The Price of a Test Based Education in Asia

Doni Cordoni

Skull drinker at large
Doni Cordoni is a musician, comedian, writer and podcaster who, on his blog - "Drinking from Human Skulls", brings you the podcast of the same name and writes about topics of great import including society, technology and flatulence.

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The price of a test based education in AsiaOk guys, just a heads-up: this is a boring article about education. It’s nowhere near as funny as my article on AIDS, but that doesn’t mean it’s not important. It’s also pretty niche; it’s about education systems in Asia. Basically, if you find yourself saying “whofuckingcares” as you are reading this, then you might be better off going here instead. If not, please read on.

I’ve been teaching in Asia for a while now and during this time I’ve had hundreds of students. In Taiwan, where I live, I’ve met some really clever and well trained people but I’ve also seen some pretty astounding deficiencies. I’m not saying people aren’t bright, but here in Asia, they are generally reluctant to take charge in any kind of situation. I believe the education system is to blame. The reliance on testing as opposed to project work creates huge problems not only for individuals, but also for organizations.

I want to 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 being educated in the West to what I have observed in the Taiwanese school system and what I believe is the general situation in most of Asia. I also want 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. My wife is also Taiwanese, so even if I was being flagrantly racist, we all know that you are allowed to make transgressions when you inter-marry. So basically what I’m saying is that I’m not being racist, even though I’m clearly well within my rights to say whatever I want. Holy hell I’m a good human.

Anyway, as I said before, I’ve had a job teaching English in Taiwan for about the last five years. Specifically I teach high level managers at international companies. 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 and when given intentionally vague directions, they more often than not fail.

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.

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 the problem is much worse 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 on 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 planned that students would be getting this kind of development or not is debatable. However, the fact remains, people who graduate from this kind of system generally develop these kinds of skills.

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 well they should be, because they focus on test results almost exclusively in their education systems. They even have entire classes devoted to the improvement of “testing skills”, like memorization, which have little real world application outside of improving your ability to take exams.

Shockingly, the results of sheep herding leave a lot to be desired

Shockingly, the results of sheep herding leave a lot to be desired

Does standardized testing stand the test of time?

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 in Taiwan 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 heart surgeon, which is a wicked important job to not care about. The fact that an entire country of doctors are in it for the money as dictated by their parents is something worth talking about, but let’s save that for another day.

I think it’s safe to say that a test based education system will almost always create individuals with fewer practical skills. The logic isn’t a very big stretch: if you don’t practice skills like communication, they don’t develop. But besides this fact, a test based education also pretty much guarantees that people who perform badly on tests are going to have a bleak future. If the only measure of a person is how high they score on an exam, what place is there for people who don’t do well? They are deemed useless and relegated to perform labor jobs. Now, there’s nothing wrong with labor jobs, but with more and more focus being placed on “academic skills”, people aren’t even given a chance to develop skills that might be useful to a tradesman. In Taiwan, for example, you can’t elect to have a metalworking 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 certainly easier to manage a system of education when you can make everybody take the same test. If that system doesn’t work for you or if you don’t perform well on the tests, then you are out of luck.

This kind of environment where test scores are seen as equal to intelligence has a very damaging social effect on people who don’t score highly. As I said before, people who don’t do well on tests are usually relegated to blue collar work and the general sentiment is that people who work blue collar jobs are stupid. This resonates throughout the entire society to the point where people don’t even want to touch a hammer, for fear the taint of blue collar work might stain their academic future. The result is a very under-skilled and under-appreciated blue collar workforce producing sub-standard quality work. Society expects nothing of them and, in turn, they end up producing very little.

All tests and no projects make Jack a dull adult

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 his life out (progress update: still trying to figure my life out).

Take most of the doctors who I’ve taught presentation skills to. Whenever I teach presentation, I usually have the students do a dry run before anything is actually taught so I 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, but then the next person goes up and actually does the same thing. I’ve been told they are modeling 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. What else might be lacking if this is the standard for giving presentations?

With a teacher like this, I might be able to accept the education system in China

With a teacher like this, I might be able to accept the education system in China

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? The reason people are working 12 hours a day in Taiwan is because everybody has sorely underdeveloped time management skills simply from lack of practice.

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. 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.

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 at some point we need to ask the question, “if you are receiving over 100 emails per day, could it be that you’re doing it wrong?”

The thing that is most remarkable to me is the fact that every country still has their own individualistic approach to crafting an education system. In France they do one thing and in Turkey they do another and so on. Certainly language varies, but shouldn’t we (by “we” I mean all humanity) try learn from each other as we all move forward? I think the main reason why the education systems in Asia are so backwards is because Asian countries haven’t reached out into the world to get ideas on how to improve their systems. At a time where Asia has borrowed just about everything else from Western culture wholesale, I don’t think it’s a stretch to exchange ideas on book-learnin’. So, Asia, let’s share book-learnin’ tips, and who knows, maybe in 20 years Western kids will be good at math and it’ll be Chinese kids who are good at nothing… I’ll have to work on that pitch but… you get it.


 As always, I’d love to hear what you think. Tweet at me (@donicordoni), especially if you disagree, so that we may progress towards hugging it out. Also, if you liked what you read, help me out and share it with the buttons below: