Hit the books!


In my last post I wrote a bit about letting children excel by supporting their interests. Today’s post is written by my most excellent friend, guest writer, Elliott Ulrich.  Elliott has been living on the lush island of Taiwan for 40% of his life at this point.

It’s challenging to live immersed in a culture as unusual as Taiwan’s. I remember it well from my short 3 years there. Being a father of 2 teen / tween girls who were born and raised there, Elliott faces unique struggles. My hat goes off to him for (along with many other things) being such a rock-solid dad, most dedicated to his clever, creative, and kind daughters. I was thrilled when Elliott agreed to write a post for Thaifoodstory, sharing his well-informed view on education on Taiwan. Enjoy this insight into the immovable culture around education in Taiwan.

Taiwan Class pic

Middle and High School in Taiwan    by Elliott Ulrich

As a parent, whenever I go out with friends in Taiwan, the main topic of conversation is education. Children’s grades, teachers, and schools are debated, discussed and detailed ad nauseam. Education is significantly different in Taiwan than in Canada. When I am in Canada, I rarely hear my friends talk about their children’s education in the same way. Maybe that is because of the situational aspect of my visits, weddings, vacations, etc. Maybe people talk about their children’s education all the time.

I am an expatriate father and teacher who has lived in Taiwan for 20 years. I have taught from kindergarten to graduate school and now have two daughters working their way through the Taiwan education system. This post is a day in the life of a public and private middle school or high school student. Western parents should have their children read it when they complain about tests and homework.

Taiwan Study

The Taiwan School Day

Taiwan and Korea are tied for the longest school day in the world. The official school day is 8 or 9 hours depending on if you are in a public or private school. The school day ‘starts,’ at 8:00 but it essentially starts at 7:30 with a short wake up quiz to review the material drilled the previous day. After the quiz, the morning includes three fifty-minute periods with ten-minute breaks. These breaks are a godsend for the 40-50 students per class. They can stretch, go to the bathroom, and ask the teacher questions.

Lunchtime is from 11:50 to 12:05. The school orders lunch to the class and the students clean their dishes and utensils after eating. From 12:05-12:20 the students clean the classroom and certain common areas assigned to each class. There are no janitors; the students’ clean everything with the energy and results that you’d expect from 13 to 17 year-olds. After cleaning the student’s nap from 12:25-12:55. This is also a time for collective corporal punishment, that is outlawed by law but not spirit. Collective corporal punishment typically entails push-ups, sit-ups, and burpees supervised by the school’s military teachers. Yes, they wear military uniforms.

The afternoon schedule ends at 4:30 in public school and 5:30 in private school. After school, the majority of students go to Cram school. Cram schools are schools that offer extra tuition classes in any number of subjects like math, English, or Chinese. These classes usually are 90 minutes, and many students take two a night. Students in grades 9 and 12 prepare for extensive tests and regularly attend cram school five nights a week and high school students will also attend classes on Saturdays and often Sundays. Other parents hire private tutors at a high expense that do the same thing in a shorter time. I estimate that 95% of my students have had private tutors or attended cram school.

The School Year

Each semester is 22 weeks long. There are no professional days or field trips. Public school students get three weeks off at Chinese New Year, where they do their Chinese New Year homework. Private School students go to Winter Camp for two weeks, which is two more weeks of class. After the Winter Semester, all students get four weeks off for summer vacation, where they write their summer homework. Then they go to Summer School for three weeks before getting a week off before the next school year starts.

My Daughter

My older daughter is in 8th grade and has a lesser workload primarily because her English ability is far superior to her classmates. Because she attends private school, she gets more English instruction and is taught by native speakers. These classes are very easy for my daughter for many reasons I don’t have time to get into. Having a teacher as a parent brings lots of advantages, especially in terms of English in Taiwan. She has had private tutors for Chinese literature and math class. She will probably need tutoring in physics and chemistry. She could also use extra tutoring in history, civics, Chinese composition, and Confucian rhetoric but I’m holding out against Saturday classes. She would need to attend these classes to be at the top of her class and in the top ten percent for her grade, which is more important to her than me.

The goal of this madness is to ace the National Subject Ability Exam. This University entrance exam is the most critical exam a person will write. It includes Mandarin Chinese, English, Math, natural science, and social science. This exam doesn’t sound that bad until you realize that natural science consists of physics, chemistry, biology, and geoscience, while social science consists of history, geography, and civics. These courses are the reason high school students go to school six days a week from the middle of grade 8 and later grade 11. This exam largely determines the university you can attend unless you went to an expensive private school where the schools can game the system a bit. That’s another story.

This school life is normal in Taiwan and will never change. The education system is ingrained in the culture in a way that is hard to describe. In closing, I want to leave you with something my older child wrote about being a student in Taiwan. I can’t imagine a child in Canada putting up a post-it note on her wall about the ideal student in their class or school.

Note to Billy

The picture is of Billy, a cartoon octopus my daughter writes to.


Thank you, Elliott!
I read this and I wonder if my daughter is missing out on important learning here in Canada? She is certainly not learning how to commit and sacrifice to this degree. Most of her work is done within the school day between 9:12 – 15:53. A 50 minute lunch allows students to go off-campus, if they choose, and there are many days off, rarely with homework over the 3 longer school breaks.

It was long ago that I taught in Taiwan but I recall the kids being happy, even if tired. Then again, my students were mostly in kindergarten, so I would be interested to know if they are still happy in middle and high school. Perhaps happiness is relative to one’s surroundings so there would be no difference between their happiness and ours. It’s the culture in which they live and it is all they know. They may even be happier for spending less time on Internet distractions which have evidence of causing depression and addiction.

Do Taiwanese kids still have time to self-reflect, play, or socialize? I have also read that too much pier oriented time can turn adolescents into trouble.  I don’t remember many trouble makers in Taiwan. I’d be interested in hearing from Elliott about whether there are those rebellious youngsters and also about his daughters’ happiness in general.

Regardless of where one lives, we are all stuck in the educational system and culture of that place. Taiwan’s sounds like all-school and no play but I can’t help but wonder if there are benefits like (my daughter would say this is predictable of me⇒) keeping them off technology, keeping them focused and out of trouble, and being closer to their families.

Comments and opinions are welcome, encouraged, and even begged for! Parents, educators, friends please comment about your child’s education, your experience, or how hard kids should have to work in school.  

2 Replies to “Hit the books!”

  1. Well, this is an eye opener-most interesting and fascinating article from both of you. Should be read by students as well as teachers. Is it any wonder that those kids excel in so many ways.


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