Experimental Education and the Preservation of Taiwan’s Indigenous Culture

Experimental Education and the Preservation of Taiwan’s Indigenous Culture

Experimental Education and the Preservation of Taiwan’s Indigenous Culture

On February 22, the Foundation for the Research and Development of Indigenous Languages was launched in Taiwan. The purpose of this new foundation is reportedly for “the research and development of teaching methods for indigenous languages, collection of indigenous corpora, compilation of indigenous language dictionaries, and the establishment of indigenous language databases.” This initiative follows the current Taiwanese government’s efforts to restore indigenous rights, heritage, and identity. While the new Foundation represents a much-needed step in the right direction, there is still more to be done to augment Taiwan’s education system to better reflect the diverse cultural and ethnic identities on the island.

In 2016, Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) apologized to the indigenous people of Taiwan for the “four centuries of pain and mistreatment [they] have endured,” referring to the military subjugations and policies under different external powers. Aboriginal tribes, people of indigenous Austronesian descent, hunted and farmed the island for thousands of years before the Dutch, the Chinese, and the Japanese. Their cultures have shaped Taiwan’s national identity, while the Taiwan government’s efforts at national reconciliation have become important in bolstering Taiwan’s domestic legitimacy in the face of external threats.

The Presidential Office established the Indigenous Historical and Transitional Justice Commission (總統府原住民族歷史正義與轉型正義委員會). With the five committees of culture, languages, reconciliation, history, and land claims, its aim is to restore indigenous rights, heritage, and identity. Though the founding of the Commission is an important step forward in bringing equity to the indigenous peoples, it did not, however, reform the existing education system, which has failed to create a setting for aboriginal students that fully encompasses their diverse ethnic backgrounds. [1]

Yet, the current education system does not facilitate a comprehensive environment for indigenous language learning, let alone indigenous culture preservation. An alternative to the mainstream curriculum is experimental education. Article 3 of the Enforcement Act for School-based Experimental Education (學校型態實驗教育實施條例) defines school-based experimental education as “specific education concepts within a school” that are “student-based and respectful of students’ diverse cultures, beliefs, and multiple intelligences; guiding students’ adaptive learning; and promoting diverse education development.” Experimental education has great potential in promoting and preserving the cultures of indigenous peoples, perhaps even to a greater degree than initiatives put into place so far by Taiwan’s government.

The current thinning of indigenous cultures in Taiwan, perhaps unintended through education, is problematic and renders their preservation to be highly important. Preserving indigenous cultures is not only a matter concerning human rights, but also a way to distinguish Taiwan from the People’s Republic of China (PRC). Currently, there are 16 distinct indigenous peoples or tribes that are officially recognized by the Taiwanese government. These 16 groups represent 559,036 people, roughly 2.37 percent of the national population, and have helped shape Taiwan’s identity politics. [2]

Historical Context

Throughout Taiwan’s history, the indigenous populations had limited rights and were subject to government pressure to assimilate them into Chinese-speaking society. Indigenous languages were previously unrecognized, whereas government policy emphasized teaching, learning, and speaking Mandarin Chinese and English.

In the educational system, the indigenous people of Taiwan have been neglected. Challenges such as inadequate educational resources from residing in more remote geographical locations, lack of full-time teachers, inadequate facilities, and insufficient funding have resulted in the deprivation of learning opportunities for students. [3] Course contents have mostly been based on mainstream culture and tend to marginalize indigenous perspectives and experiences. The inconsistencies between educational content and social environments create disadvantages for indigenous students. The government’s education curriculum is contextually less relevant for them as compared to their non-indigenous peers. [4] This lack of synergy between the students’ home lives/backgrounds and education results in low levels of academic achievement and motivation.

The Education Act for Indigenous Peoples was passed 21 years ago, but large disparities in education levels between indigenous children and their non-indigenous classmates still exist. In 2001, the Ministry of Education revised the Grade 1-9 Curriculum Guidelines to add local languages as a required subject. [3] Either the local governments or the schools themselves were required to choose either Southern Min, Hakka, or one of the indigenous languages for a forty-minute period of weekly language learning. While indigenous language learning may have risen, the Ministry of Education also implemented a reform to increase English language competencies. Currently, the Ministry of Education is proposing the revision of elementary school curriculums to increase the number of English classes to three per week. There is an increased number of classes solely taught in English in elementary and middle schools. The government’s preference to teach English over indigenous languages is contributing to the erosion of traditional cultures.

Experimental Education

Experimental education is not a new concept to Taiwan. In fact, the first school to follow an alternative education system was founded in 1990. The creation of an experimental education system specifically for indigenous peoples, however, did not occur until October 2016, when the K-12 Education Administration of the Ministry of Education brought together education practitioners, civic groups, experts in education for indigenous peoples, and policymakers to discuss indigenous students’ education affairs. In August 2017, the Indigenous Curriculum Development Cooperative Center (原住民族教育及文化研究中心) was officially established. The center is responsible for helping indigenous schools develop curriculums and teaching materials and provide help with teacher training in accordance with the Education Act of Indigenous Peoples. In June 2019, Articles 20 and 21 of the Education Act of Indigenous Peoples were amended to officially include experimental education.

Experimental education schemes targeted at indigenous students refer to the “immers[ion] in a learning environment that encourages the preservation of tribal-cultural features and of the local ethnic languages.” In other words, experimental education allows the school and the local education authority to experiment with non-standard curriculum, including those emphasizing indigenous cultures, such as traditional art making, hunting, and food gathering techniques. As of 2018, 16 fully experimental education schools have been dedicated to the indigenous peoples. Meanwhile, several other schools have established experimental education classes tailored for indigenous students.

Student Responses

The path to preserving and promoting indigenous cultures through experimental education is promising. Laiyi Senior High School (屏東縣立來義高級中學) in Pingtung County has indigenous educational classes such as indigenous sciences (原民科學) and other classes that have integrated indigenous aspects, though the school itself is not a fully experimental school. In a 2017 interview with Liberty Times, three students explained how their experimental arts classes have helped them connect to their cultures; their goals are to get higher education degrees and return to their tribe to teach. One student, Zhi-lin Liu (劉之林), said that although tribal stories, weaving, and other tribal cultures are not skills and knowledge found in textbooks, they are important assets for Taiwan. These experimental classes have inspired her to connect with and promote her culture. In a 2017 interview with China Times, student Hao-yuan Sun (孫浩元) mentioned that these non-traditional teaching methods have helped him “retrieve his native roots” and that partaking in traditional events and practices in a school setting has made him even more appreciative of the resources around him.

At Taiwan’s first experimental education indigenous school, Pu’ma Elementary School in Taichung, students are fully immersed in the Atayal tribal culture, with the Atayal language as the main language of instruction. Student Iwan Bay (陳雨思) said learning about harvesting and preparing traditional foods is “fun and joyous” while student Tahus Wilang (劉格) said learning in nature and outdoors is “exciting.” Non-traditional classes in the afternoon have increased students’ concentration and enthusiasm for learning in the mornings. Many representatives from primary schools have visited to understand how they could implement a similar system to improve students’ motivation in schools.

Successes and the Future

Despite being a new scheme, indigenous experimental education is showing promising results. Already, children have better abilities to express themselves in their indigenous languages than the previous young generations had. The extent to which experimental education can affect culture preservation is unknown, but the way in which local identities and practices are put at the core of curriculum building and learning paves the way for indigenous cultures to become familiar for more and more students.

Taiwanese identity is the outgrowth of the various indigenous cultures of its people in the island. While Taiwan’s indigenous peoples make up only a small portion of the total population, bolstering the indigenous cultures and the people’s understanding of them will help people understand that Taiwan is not just a Chinese-speaking society. In its quest to maintain itself as a distinct entity and distinguish itself from the PRC, experimental education is key in not only preserving the indigenous cultures of Taiwan, but also promoting an inclusive national identity of Taiwan.

The main point: While the Tsai administration has worked to preserve indigenous cultures, the education system still lacks a cohesive learning environment for aboriginal students. Experimental education allows local authorities to build their own curriculums and assists in the promotion of Taiwan’s indigenous cultures, which is important for Taiwan’s efforts to build a cohesive society with strong democratic institutions and strengthen its domestic legitimacy in face of external challenges.

[1] Wu, Sue-Jen. “No Aboriginal Students Left Behind in Taiwan.” Towson University, Institute of Education Sciences, 2005, p. 10.

[2] This number, however, does not take into account the ten indigenous groups of the Pingpu (“low plains”) who are still awaiting official recognition, which, according to International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs (IWGIA), accounts for 400,000 more people.

[3] Chen, Cheng-Kan. “Multi-Language Education for Indigenous Children in Taiwan.” University of Northern Colorado, Dissertations, 2011, p. 3-9.

[4] Nesterova, Yulia. “Teaching Indigenous Children in Taiwan: Tensions, Complexities and Opportunities.” Global Studies of Childhood, vol. 9, no. 2, 2019, pp. 156–166. SAGE, doi:10.1177/2043610619846349.