Thursday, April 10, 2014

Review - Learn to Reform

April 10, 2014

Learn to Reform – Taiwan, 2014

Question: If five apples are to be shared by two people, how many apples does each person get? If you answered two and a half, your answer would have been marked incorrect on a test in Taiwan twenty years ago. The correct answer, according to the test at least, is that one student would get three, while the other student got two. Does it make sense? Not entirely, and one could legitimately argue that if one person was less hungry, he might only take one apple and give the other person four, but that would be to overthink the problem. If a student wanted credit for the question, only one answer was acceptable. On a more recent test, students were shown a picture of a plump white grinning animated animal with four legs, two ears, and two horns, and asked what the first letter of the animal was. The correct answer was o for ox. However, the resemblance between the animal in the drawing and the cow on cartons of popular milk products is uncanny, and many students answered the question “incorrectly.” This is understandable, for other than in cigarette ads, when would students have had the chance to actually see a white ox?

This little tidbit of odd trivia is included in Chao-Wei Chang’s fascinating, yet frustrating documentary Learn to Reform, which was released on DVD last week. The documentary looks at the effects of the educational reform that has been taking place in Taiwan since 1993. It is a reform that one scholar believes has destroyed an entire generation and another maintains was necessary despite the reform’s uneven results. The film begins with a history lesson on both the education system that existed before the lifting of martial law in 1987 and the demonstrations and proposals that were made following that event. During this part of the film, we are introduced to Ru-hui Yang, a young girl in Grade 10, whose days include going to regular school and cram school, as well as not getting home until 10:00 PM at night. Mind you, this is taking place after twenty years of reform, and therefore it doesn’t paint a very good picture. The remainder of the film is divided into seven lessons, each one on a particular aspect of education or Taiwanese culture.

The arguments of those against the reform revolve around notions of the incompatibility of Western-style education with Asian cultures, which it is said emphasize hierarchical structures and traditionalism. The arguments of those in favor of the reform revolve around commendable ideas of reducing students’ pressure, making higher education universal, and leveling the playing field so that students from less prestigious universities can complete with students from the top ones. The film also gives us a glimpse of just what hasn’t changed about the Taiwanese education system – its heavy emphasis of tests, the importance of getting into a top-tier university, and the existence of “academies” instead of departments – and we get a look at what has changed – in particular, the number and popularity of cram schools, new restrictions on teacher conduct, and the attitudes of students and parents toward teachers and school. All of this is interesting and informative, and a scene in which Yang explains her preference for cram school over regular school was particularly eye-opening.

The film presents both sides of the argument well, although it is not always immediately clear which side someone is on, and viewers get a clear idea of the challenges that remain for Taiwan’s youth. What the film does not do well, partly as a result of its minimal running time, is explore issues in great detail. One person mentions how constructional math, imported from the United States, had a devastating impact on students’ math skills, but the film does not make any attempt to explain or debunk this idea. The film also includes both a parent and a teacher lamenting that teachers can no longer discipline students the way they used to be able to, but the film makes only a minimal effort to explain the psychological effects that such treatment can have or has had on students. In addition, several commentators make rather negative comments about the Taiwanese government, calling it inconsistent and haphazard, and they single out the government’s recent passing of the 12-Year Compulsory Education act as an example of its erratic behavior. However, this assertion is neither backed up, not countered by officials. One would think a documentary about education would want to explore this further or at least interview people who support the act. Also, the film includes a number of proclamations about the negative impact of the increasing popularity of civil servant jobs, asserting that, when more people are drawn to these “safe” positions, society is less creative. The film asks: Can an uncreative public sector be a productive one? It is a good question, yet it, like many other questions raised in the film, remains unanswered and unexplored.

It is only in the film’s sixth lesson that it seems to make a recommendation for improving education, yet if what has been said before about Taiwanese employers and the school’s exam system are true, what it advocates – a system in which choices are provided for people, not made for them – may be unrealistic. And the successes heralded in the film’s final lesson are only at the high school level. We are not told whether students who went through Ci-xin Waldorf High School in Yilan have achieved academic success in university or what effect the “build-operation-transfer” program has had on students’ lives outside of school. A follow-up film would be greatly appreciated.

In the end, what we have is a look at an education system in flux. We hear the reasons that one side believes it is important to change, as well as the beliefs of those who say the reforms have damaged Taiwan irreparably. It seems logical then that the film concludes with two opposing views: the first that Taiwan’s education system needs to promote diversified values and the second that it should be local, connected to Asia, and not “have the whole world in view.” It remains to be seen just how - or if - these two views will ultimately be reconciled.

I would be remiss if I did not mention the poor subtitles on the DVD. Simply put, in a country with as many native English speakers as Taiwan has, the subtitles are nothing short of an embarrassment. Common words are frequently misspelled, entire passages about history have not been put in the past tense, and whoever did the translating felt it was perfectly acceptable for a sentence to have two verbs. However, as annoying as this can be, it somehow seems quite appropriate. See, one section of the film is about the changes that have taken place in students regarding homework. Now, an interviewee claims, students who don’t do their homework or who do it poorly do not feel any sense of disgrace. The subtitles included on the DVD unfortunately bear this out, which is a shame. The subject matter is fascinating, and it deserves much better. (on DVD in Taiwan)

3 stars (with better subtitles, it would probably have been 3 and a half)

*Learn to Reform is in Chinese and Taiwanese with English subtitles.

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