the things they like about Taiwanese education, and are conveniently ignoring the things they might not want us to know. This is misleading and intellectually dishonest, and does great discredit to research in education.

The final irony is that the Taiwanese handle it so differently. They were troubled by their university entrance-examination system and set up a research centre to study the matter. After evaluating systems from around the world they concluded that the standard of questions in A-level examinations in the UK are too difficult for their own students (yes, British 18-year-olds can answer more sophisticated questions than can Taiwanese 18-year-olds). Do they throw up their hands in horror and immediately begin to implement British-style A-level arrangements? No they do not. Rather they conclude - after careful reflection on the different requirements of our systems - that our curriculum is over-specialised in years 11 and 12. I don't expect that SCAA or the Secretary of State will draw our attention to that, either.

Professor Kimbell is from the technology education research unit, Goldsmiths University of London.