October 27th 2007

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Articles from this issue:

EDITORIAL: Key issues that could determine the election outcome

QUEENSLAND: ALP cannot escape Heiner affair

CANBERRA OBSERVED: Is Kevin Rudd set to trounce the Coalition

SOUTH AUSTRALIA: Surprises in store in SA's federal poll

VICTORIA: Abortion - an inadequate inquiry

EQUINE INFLUENZA INQUIRY: AQIS quarantine protocol a sick joke

ECONOMIC AFFAIRS: Global financial crisis - is the end in sight?

SCHOOLS: Surviving ideological bias in the classroom

EDUCATION: What can Australian schools learn from Asia?

STRAWS IN THE WIND: Theatre of the bull-ring / More significant than the election

SPECIAL FEATURE: Australian Aborigines at the crossroads

UNITED STATES: Has the US forgotten the importance of soft power?

OPINION: Violent Jihadism - this century's nightmare


BOOKS: DEFENDING LIFE: A Moral and Legal Case Against Abortion Choice, by Francis J. Beckwith

BOOKS: LIONHEART AND LACKLAND: King Richard, King John and the Wars of Conquest, by Frank J. McLynn

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What can Australian schools learn from Asia?

by Jeffry Babb

News Weekly, October 27, 2007
Taiwan and Singapore have no resources, apart from the skill and energy of their people, writes Jeffry Babb.

Education is highly valued in Asia. In Confucian societies, such as South Korea, Taiwan and Singapore, educated people are respected. Education is seen not only as a means to getting a job, but is valued in itself as a means of inculcating morality and as a pathway to gaining knowledge and to enhance social integration.

In Asian societies, teachers have a high social status, are well paid and usually have generous retirement benefits. In Chinese, a teacher is addressed not as Mister or Miss, but as Laoshih, which can be literally translated as "Teacher".

Education is highly competitive. In both Singapore and Taiwan, the end of primary education exams determine what sort of high school a student will enter. In Singapore, for example, students will be directed into an accelerated academic stream, a normal academic stream and a vocational stream. This exam determines to a large extent a young person's chances in life.

Guarantee of success

In Taiwan, the junior high-school entrance exam allocates places strictly on the basis of merit. Gaining entry to a "star" senior high school, such as Taipei First Girls School or Chien Guo Senior High School for boys, gives both the student and the family enormous "face" and is a virtual guarantee of success in life.

In Asian countries, including Japan, the desired end-point of the educational escalator is a top university, which brings entrée into the highest levels of the social, economic and political elite.

However, educational standards at tertiary level are often not high by Western standards. When told that in Australia up to 40 per cent of university students fail, often in the first year, Asian educators are astounded and shocked at this cruel system. After all, the students have done the hard part, which is getting into university. In Taiwan, university is often regarded as a "four-year party". As long as the student goes to classes and hands in essays, it is near-on impossible to fail.

Asian education is often said to revolve around rote-learning and high-intensity cramming. In high school, most of Taiwan's young people will attend cram schools in the evening after going to school all day, and often attend more classes on the weekend.

These cram schools are an "add-on" to normal classes, and students often have a heavy homework load from their day classes. They also cost parents lots of money.

This educational system is criticised as producing unadventurous learners who rely too much on regurgitating set texts for examinations; but at the upper secondary-school level, especially in the hard sciences and maths, students are often undertaking what would be regarded as university level studies in Australia.

Streaming begins early. This system is highly competitive and places enormous strain on students and their families, especially at secondary level. Serious interest in sport is regarded as a sign of stupidity and, even though elite sportsmen can be regarded with affection, even love, they are still seen as being a bit "slow".

Australia has a big advantage over Asian countries - English, the language of science, diplomacy and commerce, is our native language. Asian countries put prodigious efforts into English teaching, with very mixed results.

English teaching in Taiwan is often done in cram schools. The standard of English teaching in schools is not high. The Taiwan Government has tried to recruit native English-speakers to teach in schools, but cannot offer a competitive salary for Westerners, as even though teachers are well paid by local standards, the salary is far below what a professional, trained teacher could earn in Australia.

Efforts by the Philippine Government to have their nationals, who will work for far lower salaries, employed in Taiwan as classroom teachers have foundered on the fact that they are regarded as being "low class".

What can Australia learn from countries such as Taiwan and Singapore? Both these island-nations have no resources, apart from the skill and energy of their people. Their education systems give them a competitive advantage.

Unlike Australia, they will never be able to rely on minerals or broad-acre agriculture to pay their way. They have to work smarter and export harder to survive in a globalised world. They will never have the luxury of the relaxed school days we enjoy.

Lessons for Australia

If one looks to where Australia could learn most, it is in primary education. Although primary school 50 years ago was not luxurious, it had the advantage of concentrating on a few key skills - the Three Rs.

Now, Australian educators speak of primary school as a time for "socialisation" rather than challenging study, which often gives parents the impression that it is little more than a form of glorified child-minding. This is not the fault of teachers, who follow the curriculum, but of educational policy-makers, who seem to regard primary school as a dumping ground for their ideologies.

- Jeffry Babb was until recently a Taipei-based journalist.

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