Reposted on The News Lens International

A group of senior high school students from Yilan county held a series of presentations from 12 to 13 november during which they shared the knowledge and insight gained through an experiential learning trip in Northern Europe

Earlier this year, a group of 14 students from Yilan county led by teacher You Fanqi (由樊琦) spent three months traveling Europe as part of an experiential education project. Countries visited included Denmark, Finland and Germany; students went to local schools and factories to immerse themselves in a foreign learning and working environment, observe different teaching methods and acquire a number of practical skills, all the while interacting with local populations.

After returning to Taiwan, they spent two days conducting presentations and interactive discussions with their fellow students, wherein they shared their experiences and the knowledge gained through observation and research.

During their journey, the students joined the International Democratic Education Conference 2016 which was held in Mikkeli, Finland from 6 to 10 June. They had the opportunity to learn about sustainable energy, city design and cultural History, among other themes. They also interacted with a number of international students and teachers, exchanging ideas and theories about democratic education systems and methods.

Thrilled by the experience, the group returned eager to share new ways of thinking with their fellow Taiwanese. In an open letter to President Tsai Ying-wen (蔡英文), they speak of the importance of learning from European societies – not only when it comes to education, but systems of values in general:

“The high school students in Denmark, the expression in their eyes is resolute,” student Yang Yiqi (楊 逸 頎) writes. “They have a lot of self-confidence; they are always calm when talking to strangers. They clearly know what they are doing. In the subway, there is no place to check your ticket: everything is laid upon a foundation of trust. Even if there is high taxation, people trust the government. They believe that those who have skills must invest a lot, and in the end they will be rewarded.”

Student Liu Yuchen (林昱辰) developed a deep interest for the Finland education system, which is internationally reknowned for being unorthodox and having few exams, while simultaneously holding the top spot in international rankings: an apparent contradiction that intrigued her to no end and led her to research the issue. In her presentation, she noted that the Finland approach aims to teach future generations essential problem-solving and communication skills while fusing academia and ‘real life’. She made a comparison between Finland and Taiwan and concluded that “what must change isn’t necessarily education, but our system of values” (Yao gaibian de bu yiding shi jiaoyu, ershi women de jiazhiguan).

According to Fulbright scholar William Doyle, the key to Finland’s success lies not only with the class contents and materials, but more generally with the great freedom teachers have to innovate and experiment and perhaps more crucially, in its understanding and respect for children who are trusted to suggest ideas, self-assess with their peers and laugh or play in class instead of studying in a rigid disciplinary setting. There is little homework as it has been deemed counterproductive by research.

By contrast, while ranking high in international test scores (especially in maths and sciences), Taiwan’s education system has long been criticized for focusing on memorization and standardized exam results rather than creativity and critical thinking, while putting a tremendous amount on pressure on students who often attend cram schools (buxiban) in the evenings and weekends and have to deal with large amounts of homework. The highly competitive learning environment has also been subject to criticism. The Ministry of Education has attempted to tackle those issues in 2014 through a series of controversial reforms including the creation of ‘exam-free’ pathways, decentralization of curriculum, and improvement of vocational education programs. 2015 was declared Education Innovation Action Year, encouraging teachers and students to cultivate openness to more creative and action-focused learning approaches.

Peter & Jimmy

It is likely that students and teachers coming into contact with alternative education models that are more focused on communication, freedom and creativity, such as the progressive Finland model, will lead to positive changes in Taiwanese education. One can hope more educators will take this kind of initiative in the future.