Foreign students in Asia: From teacher to student

by on Monday, 08 March 2010 9131 hits Comments
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Please introduce yourself and what you are doing currently. What is your educational background?
My name is John Perry*. I am a Canadian who has been working as an English teacher and editor in Taiwan for more than 7 years. I received a Bachelor of Arts degree in Canada studying marketing and psychology.

How do you regard the quality of your courses and universities?
I was quite pleased with the quality of the education that I received in Canada, however it was quite a long time ago, when I was very young, so I believe I had a different outlook then. Finishing school and getting good grades were more the priorities when I was doing my undergrad rather than getting the best education I could get. All in all, I thought the professors generally did a good job, it was challenging and I certainly got something out of it after graduating.

I have mixed feelings with the experience as a MBA student in Taiwan. With regards to the professors, I feel that most did a good job at trying to educate us. The lectures were generally well prepared and the professors showed that they cared about their students’ performance. However, I question the way in which they held students accountable for their performance. I recall when I started my program that it was required for first year students to maintain an 80% average or otherwise students could be taken out of the program; for second year students, 70% was a passing grade. I was a bit nervous at first thinking that attaining an 80% would be challenging while holding a full time job. After the first year though it became clear that grades were given out arbitrarily and that passing was almost a given provided that I did most of the work and showed up for class. I took my studies seriously and received very high grades. Most of my grades were above 90%, some even over 95%. After a while this came to be expected on my part. This was never the case when I studied in Canada where getting over an 85% required a lot of work and was never taken as a given. I found that there were a lot of open book tests or adjusted grades in my Masters program, something that I never experienced in the past. There were even cases where it was obvious students plagiarised and they were never penalised for this.

Your class is 1/5th foreigners. How do Taiwanese students differ from foreigner students? Are there areas where they could learn from the foreigners? Do you think the Taiwanese system provides a good academic setting for foreign students?
A major difference between Taiwanese students and foreign students (western) I found, was that Taiwanese students were not willing to participate in class, even if the professor specifically expressed that participating was part of the grade. Participating here means voluntarily sharing ideas, asking questions or debating with the professors or other students. I think part of this is due to the fact that the program that I studied was in English and some students were reluctant to speak out, fearing that their English was not good enough but I also feel that the teaching method in Taiwan is didactic; where the teacher tells students what is what and students do not question it, or it is seen as disrespectful to do so. In fact, in some courses that I studied even though participation was part of the grade on the syllabus, professors seemed frustrated with the way that western students would speak out, but this is the way that we learn. It is accepted, and expected in our culture to learn this way. There also seems to be a lot more comradery among Taiwanese classmates than the foreign students. Foreign students seemed to have no problems debating with each other out in the open when they disagreed with comments made. I never saw this happen with the Taiwanese students. Taiwanese students seemed more willing to help each other out with assignments, be it individual or group, and develop a social network more easily simply because they were classmates.

I do feel that Taiwanese students would benefit more from more open participation or dialogue in class. Lectures at times seemed very passive. Many students were busy using their notebook computers rather than listening or interacting with the professor. But again, I believe that this kind of ‘listening’ has been encouraged from earlier education. There is so much emphasis on getting high scores on exams and students find ways to do that, and if listening in class does not contribute to attaining a high score then students probably won’t do it.

I think that there are pros and cons about the Taiwanese system and some things about it I found beneficial as a foreign national. Primarily, I felt that getting the opportunity to work in a multicultural environment was a definite advantage. Even though Canada is a country with people of different ethnicities, it sort of is a melting pot. Working in a classroom setting in groups with people from different nationalities provided me with the opportunity to get a real understanding of what working in a global environment would be like. It was challenging and even frustrating at times, but I definitely think that it was a positive experience that foreigners could definitely benefit from.

hub_kilian_fujen_uni_03_2010From your experiences and knowledge, how do you evaluate the Taiwanese education system? Do you think there are any areas for improvement and how do you think they could be improved on?
I have had quite a bit of experience with the Taiwan education system both as a teacher as well as a student. The education system in Taiwan certainly is different from what I experienced in Canada. I think it is well documented that in Taiwan generally there is an emphasis on rote memory learning. As a teacher of primary and secondary school age children I have found that in comparison to Canada, Taiwanese get an overwhelming amount of homework, spend more time in class both in compulsory schools and private cram schools and there is an overemphasis on testing. There also seems to be more pressure on students to achieve higher grades. One of the first surprises I encountered as a teacher was that students were expected to get grades higher than 90 or 95% and anything less was unacceptable to parents. This is far different from what I experienced in Canada where getting an 80-85% was considered a reasonable score. That being said, the testing in Taiwan seems to be designed so students can easily achieve high grades if they memorize bits and pieces of information (there is much more reliance on multiple choice-questions where the answer is provided and does not require the student to reflect on what they have learned and express themselves). When I started teaching English I would often ask open-ended questions giving the students a chance to use what they have learned and explain themselves. This did not go over well. A lot of the times the students thought I was being unfair, complaining that I did not teach them the answer or often asked me how many sentences they need to write to answer the question and when I gave them a minimum number, that is exactly what I got. When I gave scores of 80 – 90% and complimented them for good performance, students, school administrators and parents were less than pleased. This I believe is a disadvantage and results in students either lacking the confidence or ability to express themselves or make any attempt at deviating from what the teacher or texts have taught. Some call this “thinking outside the box.”

I do admire Taiwanese students’ dedication to their studies and the seriousness with which they do study. I am amazed at how some students, as young as 4 or 5 are able to speak sometimes more than 2 languages and the knowledge they have at that age. What is also amazing is that they enjoy learning. I have seen this with the young kindergarten and grade school age children but this enthusiasm seems to change once they get into secondary school. In my opinion I really don’t see the need for so many cram schools (math, science, English etc.) but it seems that it is the norm here. As an English teacher I was quick to realize that ‘cram’ schools are exactly what they are. The curricula at most schools involve numerous books and teachers are told to pile on homework, even though students often don’t have the time to finish or do it correctly. Accountability again is an issue here because how often does a student get held back for not performing up to standard and completing the expected work? There are problems but at the end of the day students usually learn English and progress as they continue which I guess is the goal. It just seems strange with all the bells and whistles that go with it that make it look like more than what it is.

Do you think the Taiwanese education system does enough to produce well rounded members of society; tools for a strong democracy; the creativity, hard work and enterprise to progress civil society and develop the country in an equal, fair manner?
As mentioned already, I feel that the education system should emphasize more open expression rather than right or wrong. This would encourage students to be more willing to deviate from the norm and contribute to more creative thinking. I am not saying that the western style of educating is the right way. I admire Taiwanese students’ work ethic and diligence, but I think an education system that was not so fixated on quantifying and measuring (test scores) would promote more willingness to come up with individual ideas. With my experience working in Taiwan in both schools and in an office environment, although limited, I found that organisations are very centralised and managers are not as willing, compared to western organisations, to delegate responsibility. Employees work long and hard hours, much like students, but do as they are told and deviating is not an option even if going off the path would be beneficial. Taiwan certainly has prospered and companies are doing well, especially in the IT industry but I feel that if company policies encouraged their staff to contribute more and gave them more discretion, the situation could be even better and the work environment would be better for many. This of course is coming from western eyes, and how I would prefer things to be. In the end, I think that the education system should do more to encourage individual creativity starting at a young age.

*John Perry is not the interviewee's real name

(Photos provided courtesy of Hubert Kilian, taken at Fu Jen University, Taipei county, 2010)

Last modified on Wednesday, 31 March 2010 18:02
Nick Coulson (聶克)

I was born in sunny Torbay on the south western coast of England's green and pleasant lands. I'm prowling the streets, parks and ruins of Taiwan hunting for absurdities and studying the sociology of the underground. Furthermore with our nomadic arts and action space "The Hole" we attempt to challenge rigid and alienating structures.


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