Wednesday, 7 April 2010

On The English Teaching Industry In Taiwan

Yesterday's letter in the Timid Times by one Mo Reddad correctly points out several flaws in the current system of education in which English is taught in Taiwan. However, Reddad is merely peering at this ugly landscape through a keyhole. Consider his point of departure:
"The recent test results of English as a foreign language (TOEFL) among Taiwanese nationals and the writing skills of high school students have recently shown significant declines."
Test scores afford only a very narrow and and perhaps even illusory view of the economic import of education, and of English language learning in particular. Although I agree with bits of what Reddad goes on to list, his critique loses value as both analysis and clarion call on account of its being so decontextualized. As to why sliding test scores are necessarily a problem - and for whom - Reddad has nothing to say; he does not, for example, consider whether there may be statistical relationships between test scores and finding employment, or to what degree such relationships may be affected by the balance of supply and demand in particular labour markets. I can quite easily imagine certain employers hiring people whose English may not be ideal simply because finding somebody quickly to do a job has more value than waiting too long and perhaps not getting anyone at all. I do not think that Reddad has overstated the importance of the flaws he draws attention to, but I do think that by framing them with a focus on test scores stripped of economic context he has led himself into misinterpreting the importance of them.

Let's consider the flaws he correctly points out. First there is this:
"The decline points to one major culprit: A lack of analytical abilities spawned by an educational system that relies heavily on memorization and mechanical learning."
This is true. It has always bewildered me how apparently smart Taiwanese students have such immense difficulty interpreting the most simple numerical charts or of forming arguments upon which to base a simple preference. Were I to observe this difficulty in another westerner, I'd immediately chalk it down as some form of mental retardation. And in a sense, this is really what it is Reddad is referring to - yet the causes are cultural and psychological, not physical. What is special about western thought is the connexion between rational criticism and political freedom, yet criticism of one's elders or superiors is thoroughly alien to Chinese culture; university students seldom interrupt me in class to ask questions; legislators frequently resort to physical violence in the assembly chamber; young adults continue to allow their parents to dictate important life decisions to them. Now it is not quite true to say that that special element of rational criticism is itself alien to Chinese culture, rather, it is merely handicapped in its source and direction - it is the preserve of those holding power and it is considered natural for political superiors to offer their criticism downward to their inferiors, but the reverse is almost unimaginable.

Reddad goes on:
"Vocabulary out of context does not create knowledge; vocabulary in utterances that bear no homogeneity, coherence and cohesion will not create knowledge..."
This is true; I always make a big song and dance to parents about the potential value to children of forming good reading habits by introducing them to children's versions of the classic novels ("The Three Muskateers", "Treasure Island" etc). Walk into the children's English section of just about any popular bookshop in Taiwan and you will soon see that the number of textbooks far outweighs the number of children's novels.

Reddad moves from analysis to prescription:
"A need for a significant change in how language is taught is warranted. However, the hurdles that could hamper this change are too many to overcome: Adopting a novel approach to the teaching of English would necessitate an overhaul of the whole educational system...The change would be met with resistance from teachers who find convenience in lecturing and spoon feeding. It would be met with resistance from those who advocate the preservation of traditional cultural values through the teaching of English in the mother tongue. It would also be met with resistance from prospective employers who could see a future empowered work force as a threat to the smoothness in employer-employee dynamics, and ultimately to productivity. "
Certainly it is true that the scope of the difficulties encompasses (indeed goes far beyond) the whole education system, but it is hubris to believe, as Reddad appears to, that the system can be changed for the better by government fiat from on high. In fact, the involvement of the state is itself perhaps the largest constituent of the problem for a number of reasons. Firstly, state involvement in education begins with compulsion - forcing parents to send their kids to school, riding roughshod over the parents' natural right to be left alone and their natural inclination to decide for themselves how best to educate their children. Secondly, whilst state involvement in education may be justified by politicians and their apologists on the collectivist premise of ensuring the nation's economic competitiveness, what is not trumpeted so loudly is that such state involvement is effectively an expensive power feedback mechanism; the politicians look after the teachers, and the teachers look after the politicians at the ballot-box. The educational interests of the children themselves are unfortunately not the raison d'etre of state schools, despite popular delusions to the contrary.

However, Reddad himself points to the difficulties in launching "an overhaul of the whole educational system" so much so that I am surprised it does not occur to him that the system is supposed to be like that. The notion of changing it by merely announcing a list of little truths to the right people in government is, to be charitable, naive. As to a way forward, privatized education in Taiwan already exists although it is not without its' own problems, the major one being that it exists in complement to the state system rather than as an alternative. Home schooling could perhaps be another extension of the private education market were the element of state compulsion removed.

The importance of the flaws Reddad draws attention to is not that they are examples of how the education system is failing, but that they are examples of how the education system is succeeding at what it is designed to do: reproduce the anti-individualist values by which it is supported.

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