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Human Rights Education in Asian Schools Volume II

Human Rights Education in Taiwan: The Experience of the Workshops for Schoolteachers

Mei-Ying Tang

Many see the idea of human rights as the cultural heritage -- even cultural imposition -- of Western societies and thus irrelevant to Chinese society. But the notion of human rights, in fact, builds on the idea of a shared humanity. Human rights are not derived from citizenship or nationality, but are the entitlement of every human being. In this sense, the concept of human rights is a universal and uniting idea.

Despite the cultural relativism argument, the idea of human rights has been widely accepted along with the prosperity of democracy after World War II. Respect for human dignity and the principle of impartiality have become fundamental elements of democratic societies. Human rights education (HRE) is thus essential to preparing for participation in a pluralistic democracy.

After martial law was abolished in 1987, Taiwan gradually became a democratic and liberal society. Although the transition period was chaotic, the idea of human rights is now accepted as fundamental and essential for the development of the whole society. In past decades, Taiwan has made great progress in the protection of human rights. Nevertheless, we must protect the root of human rights through education in order to nurture the fruits of today.

Before martial law was abolished, few people were concerned about HRE. But in 1996, the Ministry of Education allowed private companies to publish textbooks, thus encouraging school reform toward a more open environment and a child-centered, participatory pedagogy. Human rights issues now receive more attention in the curriculum and the idea of human rights has been integrated into many subjects, extracurricular activities and the hidden curriculum. Most people, however, are not used to using "rights" language in their daily speech. Teachers therefore emphasize duties and social welfare over individual rights when teaching human-rights-related subjects such as social studies and citizenship education. Teachers and school administrators think students are too young to claim their rights and that teaching them their rights will make them "disobedient," threaten authority and cause chaos.

Influenced by the worldwide support for the UN Decade for Human Rights Education (1995-2004), education authorities now realize the importance of HRE and support HRE initiatives in schools. School and curricular reforms are on the rise and more school activities cover issues such as racism, and sexual discrimination and abuse. Although these activities do not make up the whole of HRE, they do relate current issues to human rights. Nevertheless, human rights promotion in schools lags behind the democratic progress of Taiwanese society. Teachers need to understand human rights and they need access to teaching materials.

Two years ago, my colleagues and I explored the possibility of introducing HRE in Chinese schools and started to develop curricula for students from pre-school to university. Our three-year research project has been sponsored by the National Science Council since 1996. Our pioneering team has four subgroups covering research topics for pre-school, primary school, secondary school and university levels. At the first stage, we reviewed the literature and discussed "Asian values" and the current school situation. Then we shaped the research framework. At the university level, the focus is on the basic survey of undergraduates' opinions and concepts of human rights. The other groups emphasize curriculum development. When we formed the research team, we expected to go beyond research: we wanted to advocate and implement human rights programs in schools.

It is necessary to recruit teachers for curriculum development and to design an in-service program for them. The implementation of an HRE program is a major theme in educational reform. The core concepts of human rights are part of the integrated curriculum of social studies and will be included in the new national curriculum statement for all fields of study in 2001. The mayor of Taipei last year announced 1997-1998 as the "Year of Human Rights" to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Although it was a politically sensitive move, it eased the growth and development of HRE efforts. Our proposal for curriculum development and teacher training is supported and funded by the Bureau of Education of Taipei. The workshop for teachers was the first step to implement the HRE program.

I first discuss the background of the HRE program and then the current curriculum on human rights. I focus on the shared experiences in the teachers' workshop. Finally, I cite problems and concerns in order to make improvements in the future.

Basic Description of HRE in the School Curriculum

There is no single subject called HRE. However, it is integrated into social studies, citizenship education and moral education. Some hidden curriculum and extracurricular activities also touch on the themes of self-esteem and respect for human dignity, which are the spirit of human rights. Although the teaching of human rights is important, it is unnecessary to specify HRE as a course because it should not be taught merely as a subject. Instead, it should lead to an understanding of and sympathy for the concepts of justice, equality, dignity, rights and democracy. Such understanding should include both affective and cognitive domains. Thus, schools should provide all kinds of opportunities for students to experience affective support for learning and to express their feelings through drama, art, music, creative writing and other media (Council of Europe, 1985).

Partly due to the authorities' fear of too many rights for students, the school curriculum stresses the notion of responsibilities. And partly because of the culture of competitive examinations, the cognitive domain is stressed as the essential part of all subjects. Thus the human-rights-related curriculum and activities have not offered enough opportunities for students to enjoy human rights in real life. To some extent, teachers and students understand and accept the values of human dignity, especially when related to respect for the old and protection of the weak. However, there is a need to broaden the students' experience and link those traditions with the idea of human rights. It is necessary to clarify the meaning of human rights and to base the culture of human rights on the values of human dignity. Legal documents and universal statements on human rights, and the theory and history of human rights must be emphasized in the school curriculum. Human rights concepts must not only be taught, but also practiced and applied in the school and community.

Through daily practice, the culture of human rights will take root and become part of our life. For the past two years, the research team, through group discussions and class observations, has explored a number of issues related to the implementation of HRE at different grade levels. We have examined HRE, its purpose, content and principles of implementation. We hope that teachers will come to understand the assumptions and implications of human rights and thus resolve their own doubts regarding HRE.

Using our research findings and other countries' experiences, we are exerting great efforts to develop curriculum and teaching materials such as leaflets, comics, worksheets and even electronic books. The research is based on the premise that real learning occurs when there is a combination of the cognitive, the affective and the active. The HRE curriculum will be divided into two parts but will eventually be integrated into a whole combining thinking, feeling and doing together.

We seek to promote a set of core values derived from the fundamental central value of human dignity. HRE is a process of cultivation by which students learn and practice the core values of human rights. This is what we call the culture of human rights. Through case studies of daily-life conflicts and group activities of sharing and cooperation, students will experience and explore the meaning of democracy, social justice and respect for human rights. The culture of human rights is cultivated by an ongoing process in daily life that challenges and reconstructs values and beliefs. It is important for students to learn a set of values that will help them identify problems such as racism, sexism and other denials of the values that comprise and sustain human dignity.

The other part of the HRE curriculum includes the history of human rights, legal documents and statements on human rights, and basic human rights theory. The intention is not to train students to become experts, but rather to enable them to develop and think about and act on their relationships with others. The content of human rights is not only concerned with knowledge of the great documents and theory of human rights but also with everyday life in and outside the school. It is essential to relate the abstract statements in legal instruments to children's school life so that they will better understand their own and others' rights. It is therefore essential to provide a school environment respectful of human rights and to allow students to learn, practice and apply human rights principles in the school setting. After all, action is an important element in HRE and it makes human rights more meaningful to students.

In sum, the framework of the HRE curriculum includes the culture and content of human rights. In order to develop appropriate materials and activities, the teachers themselves must have a concrete idea of human rights. We must therefore develop training programs for teachers and a curriculum as the first step to implement HRE.

The Workshop for Teachers

Since effective HRE requires committed and skilled teachers, it is crucial to make them sensitive to and capable of dealing with human rights issues in daily life, especially in the school setting. Teacher training should thus strive for this goal or at least develop an awareness of human rights issues and standards among teachers. The workshop is designed to achieve this goal by creating a support group and a sense of teamwork among teachers. It is hoped that the teachers will develop professionally and devote themselves to HRE through this ongoing process. Teachers are responsible for transmitting values, which are essential for teaching human rights. They need to be in a position to help their students support pluralist democracy and human rights, enjoy cultural diversity and be conscious of their responsibilities to the planet and all those who live on it. This implies that they themselves should share these values. Therefore, the workshop participants, recruited on voluntary basis, must develop shared values and reflect on the theory and practice of human rights. In fact, our goal of including human rights curricula in schools and training teachers is closely related to citizenship education that develops both awareness and advocacy.

The Workshop Program

The idea of the teacher training workshop was born in December 1997. The workshop was supported and funded by the Taipei Bureau of Education. Before the workshop, we held a seminar on HRE in January 1998. Then we recruited about 30 primary and secondary schoolteachers on a voluntary basis or upon recommendation of school principals. We respect free choice because the workshop will not succeed if participants are forced to attend. We believe HRE should include not only knowledge but also feeling and action. Through this process, teachers will experience the culture of human rights for themselves and thus learn to respect students' choices.

The eight-session workshop has two targets. One is to explore the concept of human rights and the implication of HRE, and the other is to develop teaching materials and resources. The program is thus designed to provide teachers with legal knowledge about human rights and an opportunity to explore appropriate materials and methodologies for effective teaching and learning. Participants usually meet every second Friday afternoon during the second term of the school year.

The outline of the program is as follows.

Program of the workshop on HRE

SessionDateTopic
113 MarchIntroduction to the development of human rights
227 MarchThe concept of human rights
317 AprilThe idea of human rights under the Constitution
424 AprilThe Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the Convention on the Rights of the Child
58 MayHuman rights in Taiwan today
622 MayHealth, lifestyles and human rights
Projects and plans of HRE curriculum development
75 JuneCase studies from schoollife
819 JuneThe development of teaching materials and resources
Sharing time


In order to meet the workshop targets, we constructed the program in three phases. In the first phase, we aim to provide both security and challenge to ensure the active participation of teachers. The second phase includes study and experience. The final stage leaves participants with principles with which they can explore human rights issues in schools and which give them the basis to develop their own plans. In fact, inquiry, study and experience are provided in every session. The workshop is structured to promote as much personal interaction as possible in order is to create a sense of teamwork among colleagues from different schools. Most of the time is used for discussion and sharing rather than formal meetings so that teachers can exchange information and experience at both cognitive and affective levels. Each participant is assigned to a group with an experienced leader. The groups are small, with no more than eight members, and are intended to provide a friendly and supportive atmosphere in which participants can share their own experiences and also raise questions or concerns about human rights issues or the workshop itself. Each member is treated with respect and individual dignity is always a concern.

The first three sessions of the workshop provide basic information on human rights theory, especially in relation to the Constitution. The following two sessions expose participants to the basic international and national documents on human rights. In the final three sessions, participants review the offered curricula and extract ideas that will enable them to develop similar learning experiences in schools. The program is run democratically and participants have maximum control over the tasks, especially curriculum development. However, as program leaders, we are responsible for devising and sequencing the activities and setting the framework of HRE curricula. We adopt an approach that includes participant-led activities and small-group discussions, permitting maximum participation and encouraging cooperation, tolerance, decision making and commitment. We stress our belief that education for human rights and democracy cannot take place where there is no democracy or respect for the human rights of both students and teachers.

In summary, our workshop provides a framework within which all have access to information and the opportunity to participate in activities. Teachers share and benefit from each other's personal and professional experience. They also contribute directly to HRE through the curriculum development project.

Summer Workshop

As stated above, the 1998 workshop had two purposes, neither of which were easy to achieve in a short time. To some extent, teachers have accepted the idea of human rights and are ready to apply it in the school setting. However, the teaching materials and resources they developed need to be refined before being published and distributed to every school in Taipei. We thus set up the summer workshop for the teachers who enjoyed the last workshop and are willing to contribute to the development of curricula. The summer workshop is task-oriented and has six intensive sessions. Although less than 15 persons took part last term, they produced highly creative materials. They examined existing textbooks related to human rights themes and incorporated human rights concepts into different school subjects.

Divided into four groups, these volunteers met every Friday morning from 10 July to 14 August 1998. One group, stressing the content of HRE, will simplify international documents, mainly the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the Convention on the Rights of the Child, so that students can easily understand them. The group will also write stories about persons and events important in the history of human rights, especially in Taiwan. Three groups, one of secondary school teachers and the other two of primary school teachers, focus on the cultivation of a human rights culture. They will develop materials and activities from case studies drawn from their observations of students' experience in schools. The assumption of curriculum development is that the culture and the content of human rights can be learned through personal experience and interaction with others. All the groups will then identify the knowledge, attitudes and activities required to structure learning about democracy, justice and equality, responsibility and human dignity.

The summer workshop program is continually being revised and developed to meet the needs of participants and to accomplish the target of curriculum development. As a result, teachers will apply what they learned from the workshop to their professional work through research and reflection. In fact, the impact of the workshop is greatly increased when the goal is to develop curricula.

Reflections and Insights

In the workshop, we intend to integrate into the curriculum framework cognitive, affective and active domains. The structure of the workshop is important, as is the quality of HRE practice in schools. However, the workshop is unique in that we make the human rights element explicit in the conduct and process of the workshop. The workshop also leaves teachers plenty of time to express their ideas and feelings and then develop their own teaching materials. According to a survey after the workshop, teachers responded that they had become more aware of and sensitive to human rights issues in and outside school. They said they would reflect on and criticize teaching methods, school curricula and environments that oppress students' rights. Of course, some participants still have doubts about implementing HRE programs, but they appreciate the chance to attend the workshop. Generally, teachers are willing to explore HRE further. The feedback from other workshops encourages us to consider developing a pre-service and in-service teacher training model.

Problems and Concerns in Implementing HRE Program

HRE is not just a school subject but also a value-based process. It should be integrated into other subjects and provide an environment of justice, equality and human dignity. In Taiwan, many activities and school subjects are related to civics and moral education, but few are concerned with HRE. Lots of work have to be done, such as curriculum development, teacher training, school improvement and even education reform. We intend to set up the workshop for teachers, whose dual purposes are teacher training and curriculum development, as the first step to advocate and implement an HRE program.

In spite of the sense of common purpose achieved, many questions remain. Cultural values, for example, must be clarified. There is still a debate on the issue of whether human rights are universal. HRE is a normative field of study seeking to define and apply standards of justice to human affairs. The fundamental values of human rights are claimed to be universal; however, there is a need to clarify the conflict between cultural values and the core values of human rights. It is hoped that this process of clarification will develop through teaching and curriculum development. Nevertheless, it is essential to continuously study the development of HRE and examine the impact of implementing HRE on teachers and students.

Workshop participants also identify and discuss common problems, including the lack of time devoted to this area and its status in the integrated curriculum. Other common constraints are the lack of flexibility due to the schools' heavy curriculum and academic orientation, especially at the secondary level.

In general, workshop participants acknowledge that it is necessary to integrate the HRE curriculum with related subjects and activities. However, the existing school curriculum is composed of many different subjects with their own concerns and course hours. It is thus not easy to implement HRE without labeling a subject HRE. Even employing an integrated approach, it is better to require that courses—such as citizenship education, moral/value education and relevant activities—allot a certain number of hours to HRE.

The workshop experience tells us that willing and enthusiastic teachers are the key to effective HRE. We also need a school environment that promotes human rights. How do we make schools sensitive to human rights issues? The question relates not only to the school environment but also to the hidden curriculum, which needs to be cautiously examined and borne in mind when developing the school curriculum on human rights.


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