I mentioned in the yesterday’s blog entry that I don’t quiz my remedial students because they’re already overworked. I want to return briefly to the topic of differences between education in Taiwan and America. In an earlier post I described many of the basic institutional and cultural differences. One puzzle I’m still in the process of unraveling, and which I’ve written about before, is why American students aren’t completely and utterly trounced in the adult job market by Taiwanese, Singaporean, Korean, Japanese etc. students who work exponentially harder in school as children and young adults. One contributing factor is that Americans are fluent in English, the lingua franca of international business (for now). However, language probably doesn’t account for all or most of the remaining gap because very many Taiwanese, Singaporean, Korean and Japanese college graduates can speak English. Don’t get me wrong—Americans are having a tough time now that globalization is increasing competition for jobs. We’re already suffering from our neglect of primary education, and it’s only going to get worse.
But the gap isn’t as wide as you’d think it would if you looked at internationally proctored test results from the last few decades. American students pale in comparison to Singapore, Taiwan et al. on math and science tests, and it’s been that way for a while now. They simply work a lot harder than us in school. Their parents care more about education and therefore invest more resources into educating their children. My personal experiences teaching in Taiwan have not only confirmed the legend of Asian educational achievement and work ethic, they’ve enhanced it. Many of my students went to cram school for six hours a day each day of their vacation! Vacation!
I had a chance to pose this puzzle to the principal of the Kaohsiung American School (KAS), Dr. Thomas Farrell, when the ETAs and I visited two months ago. KAS is a private, non-profit, tuition-based, pre-K-12th grade college preparatory school founded in 1989. The school follows an American educational model (unlike Taiwanese public schools) and teaches all classes in English (except for foreign language classes, where students can keep up with their Chinese if they choose).
Dr. Farrell claims that the missing piece of the puzzle is the uniqueness of the American educational model. Both public and private schools in America encourage open, critical dialogue in the classroom. You think the author is wrong? Okay, why? You think your classmate is right, but for the wrong reasons? Explain. American schools, especially the better ones, prioritize critical thinking over memorization of facts. Math and science aren’t all rote memorization, but it’s mostly memorization.
Taiwanese parents and schools sit kids down in front of textbooks and have them study facts, figures, algorithms and theorems for prodigious amounts of time. American schools emphasize discussion and debate. Outside of school, American kids spendmore time outside interacting with other kids, learning how to make small talk. The mock conversation above is an example of the American classroom dynamic: you have to be able to articulate to a crowded classroom your extemporaneously developed argument. You need to persuade. You learn how to talk, to, well, bullshit (my words, not Dr. Farrell’s).
Dr. Farrell drew on a number of personal anecdotes to illustrate his point. One of them is particularly illustrative: he planned to use part of the annual budget to buy a few SmartBoards for some of the teachers to use in their classrooms. He was certain he would buy the SmartBoards, but booked a sales meeting with a Taiwanese SmartBoards sales executive so he could ask some questions and negotiate prices. The executive showed up five minutes before the presentation, needed twenty minutes to set up the SmartBoard, nervously delivered an awkward ten minute presentation and struggled to answer Dr. Farrell’s basic questions due to nervousness. Had Dr. Farrell not already researched and chosen to buy SmartBoards, he would not have bought anything from the salesman.
The lack of presentation and communication skills is a serious handicap for many East Asian college and high school graduates. It also happens to be, in Dr. Farrell’s mind, one of America’s few remaining relative advantages in K-undergrad education. Americans know how to sell things. We know how to persuade, even if we don’t have the better command of the facts because we didn’t study hard enough (or at all). Many Taiwanese, especially those who are well off and spent some time in the West, recognize the advantages of pairing the American emphasis on critical thinking and communication with the Taiwanese emphasis on hard work and knowledge accumulation: the KAS charges about 20,000USD per pupil per year (they don’t make any profit, it’s just to cover expenses), yet it has a selective application process because so many upper-middle class Taiwanese parents want their kids to attend.
Before any of my American readers say “Ah, okay, we’ve got PowerPoint skills going for us, let’s rest on our laurels,” please keep a few things in mind: First, we’re already losing service jobs for reasons other than just lower-cost of labor. We’re losing some I.T. and science jobs to Taiwan, Japan, Singapore etc. because there are millions of jobs that don’t require presentation skills (and not every Asian college graduate is socially inept). We need to invest more in education to assure a greater share of global employment for our citizens. Not a single iPad, Apple’s upcoming e-reader, will be produced in the U.S. Why? It’s not because Taiwanese computer engineers in Taipei are markedly cheaper than American computer engineers. It’s because Taiwanese engineers are the best at designing, and thus the first to design, the technology, and they’re the best at producing it.
Second, many of our competitors are reforming their education systems to catch up with America’s advantage in communication and presentation skills. They have identified their weakness, and they’re doing something about it. Due to Confucian influence and other forces over time, East Asian school culture lagged behind Western school culture in its acceptance of students in any way challenging teachers, even intellectually. Many school reforms throughout Asia have focused on relaxing the student-teacher relationship in order to encourage critical thinking and dynamic exchange. Students in Taiwan are still more deferential than to their teachers than American students are to theirs, but the difference isn’t drastic by any means (some of the ETAs say the difference is now non-existent in their experience [for the record, none of them has taught kids from the Bronx]). The Kaohsiung Education Bureau recently asked the ETAs to teach a biweekly course on English public speaking to a group of public school teachers. You see serious signs of transformation. Once these countries find the right balance between the demand for people skills and the strictures of their respect-driven cultures, we’re in trouble. They’ll be practicing PowerPoint as intently as they study physics.
If Americans want their grandkids to have career paths open to them besides selling SmartBoards, we need to reform our education system (the Obama administration has proffered a range of much needed reforms) and, ideally, internalize a bit of the East Asian emphasis on education by recognizing how many doors it opens. Embracing reform and respecting the value of education go hand in hand. You have to respect the value of something to want to fix it. And you just have to check out the motivated, hungry, English-speaking, 2400 SAT-wielding seniors at the Kaohsiung American School to understand how urgently we need to go about fixing our education system.