Exploring education differences: Life inside a Taiwanese school

children jumping
Students at Mary Wu’s school in Taiwan hit the books hard in class, but also make time for a little silliness.
Photo By: Submitted
The way we learn is by taking a lot of tests rather than participating in group discussions. Test sheets come with our textbook, stacks of them, one sheet for each chapter. So all you do is take notes. Over and over again. In Taiwan, we would die without taking notes.

There’s an old Chinese saying taught to schoolchildren about how they should always show respect for three kinds of people: Parents, teachers and the Emperor.

As a teacher, you can’t be in much better company than royalty. And it shows at our schools.

It’s the biggest difference I’ve noticed since I came to Minneapolis as an exchange student from Taiwan. Though I’ve only been here since September, it makes me very sad to see teachers treated with such little respect.

In America, teachers are incredibly patient with students. I believe this causes teenagers to be disrespectful. There is not enough punishment, so teachers are powerless to correct a student’s bad behavior.

Teenagers are also encouraged to be different and to show of themselves off. It’s an emphasis on the individual over the group. While it allows students to have more rights, less limits and value the differences between every person, it also creates circumstances where they’re unable to cooperate with others or blatantly disregard the advice of elders.

I’ve already seen Minneapolis teenagers tell their parents that this is “my life” and they can do what they want. These kinds of thoughts do not enter into our minds at 15 or 16 while living in Taiwan.


I admire anyone who is brave enough to be expressive, and this is definitely one of my favorite elements about this beautiful country filled with beautiful people. After all, the teen years are a time when you should enjoy being young and bold.

But in America, teachers almost see themselves as friends of students. They feel that offering greater understanding about what they’re teaching is an essential part of the job.

Not in Taiwan. There, teachers rarely stay after school to help students. They run through as many pages of content, with as much detail as possible, so everything is covered. The way we learn is by taking a lot of tests rather than participating in group discussions.

Test sheets come with our textbook, stacks of them, one sheet for each chapter. So all you do is take notes. Over and over again. In Taiwan, we would die without taking notes.

There, teens also stay in the same classroom all day. We decorate tables so the classroom becomes more personal since it’ll be our spot all year. Students take a 10-minute recess between every class to talk and catch up with friends. We also take a 30-minute nap after lunch. It keeps our minds fresh.

Everyone also wears the same uniform. It’s convenient because students who aren’t considered “cool” or “trendy” don’t have to feel bad about themselves. We all wear the same clothes, so no one is cool! Teachers also inspect uniforms every day. Punishment for being sloppy means doing chores like cleaning bathrooms.

In Taiwan, school typically runs from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. Students are technically allowed to leave at 5, though if you don’t stay to study more, teachers will call your parents and ask what is wrong — a means of shame. Some even have school on Saturdays.

Here, students get out at 3. I can’t believe it! American teachers also don’t value memorization as much. They prefer to create chances for their students to touch and learn about the world around them through direct experience.

Opportunities in science labs these past few months have been more eye-opening than any I experienced in my time as a Taiwanese student. For biology class, we went to the Nobel Conference to listen to professionals talk about their most recent discoveries. The Voyager Program led me to the headquarters of AT&T to meet their vice president so we could listen to him tell us a story about becoming successful.

Here, I am also exposed to all kinds of materials that I would never have dreamed to see in, say, an art room. Even though the students are not professionals, my teacher is willing to give us a chance to explore and become fascinated.

In Taiwan, teachers push technique, not how to think. So you never explore your creative side. When I came here, my art teacher never told me what to draw, so I froze up.

“How am I going to know what to do when the teacher isn’t guiding me?” I was so used to being caged, I didn’t have the confidence to go off on my own.


But with the good comes a lot of bad. American students take that freedom for granted. My teacher tries hard to get financial support so students can have the best equipment. But I’ve seen so many teens waste and destroy items or disrespect the teacher by refusing to clean up their workspace.

In Taiwan, we don’t get anything for free. If you want good art supplies, you have to bring them yourself. You clean them yourself. You also clean the classroom afterwards.

It’s not a teacher’s job to babysit.

Yet everything negative I’ve seen about American students still makes me envious of their freedom. Americans know how to enjoy life. They know how to entertain themselves, how to try new things. I’m amazed at how someone can just decide to fix their car even though that’s not what they do for a living. Or if they want to learn how to cook, they just start cooking. People here are very inventive and creative. Fearless.

Overall, my Minneapolis experience has changed me a lot. I’m really surprised by how students are treated so well and provided programs that help them get ready for college, ready for life. Outside the classroom, none of that happens in Taiwan.

I wish that the concepts of Western and Eastern education could mix. I don’t want to take away the power of students to be different or deny the daydreams of children and their futures. But their rudeness and disrespect also shouldn’t be tolerated. Teens also aren’t always equipped to decide what they want for themselves. Teachers and parents should be expected to make better decisions for them.

This would make the best school in the world.


Mary Wu, a junior at Thomas Edison High School, is an exchange student from Taiwan, a small, independent island beside China. She learned English in elementary school and, inspired by the American culture she saw in her home city of Hsinchu, wanted to experience high school in the United States. A random host family opening in Minneapolis led her to the Twin Cities for the first time in September. While here, she’s excelled at art, earning a gold key from the MN Scholastic Art Contest in January. She returns to Taiwan in June.