They were called the Hong Kong Certificate of Education Examination and A-levels. No less frightening than the latter-day Territory-wide System Assessment or its replacement, the Basic Competency Assessment, these exams were lasting nightmares for many in the Hong Kong education system of the 1970s. The times are changing. We are looking for a more enlightened education system with teaching methods that are less test-driven. The government is sending teachers abroad in search of a pedagogy equally welcomed by schools, parents and students – and effective in producing citizens able to satisfy the demands of a fast-changing technological world.
One place that holds the key to education reform is Finland, a country known for its telecommunication technology and whose students, according to the World Economic Forum, have quietly led the world for many years in academic performance. Recent reports said Hong Kong would soon be sending a team of teachers to learn from Finland the secrets of pleasant and effective education.
Students in Finland are not taught in terms of traditional subjects but learn to solve real-life problems by drawing on relevant subject areas, helped by teachers who are experts in these areas. There are no tests, certainly a radical departure from subject-based teaching where students can perform by just rote learning. But, learning from real life and no tests, is that all there is to it?
Perhaps not. Underscoring Finnish education is a deeply humanistic element. Early education places a high priority on attention to other people’s needs, and on giving respect regardless of socio-economic background.
Teachers emphasise respect for each child’s individuality and unique path in development, in contrast to more competitive forms of education where students are urged to outperform peers and where the casualty is often their self-esteem, seen by many as sources of future psychological problems.
The emphasis on individuality in the learning process does more than just maintain healthy self-esteem: it allows for “selective social learning” – the idea that children have preferences as to whom to learn from in specific areas and at different stages of development. And they learn best when their preferences are met. The flexibility of the Finnish system and its respect for individuality not only allows for selective social learning but possibly encourages it, with learning partners choosing each other to exchange and co-explore specific domains of knowledge and values.
The teachers and others that children choose to learn from are sometime referred to as “MKOs” or “more knowledgeable others” – a term coined by the Soviet psychologist Lev Vygotsky to highlight the social nature of knowledge acquisition. MKOs, be they teachers, peers, social workers, or members of a religious order, often serve as trusted alternative sources of values outside the family. In traditional cultures, they can be wise aunties and uncles or godparents, “beacons of reference” during a person’s life development.
The recognition of MKOs is especially relevant for Hong Kong, where parents and family closeness are sometimes overemphasised, with parental values and judgment overriding those from sources outside the family. This makes it difficult for a child to learn from other MKOs and, as a result, hinders their development.
In my teenage years, when I faced troubles in my family, I could always talk to a member of a religious order whom I trusted, and explore sensitive issues beyond the knowledge of my parents. This way, I acquired a different view of the world, an important alternative to that of my family. Alternative ways to see the world and oneself can be a key to the psychological well-being of students.
What the Finnish system can teach us may not only relate to methods of instruction and tests, but the importance of relationships between the “significant actors” in education: schools, teachers, students and parents.
This is particularly needed in a society like Hong Kong, where many schools are inclined to operate on business models rather than professional ones. Teachers are pressured to meet parental demands and conform to parental values, rather than serve as a critical and independent source of values and knowledge, thus minimising the benefit of teachers as MKOs.
Finnish teachers are said to be highly professional and respected. I interpret this to mean not only that they are trusted by parents, but also that parents do not see them as pliable instruments to meet their idiosyncratic wishes with respect to their children.
Scrolling down my Facebook page, I saw beautiful picture posts on Finnish education: students talking and reading amid spacious, light-infused, postmodern North European architecture. The next day, a student of mine posted this message on her page: “Individual and family differentiation – a life lesson to learn.” I traced the words to US psychiatrist Murray Bowen, who suggested that the first step in growth and learning involved psychological differentiation from the family. This is done through the community – a host of MKOs emerging at different stages of development and allowing a child to select what to learn and who to learn from. Could this be the key to Finnish education?
The social side of schooling is critical to learning. Seen this way, tests and methods of instruction are put into proper perspective. And perhaps to test or not to test is not as critical to learning as is often portrayed in the media. Certainly, some teaching methods may be more useful than others in the current economic context. But their effectiveness will depend on the social learning matrix.
A good education system, instead of only emphasising how to teach and what to test, would work to strengthen and facilitate the school as a community, recognising that learning can only be meaningful and effective when the “significant actors” of the education system are different from each other, and that these differences are respected and appreciated.
Elbert Lee is an adjunct member of the faculty at Upper Iowa University, Hong Kong campus, where he teaches cognition and human development