Fostering Autonomous Learning and Critical Thinking
 
Nov 19, 2017
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Who would have thought that a vocational high school in the small city of Miaoli could attract high schools from Japan and Korea to engage in exchanges in Taiwan? Miao-Li A&I develops students’ critical thinking capacities on top of honing their hands-on skills, sparking a revolution in their minds.

Whirring sounds emanate and sparks fly from a cutting lathe in the machine workshop at National Miao-Li Agricultural & Industrial Vocational High School. Sweat pours from students wearing protective goggles. In one corner, Swane Bryan, a Canadian student of Jamaican descent, her dyed red hair piled into a bun, runs a saw blade back and forth, practicing cutting iron. She shows no signs of fatigue. “She’s doing a great job considering she’s a beginner,” says her teacher, Mr. Chiu, responsible for one-on-one instruction in English in the machine shop.

Bryan, who chose to come to Taiwan on an exchange program following graduation from high school, rattles off a list of all her daily activities: Monday she takes baking and Chinese cuisine classes; Tuesday she works on the lathes at the machine shop; and Wednesday she feeds the animals and cleans up at the farm. “A lot of exchange students find it boring, but there is so much for me to experience,” she says, a bright smile on her face.

Miao-Li A&I attracts international students with its special skills curriculum. Each year the school hosts at least one exchange student, attracting high schools from Japan and Korea seeking to engage in cooperation and glean know-how.

Elite Japanese Schools Impressed

On the same day, visitors from Nagoya’s Meijo University Senior High School, including the head of educational development center and English teachers, passed through the agronomics department, food processing department, and the metal-working Fab Lab during their campus tour. A large assortment of 3D printing equipment, laser engraving machines, CNC milling machines and metal stamping machines elicited various exclamations of joyful surprise from the Japanese teachers.

The Japanese high school, designated in Japan as an elite science high school and elite global high school, made this special journey to National Miao-Li A&I to review the environment in advance of its Japanese exchange students’ arrival in November. A Korean school is also scheduled to come for a visit in December.

“Not many vocational high schools in Taiwan enjoy such a constant flow of visitors and exchanges,” international exchange coordinator Lin Meng-yu relates with no small amount of satisfaction.

Not to imply that visits and exchanges are one-way affairs, as, apart from those by school authorities from Korea and Japan, the school reciprocates by sending students on visits of their own, including homestay exchanges. “International exchanges are getting deeper and broader,” concludes Hsish Shih-tsung, the school’s new principal.

Originally proposed by the National Science Council (now renamed the Ministry of Science and Technology), the High Scope program (link in Chinese) encourages an interdisciplinary science curriculum at vocational and senior high schools.

The biofuel curriculum developed at the Miao-Li A&I covers methane from waste, hydrogen produced by microbes, microbe fuel cells, bio-diesel, bio-alcohol, and algal biofuel - all of which were developed exclusively by school faculty.

Faculty members have presented papers informed by their experience with the curriculum in such places as the United States, the UK, and Singapore, detailing the High Scope Program’s professional learning community and methods for improving students’ capacity for critical thinking.

Seeds for Critical Thinking

“Miao-Li A&I is the only vocational high school taking part in international conferences; the rest are all university professors,” relates animal husbandry and conservation teacher Chung Wu-lung, with wonderment in his voice.

In spite of the gains it has reaped, Miao-Li A&I decided against applying to remain enrolled in the High Scope Program. It will, however, continue to emphasize instilling students’ critical thinking abilities.

As early as 2010, the school developed its Readings in Scientific Research curriculum at the same time as the High Scope Program’s biofuel curriculum. Starting with one class per week in basic research methods, it covered a question-based consciousness, experiment design and planning, on through exploration of projected reactions, developing students’ abilities to collect and analyze data and prepare expert reports.

Each student was required to present a paper, and was permitted to assemble an interdepartmental team. Project reports gave the students the chance to stand before the entire student body to present their findings before facing questions from over 100 audience and judging panel members. Hsu Min-hsuan, a junior in animal husbandry and conservation, relates, “The judges brought up questions I’d never thought of when I was doing my research.” Questioning and reflection helped accelerate the students’ maturity.

Following the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) guidelines, the school once conducted evaluations of students enrolled in the High Scope Program curriculum, discovering huge gains in their confidence.

This curriculum inspired Meijo University Senior High School to make reports on such scientific topics as biofuels, LED lighting, makers, and stag beetle growth, interacting with Miao-Li A&I students.“Japan is also increasingly keen on cultivating students capable of making an impact around the world. And apart from English language skills, developing their problem-solving capacity is even more critical,” says Meijo High’s Takashi Ito, adding, “This is one vital reason that international exchanges are becoming deeper.

“Unlike short-term exchanges in the past or at other schools, we allow Japanese students to engage in in-depth topical discussion with Miao-Li students,” relates Lin Meng-yu.

A scientific revolution that started at Miao-Li A&I has provided the seeds for cultivating students’ critical thinking abilities, as well as a platform for further in-depth interaction outside conventional international educational travel.

Translated from the Chinese article by David Toman

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