A New Kind of Buxiban?

As everyone knows, Taiwan is experiencing an ‘ English Renaissance – of a sort. There is lots of talk about English education, but very little control over what is being taught. There are English schools everywhere: schools for adults, schools for children, and schools for the little ones. One of the things that competition like this does is drive innovation. And drive it it has. There are English programs everywhere; programs that promise all kinds of great results. I don’t intend to discuss all the different types of programs that have erupted onto the Taiwan language teaching landscape, but there is one that has caught my attention because like it or not, it is the wave of the future.

While most of us think of effective language education as occurring in small, intense classes with lots of input and room for exploring language use, this ‘new‘ education is quite different. It occurs in large, crowded classes. There is little room for students to use the language experimentally. The classes specifically aim to create a learning environment that does not resemble natural language learning. In fact, it is the exact opposite of what most language teaching has been aiming for.

Mark Wilbur has referred to this kind of school as the ‘Hard-core Foreign Run Bŭxíbāns‘. In his posting by the same name, he gives a detailed description of how some schools run this system.

These schools have a simple no nonsense curriculum structured around sentence patterns, core-vocabulary, and constant pronunciation coaching. The meat and potatoes of their classes is the Question Around the Room. In this exercise, first all of the students must stand up, then one student makes a question based on a certain grammar pattern. The student then asks another student who must answer and in turn make another question which will be answered by another student. It continues until all of the students have asked and answered a question based on whatever sentence pattern being practiced.

Unlike the big chains, these schools require correct pronunciation and have teachers who can tell the children how to correct their pronunciation. For example, if a kid is saying  “How ahh you?”, the teacher will say, “Every time you see an ‘r’, you have to curl your tongue.” And he will say it in Chinese. Also, unlike the big chains KK isn’t taught at HFRBs. Instead phonics is taught the way we learned it back home: i.e. They learn about long and short vowels, basic phonics rules like “when two vowels go walking the first one does the talking”, and so forth.

One other major difference between HFRBs and other schools is that at HFRBs, the kids have to do their homework. If they don’t do it, they fail. Yes, kids actually can fail at these schools. Also, the teacher has to grade books and listen to tapes after class to ensure that the students are doing their work correctly. All of this work is unpaid.

What I am going to say is very critical of this system, so I want to be clear on what I am and am not saying.

What I am not saying

I am not saying that this system is ineffective.

Many methods or systems have effect, even the current public school curriculum has efficacy. But the system used in Hard-core Foreign Run Buxibans (HFRB) is not based on any knowledge or method understood anywhere outside Taiwan. It has no basis in contemporary thinking about language learning, cognition, child development, or school administration. There are many more effective methods available.

What I am saying

I am saying that the Hard-core Foreign Run system is a business model.

The roots of this system are set in its acceptability to Taiwanese parents. It is acceptable because it is fundamentally the Taiwan junior high school system with white faces standing at the front of the room. Because it puts parents at ease and because it is based on discipline and classroom control, it can accommodate large numbers of students in a single classroom. As such, it generates a whole big bucket full of money for its operators.

Now that’s out of the way, let’s return to the system itself.

Back to understanding the HFRB

Mark believes that this system is incredibly powerful; that it simply overwhelms other commercially available systems. Mark bases this belief in the test performance of his students.

In my experience, even students who have studied for 4 years at big chain buxibans cannot pass our first semester exam. Neither can those who have simply studied in the public school system through high school.

It is so powerful, its existence threatens the very principle of equal access to education.

it will create huge (emphasis added) imbalances between the career opportunites of people based soley on whether or not they grew up in the north, where most of the good schools are, and whether or not they had the money to attend.

Mark’s opinion is pretty much public record, as he has stated it on his website and also on comments to a post om Fred Shannon’s website, but as I have alluded to above, I do not share his opinions. A comprehensive discussion of criticisms of the system can be found on this thread from forumosa.com. Here I want to summarize some of the main problems I have with this system by describing some of my experiences researching the situation and some of the conclusions I’ve reached from doing this.

There the is no scientific basis for this system

This point is more important to me than it is to a lot of people.

I was once told by a leading teacher in one such school that he had studied relevant subjects in school and that this system could be supported by research findings. Of course, I then asked him what that research was. He cited to me the slightly dated research of Earl Stevick and also some Internet articles by a doctoral candidate, Greg Thompson, as well as the work of Dr. Steven Krashen. I am familiar with some of this research and have now examined the other work that he recommended to me. My reading of this material is that it has nothing to do with the HFRB system – absolutely nothing. I can not speak for Dr. Krashen, but I suspect that if he saw one of these classes, he would be horrified.

Anyway, when I asked this teacher about these discrepancies, his reply was, “I never said that Thompson’s ideas were the basis for this type of school, or even mine individually.” and “Stevick has only been a small influence.” But his original words were, “My ideas…are strongly influenced by Greg Thompson’s many articles about L2 acquisition, as well as Earl Stevick’s case studies (1999).”

Since I can find no scientific basis for HFRB, I have to conclude that this appeal to research is reversed. Any linguistics training this teacher had has nothing to do with his impressions of HFRBs. Rather, it is the commercial success of this system that has forced him to hammer the square pegs of the linguistic theory he knows into the round holes he has found. They don’t fit, but if you hammer hard enough it might just fool someone who hasn’t looked closely.

The teaching materials are poorly designed

But really, I don’t think that extensive testing and evaluation is necessarily a problem. I feel that well-designed paper and pencil test are important and can have a meaningful place in good education. The problem of the HFRB materials and tests is that is that they appear to be poorly designed. I’m not alone in stating this. It’s one of the points that was repeatedly stated in the forumosa.com thread, but here’s why I have this opinion.

Perhaps the clearest way for me to describe the HFRB tests that I have seen is that they look almost exactly like the kinds of tests you would see in a public school English class or a local high school or university entrance exam. For example, one test I have in my possession is divided into 7 parts totaling 75 questions. But in fact, 20 of these questions involve translation from Chinese to English and another 20 are English to Chinese translation questions. Ten questions give a single word and ask students to conjugate the grammar of that word. Another 10 question provide sentences with missing words and answer clues. Students must then conjugate the answer clue so that the grammar of the sentence is correct. Finally, there are 5 questions written in English for which students are asked to provide English answers.

These tests do not even appear to be good examples of this kind of evaluation. Many of the questions and statements for translation have no meaning. For example, one question that students have to answer is, “Will you kiss your test book next class?” Another found in the English to Chinese translation section is, “Can I bite my pencil?” A fill in the blank question had this sentence and answer prompt, “The teacher didn’t _____ home last night. (swim)”  I typed these sentences into Google, but could not obtain even a single hit. It appears that these sentences are not natural English. One local informant that I spoke with about these tests described them as boring and suggested that you would need a great deal of coercive discipline to get students to work with such materials.

Sure, the tests are pretty hard, especially considering the age of the students involved. But that’s not my point. These tests are almost identical in style to any tests you’ll see in a public school class, a test prep buxiban, or a school entrance test. I had thought that the rationale for commercial schools using foreign teachers was that local education was neither effective nor correct education. The unspoken basis for this seems to be that local education is correct, but not hard enough.

More significant is the fact that the tests I was provided with contain quite noticeable typing errors. For example, one sentence in a Chinese to English translation section has this sentence, “你明天早上將會做公車到學校”. Given the circumstances under which I obtained these tests, I believe these are tests that are actually used in class. If that’s the case, why haven’t students pointed out these errors to their teachers and had them corrected? Why were poorly typed tests given to the public for examination? I suspect it’s because the buxiban and its foreign teachers are unaware of these problems. I suspect that the reason schools don’t know about these problems is that the students don’t provide any feedback to the teachers or the administration of the buxiban. Could it be that the amount of coercive discipline needed to teach these materials using this system create so much fear in young students that they don’t dare bring up problems like this?

More significantly, the presence of such errors carries with it racist overtones. If this was English teaching material obtained from a public school, full of all these weird sentences, typing errors, and emphasis on test taking skills, we would be blaming this for the sorry state of communicative English in Taiwan. But because it comes from a foreign-run commercial school, it’s presented as the solution.

HFRB are test prep cram schools

Despite all of what I’ve said, there is some virtue in the HFRB system. It is not a complete waste of time and money and probably will contribute to student’s education. After all, it’s no different from what’s been going on for decades here and in other Asian countries. HFRB is really just a test prep cram school run for young children and taught by White guys and girls.

This hit home to me when I was showing the tests I referred to above to some of my local informants. The very first person I showed them to was confused and unable to understand what I wanted. She kept asking me why I was talking about foreign teachers but showing her a test from a test prep cram school. This sentiment was confirmed by a Taiwanese lab teacher from my school who after looking at these tests and commented that it was just poorly written cram school test material. And as much as what goes on in the HFRB classroom is preparation for these tests, the HFRB is just a test prep cram school.

Don’t get me wrong. I have no doubt that the presence of foreign teachers in these schools makes them a different sort of place from the more commercial schools found in places like Nanyang Street. Foreign teachers will tell some of those foreign jokes that foreign teachers, but not local teachers, can tell. There might be a little bit more chatting going on. Since some part of the foreign teacher instruction at HFRB is done in Mandarin (a point which I did not explore in this posting), the kids may become desensitized to the fact that White or Black people can speak Mandarin. But aside from such incidental experiences, what we have here is a local test prep cram school preparing students for paper and pencil tests.

Really, HFRB is a fashion statement about the current situation of English education in Taiwan. Parents are torn between the reality of test preparation for their children and the rhetoric that kids need to be able to communicate in that ‘English code’ covered at school. The fashion statement of the hour is that foreign teachers are necessary for this. Even the Ministry is prepared to accept this; why not parents? So test prep with White guys? Why not?

Mark Wilbur, in the comments on Fred Shannon’s site that brought his ideas to my attention, was very concerned that local teachers, no matter how good, just don’t have that extra spark that gives foreign teacher’s English its ‘authenticity’. In discussing the problems of the English of the dozens of public school teachers he has met, he has this to say in a November 2nd comment,

The biggest phonics problem [of local public school English teacher’s pronunciation] I noticed was vowel sounds. Nearly all of the teachers I worked with confused “short i” sounds with “long e” sounds, and “short e” sounds with “long a” sounds. In other words, they couldn’t clearly differentiate “hit” from “heat”, or “special” from “spatial”. I never worked with a single Taiwanese teacher who didn’t make errors with one set or another of these sounds. Conversely, I never met a North American teacher who did have problems with those sounds.

The biggest grammar problem (amongst those with better English) was articles. I never worked with a single Taiwanese teacher who consistently knew when to use “a”, “the”, or no article at all. With the exception of one man from Alabama who had an over-fondness for using “the”, I’ve never met any North American teachers who make these mistakes either.

Needless to say, none of the students of any of the Taiwanese teachers I’ve worked with really learned how to pronounce English vowel sounds properly; they had constant exposure to incorrect input! They had similar problems with many, many grammatical points. The only schools I’ve ever seen to consistently turn out students with acceptable phonics and grammar are the HFRBs, like Tomcat, Cortland, First Step, or Modawei.

It almost sounds as if Mark is saying that if you can’t speak like a Hollywood movie star, you’re not a native speaker of English or at least have only poor command of English. Without descending into the scientific research on accent and pronunciation training, I wonder if when Mark says, “I’ve never met any North American teachers who make these mistakes either,” has he bothered checking what “mistakes” Australian or Irish teachers, or even teachers from places like Arkansas, make? Mark’s words strike me as much more similar to those of local parents with no knowledge of education or linguistics than the current expert commentary on this issue.

And is that any coincidence? After all, the HFRB is a product of local consumer choice, rather than scientific education.

And in conclusion…?

So those are the facts — as I see them. But in a sense, so what? It’s clearly what the market wants. And in this sense, I’m a Canadian libertarian on the matter. If people want it, and it doesn’t damage society more than any existing, acceptable alternatives, then just let it be.

But it’s not a new, powerful alternative to existing education. It’s just an old practice put in a brand new shiny, White wrapper. My honest opinion is that it’s the same old education that everyone complains about but now it’s been given a ‘foreign’ flavour. And as ‘everyone’ knows, if it’s foreign it must be really good. What ever advantage it does truly offer is so minimal that a very short period of time in an immersion environment would be more than enough to compensate for it. On the other hand, I’m sure that students from a HFRB can take tests better than most kids educated in a more liberal environment, even if their English isn’t better. In Taiwan, that’s a difference that has meaning. But let’s not confuse that with a better ability to communicate.

The real problem created by all this isn’t one of education or language teaching or even business. The main problem, for me anyway, is that the population of English teachers in Taiwan is a well-educated bunch that ascribe to the same set of educated, liberal principles that have come to dominate middle-class Anglo-American lifestyles back home. Rather than admit that this is just business and they’re doing it for the cash at the end of the day, the storyline is dressed up in the vocabulary of these educational values, research-backed education, and instructional efficacy. I could go on and on about this point, but I’ll have to save it for another day and wrap up what has become a 9000 word mini-essay.

In doing research for this posting, I’ve read and been told a great deal of negative things about this kind of cram school. Rather than ending, as I had planned, with a quote from one of these more negative assessments, I think I will end with a prediction for the future of English education in Taiwan.

Taiwanese have yet to figure out that study is not a very good way to achieve communicative competence in a foreign language. Fixated as they are on this learning format, Taiwanese have gone from one method of study to another. First, it was the out-dated version of classroom learning that is still used in public schools. When that didn’t work, it was easy for businessmen to convince parents that what they needed was a White guy talking. Since that’s made a difference in only a handful of kids, there’s a new ‘method’ that’s needed. This new ‘method’ isn’t new at all, and isn’t even really a method. Things have just gone full circle and we’re back now to the old style of disciplined memorization of grammar rules and vocabulary. But this time, it’s going to be different – right! That’s right, it’s all different now because the White guys are doing it.


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In fact, given your terms, if I ran a GEPT prep cram school staffed by local teachers who taught test prep through TPR, but maintained strong and personal relations with parents, demanding and supervising extensive homework, could I call myself HFRB? If not, then let me know what would make us into one?

Scott, I don’t know of any of those schools using TPR. For that matter, they don’t teach to the tests, except for advanced students who have already finished the normal curriculum.

Most test prep schools I’ve seen focus on vocabulary building and grammar drills to the exclusion of pronunciation and general speaking skills.

(disclosure: Unlike when I wrote my initial comments, I now have a business interest in a cram school)

Mark, Thank you very much for your comment. While I don’t always come across like I want dialog, I do appreciate your willingness to see past my clumsiness. I want to start by clarifying that I am not trying to find fault in the schools in question. I have no doubt that your school and the ones you mention by name provide high quality instruction from dedicated, well-trained instructors. I have no doubt they have good outcomes. Where we differ is on what produces these outcomes.

My position is that whatever is working at these schools is working because it addresses identified characteristics of human language acquisition. There is nothing new going on and claims that a new label is needed, particularly to describe pronunciation training, has no foundation.

Something which I haven’t mentioned explicitly, but which I think follows from my reasoning, is that test prep schools are not all bad. I give tests to my students and I am deeply involved the development of tests in my school. Used in a proper context, tests are useful tools in the preparation of students. This effectiveness is what explains their ubiquitous use around the world in a wide range of educational and professional settings.

My point concerning TPR was made in the context of Tom Anderson’s comment. It was meant to be an example of something that would NOT happen in what you call HFRB. As I have clarified, my point is that there is no such thing as HFRB, and that use of the term is erroneous. Tom’s point was that these schools practice identified principles of education associated with improved performance. My response was that this may be true, but it is accidental and not part of what its proponents claim mark it as distinctive and worthy of a new label.

My point is then, what is HFRB? Could an HFRB teach TPR? As far as I can tell from Tom’s definition of the schools you have named, why not? The pronunciation training that it proponents use to mark it as distinctive, he describes as a disciplinary rule used to control random talking. What makes them distinctive from any other schools that practice these identified principles of education? Within the theoretical framework of Western educational practices, I can not answer this. There is nothing distinctive and as such, there is NOT a new kind of buxiban.

On the other hand, the comments from Clyde and Michael are intriguing. I think they are wrong and based on an awkward understanding of culture and human motivation, but they do raise interesting points in the context of this discussion. It may be what marks HFRB as distinctive is their adaptation to local conditions. It may be that local students need motivational factors in their educations that are not easily explained by the standard Western theories I keep appealing to. I disagree, but it certainly is an interesting idea.


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