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Teaching at university in Taiwan

The semester is over. I was teaching a class entitled Science and Technology Ethics (original title as appearing in the course list: 善與義務:科學與科技倫理) at Tunghai University in Taichung (find the lecture script here, if you are interested). In one of the last classes I handed out evaluation sheets to let the students give me a feedback that I can use to improve my teaching and my class outline. I am very happy to receive a generally very positive feedback! Students pointed out that my classes are always well prepared, that I am always kind to the students and willing to answer questions, and that my way of presenting this philosophical topic (applied ethics though) is vivid, interesting and increasing their interest in this normative academic discipline. Of course, not all students liked my teaching style or found the class appealing, but the wide range of evaluations (some found the pace too slow, others too fast; some said I offered too much reading material, others wished to have more; some would like to have more interaction in class, others felt I waste time with class discussions (more on that later)) show me that I might have found a suitable middle way. On the other side, there have been a few rather negative comments that bother me a lot! In order to get them out of my head I want to write them down here (blogging as a therapy).

Before coming to my point, I’d like to explain the differences between the German and the Taiwanese education system, which is necessary for understanding why my German teaching approach clashes with the Taiwanese university culture. Here is an overview including the linguistic expressions that we use to describe the stages of education that kids and adolescents go through:

school

In Germany, children go to Kindergarten at the age of 3 (usually). Here, they mostly play or playfully learn very basic daily life skills like tying shoes, brushing teeth, handcrafts, and socialising. At the age of 6, school starts with 4 years primary (or elementary) school. After that, a kid (or better: the parents) have two options: continuing with a 6-year secondary school (Hauptschule, Realschule) that is finished after grade 10, or a 9-year secondary school (Gymnasium). Only the latter qualifies for studying at a university. The former qualifies for an apprenticeship (accompanied by vocational school, Berufsschule) for craftsmanship, service jobs, labour, all “non-academic” jobs. We refer only to these 10 or 13 years as school where we as Schüler (schoolchildren, or ‘pupils’ in BE) learn what teachers teach us. Only at university we are Studenten (students) and study something. I am aware that in English, especially in American English, study and student are used more generally for all ages, but in the German understanding, study (studieren) sounds very much like sitting down and delving into books and scripts until one gets profound knowledge of something or can even develop creative new insights from it. At school, we never really study, we just learn what the teacher tells us, for example in the form of homework or exercise questions from a textbook. But universities are not schools! They are academic research institutions with the task to educate the future generation of academics. There are no teachers (except for the departments that educate the future generation of teachers, maybe), but professors, researchers, and senior academics. Those giving chemistry lectures, for example, are not chemistry teachers, but chemical researchers and academic experts that have never learned in any formal way how to teach. Students, therefore, are not taken care of like at school, but have to organise their student life by themselves. They are expected to be interested in what they study, to voluntarily go to the library and get the necessary books, and to have a high motivation to sit down and study.

This is VERY different in Taiwan. Kids, here, even study Kindergarten, and when they are 6 they graduate from Kindergarten with a ceremony. Then, they study elementary, junior high, and senior high school. Almost every adolescent continues, then, with undergraduate courses at a college or university. All of these institutions are considered schools. That’s why people here think that I am a teacher. This environment (and linguistic understanding of it) has clear consequences on the study culture. Even at university, students expect to be taken care of like teenagers. They appear much more immature to me than their German peers. Moreover, whereas in Germany the choice of major is already the first step into the direction of the future profession, in Taiwan students can study something which has not necessarily anything to do with their future job. Most don’t even know what kind of career they would like to pursue. The only goal is getting the Bachelor degree, because many jobs – reportedly even bus driver and hairdresser – require a college degree. Therefore, students just study for passing the exams well to get good grades.

Back to my course. Even though it was associated with the philosophy department, it was open to all students of all majors. 39 students were registered for it. One third was philosophy students, another third language majors, and the last third from other majors like international business or sciences. Around 20 students have been present in all classes, some appeared occasionally, and 8-10 almost never showed up. I had 16 classes (each 100 minutes), but 2 of them were midterm and final exam. Since my Chinese is still too poor, I taught the class in English. I admit that this is truly a challenge for the Taiwanese students, but they all knew it from the beginning, so I may assume that they all judged themselves capable of attending an English class successfully, otherwise they wouldn’t have chosen it. In terms of teaching style, I planned to have a healthy mix of lecture and interactive discussion and/or group work. Yet, in the first classes, I sensed that it would be very difficult to gain anything meaningful in an efficient way from involving the students. When I asked questions, there was just no response (unless it was really just a simple brainstorming). Even when I handed out group tasks related to the class content we just talked about, some students had no clue what to do. In the later classes, I reduced the class activities in order not to waste valuable class time. This led to negative comments on the evaluation sheets. It was boring because I just kept lecturing. I should motivate the students more to participate. Some students also wrote clearly that this is not the teacher’s fault, but the unlucky and bad tradition among Taiwanese students not to open their mouths and not to use their brains.

Taiwanese students don’t want to use their brains!”. Since I worked as a postdoctoral fellow and then as an adjunct assistant professor at a Taiwanese university, I heard this statement very often, from senior professors, but also from students. Does it mean, I should adapt my teaching style and my expectations to this fact? Should I challenge them less but reduce the level? One student wrote:

Sometimes I feel the explanations are a bit too much. It would be nice to stay simple. Nowadays, simplicity seems to be a trend. To be honest, I’ve only read a few scripts. I’m not sure if I could grasp the meaning.

This is a university class! Complex matters like the ethical evaluation of scientific and technological development and their impact on society are not simple! My presentation slides for one class almost never exceeded 10 slides, and I always put simple graphic overviews and illustrations on them because I don’t like too much text on slides that I will say anyway. From my perspective, the class content is already as simple as possible! But sure, students that sleep or play with their smartphones in class miss the point, of course, and then find it difficult to grasp the meaning. It also means, obviously, that students expect that the teacher (even though university lecturers are not teachers) will refine and present all the content in entertaining and easy-to-swallow bits and portions. They won’t read more than 2 pages of lecture script, not to speak of going to the library and looking for any of the books I recommended throughout the course.

Among the questions on the evaluation questionnaire that required a rating on a scale from 1 (very good) to 6 (very bad/insufficient), one of the worst average ratings (2.8, still not super bad) was received by the question whether the student can see the usefulness of the class content for the future job. I tried hard to explain in every class how they can apply the strategies, concepts and thought patterns in their later jobs, whatever they will be. It seems to me, many students have no imagination of their future job life. It is too far from now for them. The following comment from a student’s evaluation sheet illustrates another phenomenon widely observed in Taiwan:

Overall, this is a course people can learn something from, but the practical usage of it is not clear to me. Some of the strategies taught in class are really helpful for critical thinking!”

Well, isn’t critical thinking a very practical usage for all kinds of activities? According to my wife (a former High school English teacher) and many other Taiwanese friends that I talked to, the Taiwanese education system doesn’t encourage critical thinking, but sometimes even punishes it. Possibly rooted in the times of martial law in which the Chinese Nationalists that ruled Taiwan (Kuomintang, KMT) wanted workers but no intellectuals, practical doing is much more appreciated than thinking which is considered a purely theoretical activity. It can be perfectly possible that my class impressed some students by showing them for the first time what it means to think critically (in case I may believe some comments like this from other students’ evaluation sheets). But for many, apparently, this is nothing in which they see value, and certainly no practical value. Even though this is a university class, I obviously have to assume that the students attending it are not in any way of the intellectual type but rather looking for instructions on how to perform particular work operations or how to finish tasks. But this is impossible in an applied ethics topic!

I will, of course, try harder to make the classes appealing for all the students, get them to participate actively, and to leave every class with the motivating feeling of having learned something useful. But I won’t change my idea of university classes, expecting (and imagining) students being interested in the class content, being ready to read topic-related articles or books, asking questions and thinking through the essence of my take-home messages. I won’t go with the low-level mainstream flow that students prefer. My class should be a challenge, only then would it be a good university class! I want students to learn how to think. If they refuse to do so, they shouldn’t be at a university at all, but get a labour job! But here I enter political terrain and better leave it to other people.

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