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September 6,1999

Learning to Think

Asians are trying to prepare kids for the Information Age. Can creativity be taught? BY DORINDA ELLIOTT

Every year as the rice seedlings first shoot up in Taiwan's glistening paddies, students make their final preparations for the university-entrance exams, and the horror stories begin. Sometimes, a body is found floating in the dirty urban river under a concrete underpass. Or anxious parents in a gritty Taipei suburban apartment find a suicide note on the living-room table saying, "I can't face the exams": they run into the kitchen to find their son has gassed himself. Other times parents can't be sure exactly why tragedy strikes: on May 6, Li Ying-chia, a junior at Minglun Senior High School in Taipei, jumped to her death from a tall building. She had been a confident, spirited student, and she left no suicide note. Though nobody knows for sure why she took her life, school authority said Li had gotten bad grades on her practice exam. The suicides have almost become part of Taiwan's rites of spring.

The deadly ritual betrays the crisis plaguing school systems around the region. What happened? Asians have always been proud of how well they educate their children. Thanks to the prodding of their determined parents, Asians score highest in science and math in worldwide comparisons. But from Tokyo to Taipei and Singapore, governments are realizing their children are so overstressed and overtested that they are ill equipped for the Information Age, where thinking and creativity hold a premium. Reform-minded educator share a similar complaint: ask a Korean student to write a creative essay or a Japanese student to pose a challenging question or a Hong Kong student to even ask a question and, more often than not, they will be unable to stray from the script. Two years ago Kishore Mahbubani, a senior official in Singapore (currently ambassador to the United States), posed a challenging question at a conference: "Can Asians think?" It was a remarkable moment of self-doubt. For years, Singapore's leaders had been crowing about the advantages of Asian values, the idea that order in schools and government alike works better in Asia than Western-style freedom. But across Asia, that approach has produced efficient, obedient workers who let their bosses do the thinking for them. Governments merrily invested in production lines and gleaming skyscrapers, and even school buildings but skimped on developing modern teaching methods and training teachers. The result: Asia's schools have been so neglected that in many countries, kids attend for half-day sessions in classrooms so crowded they are ready to bust. Asian students are too busy memorizing deadening answers to learn to think. In too many Asian classrooms, thinking actually gets in the way.

Many Asian governments have concluded that the main culprit is tests. In Taiwan democracy has stirred public debate about the old-fashioned authoritarian schools, and by 2002, the government plans to abandon the stifling university examination system that has sent students into fits of despair. For decades, the entrance exam has been the sole factor in determining Taiwan teenagers' fate: students would prepare for as long as two years for the test by studying at evening cram schools. If they failed the test, no amount of good behavior in the classroom or hard work through the year could make amends. James Kwan, 19, was ashamed of himself when he failed the entrance exam last year. He stopped playing basketball so he could study full time for the retest, which he just passed. "It was really tough going," he says. In the future, university entry will be determined by a combination of tests, including one similar to American SATs (Standard Achievement Tests) - which assess student's ability to analyze information - aptitude tests in specific fields and teachers' letters of recommendation.

Those reforms are stirring up a whole new set of concerns. Some Taiwanese parents worry that without a single standard test the system will be less fair. Some progressive schools are setting up committees of parents and teachers to oversee letters of recommendation and guarantee that connections aren't used. "Of course we are concerned with problems of privilege and discrimination," says Lai Hsiu-chi, secretary of the Taipei City Parents Association. "But working-class people are respecting their rights more and more in Taiwan. They have more of a voice and I believe they will use it."

South Korea has also decided to abandon its rigid university exam in 2002. But old systems, steeped in the traditions of feudalism, die hard. Despite the introduction of democracy in Korea, hierarchies still reign, and a university degree is the only ticket to a promising career. Korean parents still routinely try to bribe teachers with chonji, white envelopes filled with money. The teachers union, a pro-reform institution that has championed democracy in the schools, was recently legalized for the first time. Its leaders have campaigned against bribery, and the practice is fading. But without a standard test, parents worry that in the future, richer families or those with connections will have a better chance of getting their kids into university. "If not proper implemented, the new college exam entrance system could revive school corruption," says Im Youn-kee, a researcher at the Korea Educational Development Institute.

Educational reforms on paper don't translate into reality overnight. In South Korea classrooms, despite a series of plans to make teaching more lively, the authoritarian approach still rules. A middle-class teacher was taken to the police briefly last year after his students called authorities when he beat his classmate. A provincial education official recently handed out new guidelines: don't use sticks longer than 60 centimeters , use physical punishment only when other students can't see and hit people only on the "safe parts". Many Korean students go to cram schools or get private tutoring - and survive on as little as four hours of sleep.

In some countries, the computer seems like a shortcut to modern education. Malaysia launched an ambitious campaign, called the Smart Schools program, to introduce computers and the internet into all its schools. "Getting the hardware part is easy," says one Malaysian lawyer. "The difficult part is the software, getting people to think." He complains that recent law graduates have no idea how to think globally - a task increasingly important in law firms, which these days must help clients with strategic and financial planning; the young hires can perform specific tasks, but can't think beyond their brief.

Malaysia realizes the need to move away from dogmatic teaching and allow students new freedom to learn things at their own pace. Says K.J. John, a businessman who is helping map out education reforms: "In the future students can start with dessert and no one will say 'No, no, no.' The old paradigm is out. But conservative parents worry that new freedoms and technology will expose their children to dangers like pornography on the Internet. "In every society, when there is a revolution - and this is a revolution - people will fear change," Education Minister Najib Razak told NEWSWEEK. "But we have very little choice. We must have an educational system that will produce creative workers - otherwise we will lose out."

Hong Kong is still struggling to come up wit a plan to improve its inadequate schools. Often children under 12 get only a half day's education because of the classroom and teacher shortage. The government is investing in computers and plans to abolish the pass-fail university entrance exam. But the schools have been caught up in Hong Kong's struggle with its new postcolonial identity as a Chinese city. In a patriotic wave, officials led by Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa declared that Hong Kong's schools need more Chinese language and culture. Until last year the schools had been teaching a half-baked hybrid of English and Chinese. Tung decided to revert to Chinese-language teaching. Many teachers argue that Hong Kong should hire more English teachers instead, to help Hong Kong keep up with competitors like Singapore.

It's easy to blame Confucius for the torpor in Asia's schools. Back in the fourth century B.C., the Chinese philosopher once said, "I transmit, but I don't create." In his view, the purpose of education was not to innovate, but to refine ideas that were developed in an earlier Golden Age. The natural order of the universe was based on hierarchy: sons respected their father, students deferred to their teacher and the people obeyed the benevolent, authoritarian emperor. Rituals dominated life, and rote memorization - and the ability to pass official exams - were all it took to succeed.

Asia's elite, of course, always knew it takes a lot more than memorization to make it in the modern world. That's why they sent their own children to school in the West. Throughout the 1980s and much of the 1990s, the Asian boom was such a great party that nobody ever thought about the need to prepare for tomorrow. Japanese students may have suffered most from such shortsightedness. In the wake of Asia's collapse, they are so disillusioned by sinking expectations, rote learning and pressure to pass tests that truancy rates and violence are soaring.

Educational reforms won't solve the problems like that without social change, from the sclerotic bureaucracies of Japan to the hierarchies of Korea's chaebol. As Asia's economies recover, governments will have to make hard choices. They can proceed without overhauling their social institutions, and continue churning out manufactured goods - for a while. But if Asians focus on the software of modernization, starting with the schools, they will rediscover what they always knew: of course Asians can think. And in Taiwan, for one, spring will bring nothing more dramatic than a new rice crop.

With B.J. LEE in Seoul, BARBARA KOH in Hong Kong, JANE RICKARDS in Taipei and HIDEKO TAKAYAMA in Tokyo


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"When teachers are cheaters
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Qualification: Canada
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