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Taiwan's Lee Yuan Tseh (Int'l Edition)

Asian Cover -- Policymakers

TAIWAN'S LEE YUAN-TSEH (int'l edition)

Lee Yuan-tseh, president of Taiwan's Academia Sinica think tank and the island's top education reformer, wants students to study less so they will learn more. It's a novel notion for Taiwan's rigid, high-intensity school system. But if anyone has the clout to change minds about education, it's Lee. As the first native Taiwanese to win a Nobel prize, Lee is esteemed in a society that reveres academics. His ideas are like a welcome breeze wafting through the stuffy hallways of Taiwan's school system.

The problem with Taiwan's education, says Lee, is that the rigorous examination system encourages students to be test-taking machines, not problem solvers. There's no room for late bloomers or slow learners. The problems are similar in Japan and South Korea.

Lee worries that Taiwan--famous for its bright engineers who have built a thriving and globally competitive electronics industry--will miss the next step up the technology ladder if it doesn't train more creative thinkers and invest more in research. "Taiwan was under a repressive regime for a long time," says Lee, 61, who spent 32 years at Berkeley. "We were not brought up to express ourselves well."

Currently, Lee is working to attract top overseas academics like himself back to Tai- wan--36 so far. "They have a lot of experience. Those are the ones we need here, both for research and education," he says. If his successes continue, Taiwan will reap the benefit as more youth come into contact with the best minds Taiwan can muster.Return to top



Lee Yuan-tseh, the first native Taiwanese to win a Nobel Prize, returned to Taiwan in 1995 at President Lee Teng-hui's urging to become president of the island's top think-tank, Academia Sinica. He spent 32 years studying and teaching at the University of California, Berkeley, where he went in 1963 to earn his PhD in chemistry. Once back, Lee headed a 31-member task force on education reform, which issued a report in late 1996 after conducting an 18-month review of Taiwan's educational system.Q: What's wrong with Taiwan's educational system?

A: In a sense, young students are not happy with the way things are. They're under enormous pressure from parents and teachers to do well. These days, everyone wants to go to college, but only 18% are accepted. Because of stiff competition, the whole system is distorted.

Taiwan tries to teach more than any country in the world, both in the number of courses and in workload. One consequence of expecting them to learn so much is that only a small portion succeed. Students should enjoy learning. It's more important to get interested in learning rather than learn to do many things. Our system forces students to be test-taking technicians, not problem-solvers.

If Edison or Einstein were in Taiwan, they wouldn't be able to compete with the kids here. All the deep thinkers would be eliminated from the school system in Taiwan. We use one standard to measure everybody. Q: What types of changes should Taiwan make?

A: Our system must be responsible for bringing up every student, and not just pay attention to the 20% who are elite students. We should reduce students' course loads so students won't hate school. We are trying to change course requirements, reduce class sizes, add more colleges, and make the system more flexible, so even the ones who fail can continue learning. We should also eliminate competition, and we should not use time as a factor in tests -- it's not realistic. We want to reduce class sizes to 30 students per class by 2002.

If you carry out curriculum reform, students will do things they like to do. Some like arts, some like science or math, some like to use their hands. Everyone's ability depends on their interest and inclination. Now, we have an abundant course program, but 80% are missing it. Some worry, will students learn to little? I say no. We will still have talented ones who like to learn more. They will not be limited by what teachers are telling them. Q: What progress has been made since the report came out?

A: We are in the beginning stage now. We issued the education reform report one-and-a-half years ago. The government is setting aside about US $880 million a year over five years to implement reforms. The Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Education were on the commission. They seem to know what they are doing and support the reform program. So curriculum reform has been going on.Q: What was education like when you were younger?

A: When I was in third and fourth grades, Allies bombed Taiwan, so my family took me up to mountains near Hsinchu where we lived, and I missed two years of school. When I was in the mountains, I learned about life, nature, birds. It was a great time for me, a real learning experience. Later, in the sixth and seventh grades, I was a very good baseball player. They told me to come to school with a glove and bat, not books. We traveled around Taiwan and won baseball tournaments. The next year I played pingpong, and we also won tournaments. School would be over at 3 pm in those days, I was in brass band, chorus, baseball.

I learned competition, but I was interested in science and math and kept reading. I don't believe in spoonfeeding so much stuff into the brain. Q: What kinds of skills needed in Taiwan?

A: People in Taiwan need to learn English better. It's so important in computers and in the global economy. I recommend English at the elementary school level. Young kids can learn languages very easily.

We also need better people skills. Taiwan was under a repressive regime for a long time. We were not brought up to express ourselves well, to argue, to convince others, listen to what others have to say. To have a democratic society, you have to behave like a democratic society. Even in Academia Sinica, they say, "President Lee, we have a problem." They want me to solve it. They don't come to me and say, "I think if we do this or that, we can solve it." they want me to solve it. They haven't learned to think as a team. It's too passive in a sense. In the next century, we will have to be independent thinkers and be able to analyze information, not just memorize it. Q: Should Taiwan focus on developing more researchers or liberal arts students?

A: We want mass education rather than education of the elite. We need to produce all sorts of people to satisfy our social needs. We should educate everybody well. We just have to give them enough freedom, enough time to help them develop themselves. School allowed me enough space, enough time, so I read what I wanted, developed myself. Things change. Nowadays, students are manipulated by parents and teachers to take exams.

They will not be happy if they don't know what they want to do and help society while making themselves happy. We need to allow them space to grow.Q: How does it feel to come back to Taiwan after 32 years in the U.S.? How are you getting used to the different quality of life?

A: When I went, I thought I'd get my PhD and come back. But before I knew it, I'd spent 32 years in the U.S., and I was 57. Quality of life? For scientists, it's the ability to discuss science, have other scientists around and a lively debate environment, mixture of ideas. I certainly do miss many wonderful things there, but I don't regret coming back. You try to do the best you can. The Academia Sinica presidency requires that you cannot have dual citizenship. After 32 years in states, this is a big change for me.

But Taiwan really needs my help. At the University of California, I am just one of many scientists, but here, there are so many young people. They need guidance from older people who have been exposed to different things. They need me more than Berkeley does.

Also, Taiwan is so small. When you push, you can see things move. I can see how much I can help. I had to uproot my lab in California and start it up all over again. I want to show my students here, if you're dedicated, one can do good science. In the last four years, I have shown we can do world-class science in Taiwan. Q: You also are trying to lure other senior Taiwanese scientists back to Taiwan from overseas. Have you been successful?

A: Altogether, we've brought back more than 36 scientists to Taiwan so far. They are fading out in their careers in the U.S., but they have a lot of experience. Those are the ones we need here, both for research and education.Q: You also would like to get the Academia Sinica to play a greater role in advising the government on policy matters.

A: I hope scholars will play some role in advising the government on policy. We're not powerful enough yet. I hope the number of senior academics living in Taiwan will increase. It's not really pro-active, but if the president asks the Academy to do something, then Academia Sinica can play a role like that. Q: Are your education reform suggestions relevant for the rest of Asia?

A: In Japan and Korea, yes, they are relevant. Japan is trying to do similar things. In the Philippines, things are very different. So this is more relevant to Japan and Korea, or mainland China. Those are test-oriented educational systems. They depend on scores to evaluate students.

In Japan, they are facing lots of problems. Young people face problems in discipline. Now they are paying lots of attention to how one should build healthier students in their mentality and attitude. I often say that young poeple have to have institutions to keep them going, schools to keep them going, otherwise, if we do not pay enough attentoin, some end up in jail and society pays even more for jail and prison.

I was astonished to learn that the state of California spends as much on its prisons as it does on its universities. The cost curve crossed a few years ago. But when they are asked whether they'd like to have more universities or more prisons, citizens still say they'd rather have more prisons. Return to top

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