Straight talking but with a scholarly air, Minister of Education Tu Cheng-sheng stresses that teachers are the key to successful education reforms. (byChuang Kung-ju)
Taiwan has been pursuing educa-tion reform for the past ten years, traveling an uncertain path with confusion and chaos at every turn. In the midst of this uncertainty, with the reforms still showing no results, Academia Sinica fellow Tu Cheng-sheng has been appointed as the new minister of education. All eyes are on Tu, who for his part has stated that the engine of education reform will continue to forge ahead, and has emphasized that "teachers are the main players in the reforms."
In the run-up to Teachers' Day, Sinorama interviewed the new education minister, now three months into his term, hoping to get some words of encouragement for the teachers of Taiwan.
Q: Over the past few years the education system in Taiwan has undergone huge, rapid changes, while Taiwanese society itself has also suffered some upheavals. Teachers face a huge challenge, and with education reforms so far showing no significant results, they can feel somewhat powerless in the face of that challenge. Do you have any words of encouragement for the 200,000 teachers around Taiwan?
A: Reformation of anything can be seen by some as an attack on the systems, cultures, and habits currently in place, and those who are part of that system can often feel like they are having reforms forced upon them. This is the impression teachers got of Taiwan's education reforms right from the start. But if you look at it another way, rather than "being reformed" by some outside force, it's these very teachers who lead the way in finding ways to reform the system and themselves. The same is true in every profession; in business, for example, change is something regularly considered and implemented-if a business can improve their service, their revenues will increase. Many teachers have themselves taken steps toward implementing their own reforms, but with the majority being given the impression that the official reforms seek to reform them, it's hard not to feel a bit dejected.
Looking from a broader perspective, with the ever-increasing reach of globalization, people in all walks of life are going to have to find ways to adapt and reform themselves. Only the most self-sufficient, isolated communities would be able to do any different. When you think of it this way, personal emotions are a fairly minor matter.
Additionally, I want to ask the teachers of Taiwan to consider this: recently people have criticized the current reforms as being "chaotic," but this is just a knee-jerk emotional reaction. If we can calmly look at things and analyze the reforms, we can work out exactly what isn't working, what parts really are "chaotic," and see if there are any ways we can fix that. And if we find any problems that we weren't able to solve in the past, we can look to see if there are ways we can solve them through further study.
It's not just education reforms that need to be looked at in this way. There are many problems throughout society that could be dealt with in this manner, by rationally analyzing them and looking at the shortfalls between what we had imagined and what really has come to pass. If we can stand up and confront reality, one by one our problems can be solved.
Q: What role do teachers have to play in education reform? This question has rarely been addressed in the past, and as several academics and some former education ministers have said, the key to making these reforms succeed is to consider the attitudes and methods of teachers. What is your take on this issue?
A: Of course, education should be idealistic and full of new ideas, but if any of those ideas or ideals prove unworkable, then that method of education wouldn't be much of a success. Naturally any reforms rely on the teachers' ability to put them into practice, and as such teachers are the most important figures in our current push for reforms. I've taught in elementary schools, high schools, and universities, and I've come to really appreciate the practical side of teaching; each teacher influences their students differently, and students studying in different times are influenced differently too.
I hope that teachers will give this some thought, and try and see how the ideas behind the current reforms differ from those that went before, and whether these different ideas will help bring about a better future. If the teachers decide for themselves that these ideas have value, then naturally they'll end up putting them to use in the classroom.
I consider the essence of these reforms to be an effort to change the current concept of the teacher-student relationship. Traditionally teachers have been supreme, standing in front of the class and leading the students through the coursework. The new concept, though, is to encourage teachers to step back and let the students take center stage. The teacher would stand in the wings giving guidance and directing the students. In the past you would have the teacher taking the class through the coursework from start to finish, with the students expected to memorize the content themselves and be no more than passive receivers. Now we want to encourage students to take the initiative and seek out materials themselves, to learn independently, and then go to class and discuss what they've read, what they've learned, and have the teacher give appropriate guidance, and correct them where necessary. We also want the students to discuss what they've learned with their classmates. This way we can breathe some life into education. The teacher's main role in this model would be to guide the students along their own paths.
Q: But so far in the reforms this idea doesn't seem to have been given much emphasis, and past reforms have focused more on changing the system at a superficial level.
A: True, in the past discussions have often ended up bogged down in details, or have changed course in the face of media pressure. This is another reason I stress the need to calmly look at the issues.
Reforms that focus on the superficial while neglecting the core issues will only result in teachers not being able to bring about any real change. Now we are taking a fresh look at the problems, and really stressing the call for teachers to take a major role in the reforms.
In looking over the issues anew, we've come to understand the difficult situation teachers find themselves in. Throughout their own schooling, from elementary right through to postgraduate study, our teachers grew up in an environment that encouraged specialization and pigeonholing knowledge. Teacher training, too, followed in this same mold, and now that we've changed to requiring students to get well-rounded, consistent schooling in a range of fields, we have, of course, come under fire from those teachers. We raised these teachers in an environment of specialization, so how can we expect them to give the opposite education to this generation of students?
So to address the root of the problem, we need to look at what reforms so far have neglected: universities. Lecturers at universities, particularly those in teacher training, should urgently start to think about the problems this pigeonholing and division of knowledge can cause, and look at how to bring together those disparate fields of study. It would be unfair of universities not to make an effort in bringing about this kind of change and just foist that responsibility onto the teachers in elementary and high schools.
Japanese universities have long been working on restructuring their departments and schools of study. But at present here in Taiwan, most of the courses offered at universities and graduate research facilities are still clinging to categorizations made almost a century ago, and which have long since become inapplicable. For example, a modern education system wouldn't have separate departments for zoology and botany; rather the two would be merged under a life sciences department. The humanities are the same-they shouldn't be divided into history, geography, and so on.
Q: Once a student goes into postgraduate research, shouldn't they focus their attention on a specific specialization? And how can this kind of restructuring really get started? Would it need legislative backing?
A: The integration of the different fields of study is something that the academic world has to do for itself, through serious reflection and self-appraisal. Once integration has happened, there will be all kinds of new potential areas of study, so it's certainly not going to be any kind of hindrance to specialization.
Each field of study has central, core knowledge, and a broader area of peripherally-related knowledge. As research in each field continues, gradually that peripheral area expands, and will at some point overlap with other fields. The core, too, will shift through research, and when the core areas of two fields intersect, a new field is born.
Previously I worked toward the establishment of the History of Health and Healing research group at Academia Sinica. This is a field that has been seldom touched upon by historians in the past, but history is a societally based discipline, and it should naturally concern itself with how people live their lives. Part of that is how they take care of themselves, and prolong their lives through medicines and the treatment of diseases. Of course, this involves getting into the field of medicine as well, and as the two fields come closer together, more new areas of research will open up.
The upper levels in Taiwan's education system aren't doing enough to promote this. Without any impetus from them for this kind of interdisciplinary research, trying to get providers down the line to do just that is proving difficult.
I have been through and analyzed four sets of teaching materials for high school-level social studies, sets that are readily available on the market, and none were really what I would call ideal. Very few were even up to scratch. The editors had obviously put a lot of effort into them, but virtually every book was still guilty of pigeonholing, continuing to maintain the strict divisions into "history," "geography," "civic affairs," and so on-far from ideal.
Without any progress at the top levels of academia on this front, naturally it's hard to produce truly ideal textbooks and teaching materials, and thus it's hard for teachers to really make any advances themselves. But in saying this I am by no means saying these reforms have hit a wall, nor that there is absolutely no way forward, only that we need to continue making a concerted effort.