Weakened tigers look to change;Briefing

26th June 1998 at 01:00

Economic collapse has led many in the Far East to question their education systems, as Katherine Forrestier reports.

When the Asian economies were tigers, Western experts assumed that the education systems were turning out young people with skills and talents to fuel the region's spectacular success.

High scores in international maths and science tests reinforced the view that the West must have much to learn from the emphasis on the basics in countries such as Singapore, South Korea, Japan, Hong Kong and Taiwan. In Britain, for instance, teachers were told that "interactive whole-class teaching" was one of the main reasons for Taiwan's success.

But now that the economic miracle has turned into a mirage, academics, educationists and employers in the Far East are asking whether schools are in fact meeting the needs of their floundering modern economies.

Paul Morris, professor of curriculum studies at the University of Hong Kong and co-editor of the book Education and Development in East Asia, argues that mismatches between the needs of economies and education had been masked by the boom. "Growing unemployment among school-leavers will now turn the spotlight on education," he says.

Schools in the region he found, had some attributes that were highly prized by labour markets and employers, such as diligence and commitment, but the role of education in its economic expansion had been overstated. "The reasons for growth have a lot more to do with geography and economic circumstances," he said.

The crisis and the transition from factory to service economies are causing the goals of education to be questioned. "Singapore is asking the same question as Hong Kong: whether schools have the capacity to prepare pupils to learn over a lifetime. They want to move away from schools providing an established body of knowledge to promoting ways of thinking and problem-solving," said Professor Morris.

Teachers are only slowly adopting more pupil-centred practices, hampered by inadequate training, large classes, conservative school leadership and intense exam competition places in the best secondary schools and universities.

But economies now require more than a literate and subservient workforce. For corporate leadership, the major employers, including local and Western companies, continue to turn to those educated in the West, according to recruitment specialists.

Antonio Cheung, director of Deloitte and Touche Consulting Group, said:

"Hong Kong is falling behind in this changing world. There is a big difference between Hong Kong people who have studied abroad and the locally educated. The latter are shy and cannot express themselves clearly. Some will be very good, but in general the standard is lower."

Mary Connell, of Connell Consultants, said: "Children are not taught to think. All the multi-nationals want overseas-educated Chinese, because they have better English and more initiative."

In Singapore, National Institute of Education lecturer Soh Kay told a recent conference on creativity in schools that scientist Albert Einstein would have been scolded for his radical thinking. "The whole school ethos must change to bring about this creative-thinking process. It is a change of mindset, for the whole population," he said.

Values discouraging criticism of the status quo are also prevalent in China, Hong Kong and Taiwan. Fannie Zhang, a student in Guangzhou, China, said: "Our culture is very different from western culture. We are always taught to obey and be perfect, not to invent."

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