Comparative international education studies consistently put Taiwan at the top of the maths and science performance tables along with the other economic and educational powerhouses of the Pacific Rim, South Korea and Japan. But exactly what is it that makes Taiwanese schools so successful?
The following extracts from the yet-to-be-published report by the International School Effectiveness Research Project team help to shed some light on this issue. Their study, which is due to be published later this year, monitored the progress that children in nine countries made in maths over a two-year period and examined some of the school organisation and teaching factors that may have affected their performance.
Predictably, the study found that Taiwanese nine-year-olds were 18 months ahead of their UK peers in terms of maths attainment (the other countries that took part were Australia, Canada, Hong Kong, the Irish Republic, the Netherlands, Norway and the United States). The researchers have, however, cautioned that the schools surveyed - between 5 and 12 in each country - were not a representative sample as a disproportionate number of highly effective and ineffective schools were selected. The Taiwanese study was conducted by Lee Yung-yin and Pan Hui-ling of the National Taiwan Normal University and Eugene Schaffer of the University of North Carolina.
Taiwan's educational system, while based on traditional Chinese teachings, has followed its own unique path.
Prior to the 1890s, Taiwan had minimal educational services because the Chinese authorities regarded it as an agrarian backwater. Education was predominantly a private affair with few schools available to children outside of the elite families.
The Japanese, who controlled Taiwan between 1895 and the Second World War, created schools for their own children, but also to educate Taiwanese in the Japanese language and culture, and to maintain the bureaucracy that ran the island.
Universal primary education was not established until the 1960s - pupils then had to compete for secondary school places - and it is only in the past 20 years or so that all children have received a more advanced education (pupils take either vocational or academic pathways after the age of 14).
In the 1970s teachers and administrators who had been trained in the United States began to assume leadership of the education service. The advances of the past few years represent the substantial change to the schools and the post-secondary educational system made by this younger generation and the greater investment in education that the rapidly advancing economy has permitted.
Children in Taiwan start school at the age of six. They spend six years in elementary education and three years in junior high school. Although attendance at kindergarten is not obligatory, a high percentage of pre-schoolers, especially in big cities and towns, have one to three years of pre-school experience.
It is claimed that the biggest elementary school in the world is just outside Taipei city. It has more than 8,600 pupils and 182 classes [47 pupils per class]. But there are still some small elementary schools in the mountains with less than a dozen pupils. Most city schools, however, have between 1,000 and 3,000 pupils.
Children attend school six days a week, with fourth, fifth, and sixth-graders (9 to 11-year-olds) attending for two half-days and four full-days. Third-graders attend three half-day and three full-day classes, while first and second-graders attend one full-day and five half-day classes.
All schools operate on a two-term system with approximately two months of summer holiday and a 20-day winter break. The customary school year is 219 days.
Most schools require pupils to arrive before 7:40 am and participate in a study session with the master teacher until 8am. During the assembly, which takes place in the playground between 8am and 8.15am, children sing the national anthem, raise the national flag and listen to short speeches by the principal and teachers. This is followed by a 20-minute lesson on ethical or health education.
Standard 40-minute classes begin at 8:40 am and last until 3:30 pm. Ten-minute breaks are interspersed throughout the day and both the pupils and teachers are encouraged to have a half-hour sleep at their desks at the end of the lunchbreak.
Towards the end of the day, pupils spend 20 minutes cleaning the classroom and school then receive 30 minutes of homework assistance. Finally, a 10-minute school gathering is held before the school is dismissed. This very full school day ends at 4:30 pm.
Each class has a master teacher who is in charge of teaching almost all the subjects for the first and second-graders. From the third grade up, other than Chinese and maths, more and more subjects are taught by subject specialists. Pupils' performances are evaluated through two formative and one paper-and-pencil test at the end of each term. Most teachers test more frequently to determine their pupils' progress. Some large schools have special classes for slower learners, as well as classes for the gifted or pupils with special talents in fields such as sport or folk dance.
Teachers are drawn from the top 10 per cent of the ability range and although they enjoy prestige most complain about their heavy workload, big classes (the teacher-pupil ratio was 1:26 in 1992), fast-paced curriculum, and some extraneous duties such as urine sample collection that is not a feature of classroom life in the West.
Classes are taught through whole-group directed instruction with a series of short lectures and pupils participating at the board and in their seats. Content knowledge, skills, and the development of thinking appear to be the purpose of classroom activities while co-operation, physical activity, and life skills are taught through tasks assigned to pupils or assemblies or group work.
While some teachers are beginning to use more one-to-one interaction and grouping, there are some "constants" in Taiwanese classrooms that set them apart: the intensity of instruction, the extent of interaction between pupils and teachers, and the quality and quantity of feedback to the pupils as well as the language used between teachers and pupils.
The intensity of instruction is a combination of fast pace and close focus. The entire time in the classroom is spent on instruction with almost all students involved in listening or doing an activity.
There are several possible reasons why the learning should be so focused. First, the school, community, and pupils regard learning is essential. The regular 10-minute breaks also help to maintain the high concentration levels.
Many opportunities are available for pupils to respond to teachers' questions or instruction - in groups, at the board, or seated at their desk. Little time is spent off task or waiting for the teacher to start the next activity.
Feedback is direct, immediate and decisive. In an elementary classroom, if you speak, you stand. If you are wrong; you sit down. Teachers tend to cajole, comment, and direct students at every turn. In Taiwan, children receive constant feedback about almost all of their behaviour and actions regardless of the setting. This intense monitoring occurs at home with parents, and in the community with neighbours. At school this feedback may take the form of criticism from the teacher, classroom applause for correct responses, or the use of choral response to verify the class understanding.
Finally, the language used by teachers as feedback often supports learning. It was common for the teachers we observed to challenge by saying: "Let's see if you can remember this" or extending their students' thinking by saying, "What do you think we mean by this?", or "Explain - what do you think about this?" Teachers often praise children's intelligence or lightly chide a pupil by saying something like "You don't need to talk, just place it in your heart. "
We noticed some variance among teachers in the use of groups or the interactions or levels of criticism, but the pace, involvement and feedback seemed similar.
The elementary curriculum is set by the government and includes Chinese, maths, social science, natural science, arthandicraft, music, and physical education. The government provides school textbooks but supplementary materials are developed by educational consultants or teachers. Overseas teaching materials - particularly from the United States - are often used, but in an adapted form. The materials are prepared on a termly basis and much of it is designed to be expendable so that pupils can write on it.
There is a set of objectives for each grade and subject that all students are expected to master. Teachers make great efforts to ensure that they do, even though the standards are demanding, particularly in maths.
Parents are considered important in the schooling process and often seen as supportive of teachers, but they do not take on volunteer roles in schools in the way that parents do in the UK or the US.
In the classes we observed, no parents volunteered to be classroom assistants and teacher-parent contacts were usually initiated by the school. Teachers are considered the experts in education and, until the current generation, were much better educated than the general population.
Usually parents are formally invited to the school twice a year, for a PTA meeting and the school sports day. Parents nevertheless clearly care about the schools their children attend and are aware of the informal rankings of schools. They generally keep in contact with schools through the "home correspondence book", written by the teacher every day, phone calls, or the parent committee. Every school in Taiwan has a parent committee whose main function is money-raising. However, the function of these committees is changing and parents are now demanding more involvement in school decisions.
School goals could be stated by every principal and teacher we met. There is a clarity about the purpose of education that pervades the school and school system.
A typical comment was: "Life education is emphasised in the school. The six goals are to love country, to emphasise ethics, to enrich life skills, to promote morality, to have physical health and to foster co-operation."
What happens in Taiwan
* teachers have more status and find it easier to command pupils' respect; * traditional values conducive to educational success are transmitted through the community, religion, the extended family networks and even the media; * schools are of a similar standard; * children receive one-and-a-half-hours' homework from primary-school age; * there is intensive monitoring of both teaching and learning; * well-managed lessons reduce time-wasting; * 40-minute lessons followed by 10-minute breaks counteract restlessness; * a general belief that all pupils can succeed.