The Price of Test Based Education in Asia

June 28 2013, 4 Comments

One thing that you probably take for granted everyday is your ability to think and arrive at conclusions. You probably don’t even appreciate how you got this ability. I can assure you that without a doubt the ability to think is not inborn, but rather something trained and improved over time. I’ve come to know that in most of Asia, people generally don’t have this ability because of their almost exclusively test based education system.

Before you play the racism card, I want to make it crystal clear I’m talking about the results of using a certain kind of education system, not the performance of any specific ethnic group. My logic is as simple as “if you use a test based education system, this is the result you can expect to see.” To be fair, there are loads of other factors that affect human performance outcomes (poverty, language, war, etc.) but I’m not going to get into those here. Consider this a case study based on my own personal first hand experience as a Teacher in Asia. To make it crystal clear, I have several Asian friends who grew up in Canada and they had parallels to people who grew up in China or Japan for example.

I should also make it clear that these issues are definitely not exclusive to Asia alone. Standardized testing exists in almost all countries and is used as a convenient method of academic evaluation. What I am doing in this article is comparing my experience and what I believe is the general experience in the Canadian and perhaps American school system with what I have observed in the Taiwanese school system and what I believe is the general situation in most of Asia. I also want to you to know I’m not saying that people from Asia aren’t capable of amazing things because there are countless examples of great achievement. I really just don’t want the preface police to come after me on this one because I think the issue of education is such an important one.

Over the past 4 years, I’ve had a job teaching English to high level managers at international companies in Taiwan. The job is to teach English, but what I usually end up teaching my students is how to think. Lest you misunderstand me, I’m not speaking ‘at them’ and saying things like “think dummy!”. I’m giving them projects that force them to develop the skills they are lacking. Sounds pretty straightforward, but most of my students have extremely limited project experience. When given intentionally vague directions, they more often than not fail, and my role changes from teacher to counselor.

Before I move forward, I should qualify by saying “the ability to think” has no connection to “intellectual ability”. I am talking about learned skills. Again, this is not a quasi racist “me smart, you dumb” kind of thing. What I want to present is how the education systems generally used in Asian countries produce high test scores but do not produce well rounded, dynamic individuals.

Ken Robinson is an Education Reformist who believes test based education is wasteful

Why all those poster projects you did in the 5th grade matter

I myself grew up in Canada in an upper middle class suburb of Vancouver. So everything was pretty well funded and the education I received was alright. Don’t get me wrong, there certainly are huge problems with the education systems used in Western countries, but it’s a totally different dynamic in Asia.

My education breakdown was slanted heavily towards project work. We still did tests, but they weren’t the epitome of what we were doing in the classroom. We had to do several team research projects, group presentations, group experiments and we had to critique each other. This started in elementary school and carried over into high school and university. By the end of university, I suppose I had done hundreds of projects on a variety of different topics.

You don’t think about it at the time, but when you are doing a poster project with your friends about the wonders of the Peregrine Falcon, you are actually building a lot of skills. Time management, communication, writing, research, decision making, and presentation skills are just a few I can think of off the top of my head. Whether the Canadian school system, or any school system for that matter, planned that students would be getting this kind of development or not is debatable. The fact remains, people who graduate from this kind of system generally develop these kinds of skills.

All tests and no projects make Jack a dull adult

Now imagine you have a system that is totally flipped. Instead of doing group projects everyday, you are doing individual exams that prepare you in no way for the challenges of life. This is exactly the kind of system being used in many areas of Asia. You might have seen concerned reports on CNN or Fox news that Chinese students are pulling higher test results than Americans; and as they should, because they focus on test results almost exclusively in their education systems. They even have entire classes devoted to developing “testing skills” like memorization which have little real world application outside of improving your ability to take exams.

A test based education doesn't build skills

A test based education doesn’t build skills

In Asia, everything in your life is tied to test scores. For example, in Taiwan, you literally have no chance of being a doctor if your test scores are not in the top 5% and you aren’t allowed to enter into university in any other way or based on any other indicator of academic ability. Here’s a twisted side-note: almost every doctor I’ve spoken to didn’t really want to be a doctor; they just did their due diligence as required by their parents, got a top 5% test result and were ushered into medical school. To quote one of my students, “Actually, I’d way rather just be a stay at home mom.” She’s a surgeon. The fact that an entire country of doctor’s are in it for the money as dictated by their parents is something worth talking about, but let’s save that for later.

In a test based education system, besides not building the skills of young people, you are also saying to people who perform badly on tests that they aren’t good enough. In other words, young people aren’t even being developed and if they don’t perform, they are deemed useless; can you see how that could be a vicious cycle? In Taiwan, you can’t elect to have a computer programming course or a woodworking course or anything beyond the easily testable. If you wanted to learn carpentry, you can’t, because it doesn’t fit into the test-based algorithm. It’s easier when you can make everybody take the same test and then skim the “best” scores off the top and filter down the list.

The results of a system of education dominated by exams and tests are in my face all the time as a teacher in Taiwan. I want to highlight the fact that I am teaching the sales directors, the presidents, the surgeons; in other words, not the riff-raff. I’m teaching people of proven academic background and they are still disastrously sub-par by my standards. And I’m just some punk who faked his way into getting a better than average teaching job while trying to figure out his life.

Take the doctors who I have taught presentation skills to. When we teach presentation, we usually have the students do a dry run before anything is actually taught so we can evaluate them before and after. Around 75% of all the doctors I have personally taught will stand with their back to the audience when they give their initial presentations. Can you even begin to fathom this? Let’s take it a step further. I will always stop the presenter and tell them not to stand with their back to the audience, of course, but then the next person goes up and actually does the same thing. I’ve been told they are modelling after their professors. So that means the top university professors of medicine in Taiwan are giving presentations with their backs to the audience? Cancel your medical tourism plans. I’m not joking.

This example is meant to show the mind-blowing magnitude of having no interaction in the classroom. There is so little interaction that medicine professors, who should stand at the forefront of society as valuable and revered people, are doing the most basic of things literally backwards. Do we even need to spend time deducing what else might be lacking if this is the standard? Communication is perhaps the most important skill any person could have and test focused educations produce very few of these skills indeed.

Ken Robinson is one of my favorite education reform advocates

Another indicator I find to be shockingly weak is time management. My students typically work 12 hour days. They would have you believe that they are just “hard-workers” and some of them even hold the belief that Westerners don’t know what hard work is. So the richest country in the world, America, doesn’t know how to work hard? What a ridiculous assertion. The reason people are working 12 hours a day in Taiwan is because everybody has sorely underdeveloped time management skills because they never had a chance to practice them during their schooling.

Can you imagine joining a meeting or teleconference and saying literally nothing the whole time? Contributing nothing to the meeting conversation at all? This is normal in Taiwan. I need to teach my students that it’s a waste of time to join meetings that you aren’t contributing to. Just read the meeting minutes. Commonsense is lost on them because they haven’t been in enough situations where they failed and learned. Think about that. Commonsense hasn’t developed because it’s uncommon to practice anything other than memorization when they are getting educated. Now, in this case you might be wondering why management doesn’t scrutinize their employees when they say nothing in a meeting, but actually, most managers are guilty of this behavior too. They only speak when prompted directly, usually by their customers or partners in other countries.

Here’s another example of a time management issue: have you ever been CC’d on an email you have nothing to do with? How about being CC’d along with a hundred other people? When I was in school, I was taught to look for weaknesses and correct them. If you CC me on an email that I think has nothing to do with me, I’m going to pick up the phone, get to the bottom of it, and if I really shouldn’t have been CC’d I will tell you to not CC me on those kinds of emails again. Am I a hard-ass? Kind of. But I’ll tell you what I’m not: the sales director of a global pharmaceutical company’s Taiwan division who can’t seem to figure out his schedule and is getting paid way more than I ever will in my entire life. Yes, I am disgruntled.

Despite the dire description I’ve laid out here, there are changes slowly being made to the system in Taiwan as more and more people realize what I noticed almost right away. Schools are shifting to more project work but there is a shocking amount of resistance from every group imaginable including parents, teachers, government and even the students themselves. At the very least, I believe this case-study should serve as a clear example of what not to do as we strive to improve education systems worldwide.

Doni is a musician, comedian and writer who is trying super hard to figure out why things aren’t great for a lot of people. On his blog, “Drinking from Human Skulls”, he writes about what’s wrong, what’s right, and what could be. His goal is to help others take the first step towards understanding the current world situation in hopes that people much smarter than him can begin to fix it.

'4 Responses to “The Price of Test Based Education in Asia”'
  1. Doni says:

    Hello all! I’d love to hear what you think, chime in and I’ll respond!

  2. Erik John Palm says:

    Hey Doni,
    I love this article and definitely agree with what you are saying. I am an avid supporter (and attendee) of technical schools. They provide hands on training for careers in demand. What I think is a weakness here in America is that certifications are taken over talents. I think that every trade now requires certifications for things that you only need to know a little bit about! For example, schools are offering entire courses in Microsoft Office. Microsoft Office is a great program, but learning every single detail of it is pointless, because a few years from now, they will make a new Office Suite and you will need re-certification. If I were teaching the course, I would show practical uses for the core features of the program, and let the students learn what companies require. I agree that certain features everyone should know, but teachers should focus on practical subjects rather than trivial ones. If I applied for a job, say as a computer programmer; and I knew everything necessary because I had previously worked for my father’s programming company, my foot wouldn’t be allowed in the door. But if I was a certified idiot who knew everything from books, I would be hired. It makes no sense that even a liberal arts degree is favored over on the job experience. The kids in Asia would be rich if Alex Trebec went there and let them all on Jeopardy, but for now, like you said, they don’t even know basic time management. I think that we need to begin to move away from degrees and more toward peoples merits. In a technologically impersonal world, people take short cuts. The man who hires a certified laborer blindly, is the same man who uses online dating exclusively in his love life. People in this world should be tested in terms of both knowledge and behavior, and although I am unsure of how to solve this, it would be great to hear ideas.
    Thanks for reading,
    (sorry if it is a bit long, I am just venting. I enter the workforce soon and live in Florida which has 12% unemployment and I will probably have to move to find work)

    • Doni says:

      Thanks for your thoughts! I too am unsure how to solve this issue but I can say that there are more issues than just the education systems we employe. There’s a lot of business/money interests at work here. Really all the stuff you are talking about is totally right not to mention the fact that these universities are self preserving entities. I mean do people really need to have an 8 year education? Does that really give you an advantage? After my first year of university I thought it was enough for me to get to work. I am definitely going to write another article explaining the monetary reasons why our education systems suck. It’s not as simple as “if we just use tests, people will be dumb”. Even a system using standardized tests is probably doing that just to save on costs… anyways, look for my article on that coming soonish… thanks man

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