Hardcore Foreign-Run Buxibans

As anyone who has spent any amount of time in Taiwan will tell you, buxibans, or cram schools, are a ubiquitous feature in Taiwan’s educational landscape, and in Taiwan’s English language buxibans, the influence of foreigners is easily seen, as most of the big chains go to great lengths to hire native-speaker English teachers.  The foreign influence on cram schools isn’t limited to the employment of teachers, however.  In fact, in the last twenty years, a new phenomenon has sprung up – that of the foreign-owned and operated English buxiban.  Apart from the fact that they are foreign owned, there is another commonality – many of them fall under the category of HFRB – Hardcore Foreign-Run Buxiban.

Where did the phenomenon start?  And with whom?  Accounts differ, and any factual errors here are my own, but here goes.  Many sources point to an American by the name of Michael Roberts, who in the early 80s started a school called Koubei (Word of Mouth) in Taipei’s trendy Dinghao district.  The school was popular and sold to an Australian, David McCall, who renamed the school after his Chinese name – Modawei, while Michael Roberts went on to start another school in another part of Taipei.  Inspired by the success of Koubei and Modawei, some of the teachers trained in those schools left to start their own schools, and teachers from those schools in turn started their own.  Now there are a couple dozen HFRBs in Taiwan, but most of them are still in the Greater Taipei area.

As the name implies, Hardcore Foreign-Run Buxibans are, well, hardcore.  The teachers are almost invariably male and fluent in Mandarin, eliminating the need for a Taiwanese teaching assistant.  The teacher maintains strict control of the class, and monitors the students’ performance closely.  Students are drilled intensively on sentence patterns, and expected to memorize large amounts of vocabulary.  Quizzes and spelling tests are a regular feature of these classes, and pronunciation is emphasized to a degree not usually found in other language schools.  HFRB teachers will drill pronunciation sounds and explain in detail, and in Mandarin, the shapes one’s mouth should be making when pronouncing English.  Students quickly learn that “Thees ees a sheep” is never an acceptable substitute for “This is a ship”.

Homework is heavy, and students are expected to complete it.  Teachers correct homework, grade essays, and review tapes that the students record at home.  Students that regularly fail to meet expectations are downgraded to lower level classes, even over the protests of dismayed parents.  To the credit of many HFRBs, standards are generally maintained, even when it costs them a student, the reasoning being that a short-term loss of business is better than a long-term loss of reputation.  This would be in direct contrast to some of the larger chains who go to great lengths to keep students in their original placements, even when their performance warrants otherwise.

But what of the effectiveness of HFRBs?  How much is hype?  Opinions vary.  To be clear, the HFRB is more of a business model than an educational one.  The HFRB does not employ the latest in language acquisition theories, educational development, or early childhood education. Rather, it is a system that Taiwanese parents feel comfortable with because it mirrors a style of education they grew up with when they were children.  Taiwanese parents like the strict, disciplined approach in the classroom, especially in contrast to what they see as a “loosey-goosey” approach to language learning in other schools, and even within the public school system itself.  It’s also important to note the cultural reasons for the success of HFRBs.  HFRBs are explicitly foreign-run, and in Taiwan products as diverse as toothpaste and automobiles are pitched by foreign faces.  Why should English language education be any different, especially given that English is an inherently foreign product?  Give the average Taiwanese parent a choice between a competent Taiwanese-run buxibans, and a competent foreign-run buxibans, and they’ll go with the foreign-run business, all other things being equal.  Ultimately, however, the HFRB wins advocates because products of the system end up with functional English.  It may not be the best way, or the fastest way, but it is a system that gets the job done.

Most importantly, it works as a business model.  As a business model, the HFRB has been an undisputed success.  Tuition at most HFRBs is over NT$50,000 a year for two-hour classes held twice a week, and classes can accommodate as many as 30 students and still remain effective within the system. A school with two hundred students can potentially make millions of dollars of profit every year.

Naturally, teachers at HFRBs are well-paid, with salaries often in excess of NT$100,000 a month, often double and even triple the normal teaching salaries offered at the big buxiban chains.  What kind of teacher is eligible for this kind of money?  Well, apart from a university degree, no specialized education is required, although intensive in-class observation and training in the school’s system is usually mandatory.  This training can go on for months, all of it paid, albeit it at a rate much lower than what one would get for actually teaching the class.  Teachers are usually expected to correct papers, grade tests and listen to tapes on their own time.  Almost all teachers at HFRBs already have experience teaching in Taiwan, and they are expected to commit to the school for more than the usual year that most of the big-chain buxibans require.  As I mentioned previously, the teachers at HFRBs overwhelmingly tend to be male, but that is probably more a result of Taiwan’s western foreigner demographics than overt sexual discrimination.  Finally, and probably most importantly, the HFRB teacher is expected to be fluent in Chinese.  This makes the teacher more effective in the classroom, it eliminates the need for a teaching assistant, and it allows the teacher to communicate directly with the parents, when necessary.

Hardcore foreign-run buxibans have a niche market, and therefore will never be in the same league as the big players, but in a market typically dominated by cookie-cutter schools employing lacklustre, inexperienced teachers fresh out of college, these smaller schools, with their focused classes, strict discipline, and experienced, Chinese-speaking teachers will always have a strong presence.

This article first appeared in Taiwanease magazine in October 2006