Academic, Culture, Language

Anyone who has lived in East Asia knows about bushiban. That’s the Mandarin word used in Taiwan for these cram schools” which have their counterparts in Japan and Korea. Many an unqualified Western traveller has managed to have quite a good life because of the seemingly unlimited demand for white faces to teach English after school to bored and overworked children. I say white faces” because, even though some African- and Asian-American friends were able to get jobs, these bushiban usually discriminate against non whites. I know that some blonde women from the Chezk Republic with strong accents, and one Scottsman I could barely understand, were able to get jobs teaching English, while standard English speaking third-generation Chinese-American’s had difficulty.

I had a discussion about these schools with my friend Scott Sommers. Scott is a long time English teacher who is long out of the bushiban system and has been teaching at Ming Chuan University for the last year. He maintains a weblog which is a great resource for those thinking of teaching English in East Asia. Scott is also a historian, who presented a paper on the history of English teaching in Republican China at a conference panel we were both on, and he has a lot of insight into the origin of the Bushiban system.

Scott has taken part of a discussion we had and posted it on his weblog. He asks why the bushiban system is so unique to East Asia:

The problem of explaining busiban is not only a Taiwan problem. Non-policy schools have prospered all over industrialized North-east East Asia, but nowhere else. How many bushibans have you seen in The Philippines? InEurope? It is simple enough to say schools like this are unnecessary in these places but that’s my point. From a chronological point of view, the widespread use of (Native Speaker English Teachers) NSETs was pioneered in Japan and has spread from there to other places in the world. It is not merely a question of affluence, since NSETs have never been widely used in Europe or in the Philippines and Commonwealth states. In fact, nations where they are widely used are marked by international reputations of having poor standards of English. In fact, their widespread use can be taken as an indicator that public education has been ineffective.

Here, as well as in this earlier post Scott emphasizes the ineffectiveness of public education as the main cause:

My point is that from a parent and student’s point of view, even the math instruction that students receive from their publicly certified teachers is so poor that it has to be supplemented with rigorous extracurricular study. This explanation corresponds with those given to me by the parents of highly motivated students, as well as my English student’s descriptions of their early education. English instruction is much more serious because it is clear that no matter how high one’s score on the JCEE is, it has no correspondence to actual ability to communicate in English.

I disagree with this. I think East Asia has an excellent education system, and I don’t think all the brilliant people who come out of it depend entirely on the bushiban system for their excellent education. I especially don’t think that they receive poor math and science education — no matter what Scott heard. The teacher training in these subjects is far more rigorous than in the US. But more to the point, I don’t really see the bushiban as doing much in the way of real education. I see them, as their english name suggest, as cram schools” whose primary purpose is not educating students in basic skills, but prepping them for highly competitive exams. Before the recent educational reforms in Taiwan, there were highly competitive exams that were required to advance between every single level in the education system — from middle school to high school and from high school to college were especially competitive. Failure to get into a top school often meant a vocational college or simply abandoning school in favor of work. Accordingly, parents would do anything they could to help their children do well on these exams. In this sense, these schools are not an isolated phenomenon, as Scott suggests, but more akin to Kaplan or Princeton Review in the US. The difference is that the tests these US schools prepare one for are far less important than the general exams in Taiwan. Of course, that is all changing now, which is very much part of what my dissertation is about — so I won’t go into it here!!! (I don’t want to mix my blogging with my day-job!)

Still, I believe Scott is correct on two important points. The first is the Japanese origins of the system. But here again, it was Scott himself who first pointed out to me the Japanese origins of the JCEE (the college exams in Taiwan — Joint College Entrance Examinations), which seems to be the most reasonable argument for the similarity between Taiwan, Japan, and Korea. The second point on which I agree is the uniqueness of English education in this system. Here Scott is right on:

The difference between math education and language education is that math education has never been defined as a threat to the continued existence of the Chinese state. Language education has a long history of being defined this way. Dating back prior to the unification of China, there was ferocious debate about the place of English-medium instruction in the ROC. When Ching Hwa University on the mainland began holding Chinese-medium entrance examinations, instead of the traditional English-medium exams, this was a major educational landmark in the history of the ROC. The KMT-operated Chung Shan University on the Mainland was one of the first universities to veer away from English-medium entrance examinations. In addition, Mother Tongue policy established throughout the 1950’s did not distinguish between non-Mother Tongue languages, so that laws established to effect Min Na Hwa (Taiwanese) also controlled English (and French, etc.).

But here again, I think he understates the importance of the JCEE. The JCEE did not test competence, but only the grammar and translation material that was in the textbooks. What this meant is that even when bushiban hired native speakers to teach English, the curriculum was geared towards the exams and not towards teaching actual competence. Many of the native speakers are hired only to stand in the room and play games with the students once a week, while the real test preparation is done by low-paid Taiwanese teachers (usually women) who do the dirty work” of English teaching in Taiwan. The white faces” are just there to justify the high costs of schooling to the parents, and to attract them away from other bushiban in what is a very competitive marketplace.

The elimination of the JCEE, and other changes to Taiwan’s educational marketplace will hopefully have some impact. What is happening now, however, is that students who can afford to are starting even younger in the bushiban. By the time they start learning English in school, there is a huge gap between the bushiban educated students and the ones who have had no previous English education. On the other hand, it is also arguable that this early bushiban education is more focused on competence than on any examinations, so perhaps it will force the educational system to eventually take competence seriously. On the growing divisions in Taiwanese education see this op-ed in the Taipei Times. (Also from Scott’s weblog.)

UPDATE: I should add that I know many dedicated and hard working English teachers who work at Taiwanese bushiban. I didn’t mean to imply that they are all unqualified, just that it was possible to have a good life in Taiwan without any qualifications — which is also true.