Generation 40s – 四十世代

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Hong Kong schools can learn from the flexible education system in Finland

CommentInsight & Opinion
Elbert Lee says ideas for education reform for test-focused Hong Kong schools lie in the deeply humanistic system of Finland, which values individuality and recognises the role of ‘more knowledgeable others’ in the community in shaping values and personality


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


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Why Hong Kong schools should build kids’ confidence, not destroy it

CommentInsight & Opinion
Kelly Yang says there are ways to restore self-belief in children struggling with the stresses of Hong Kong’s school system. There is, after all, more to education than just grades

Their faces are stoic, their eyes bloodshot from lack of sleep. They answer when called, volunteer very little, hiding behind their armour of books. They carry the weight of their parents’ expectations, stress of peer and societal pressures, and fear that nothing they do will be good enough. They are Hong Kong students and my heart bleeds for them.

Hong Kong students are intellectually strong, yet emotionally frail. As babies, they’re coddled by domestic helpers, then thrown into the intense, high-stakes poker game that is Hong Kong education. There, they endure years of being sorted – every label and grade pored over by their parents with a magnifying glass. Their parents are so stressed out, you’d think their kids were in Afghanistan, not grade school. In the classroom, the children are not encouraged to be creative, to think critically, to express themselves. It’s no wonder half of secondary students show signs of depression and anxiety.

When I started teaching in Hong Kong in 2005, I set out to achieve one very specific goal: to teach Hong Kong kids to become better writers. I was pleasantly surprised at how quickly they picked up the technical skills. Yet their essays lacked fervour. They lacked urgency. They sounded … bland. That’s when I realised to make a story really good, you have to take risks. You have to be willing to share a deeper emotional truth, and for that you need confidence.

If I wanted to make my students better writers, I had to build them back up emotionally. So, for the past 12 years, that’s what I’ve been doing. It’s not easy, especially children who already feel defeated at the age of 10. I’m not just talking about the kids at the bottom; it’s also those at the top. They’re under enormous pressure to “keep performing”, like a racehorse, not a child. This can have lifelong physical and emotional effects.

Sum Bo-hei (centre) with his father Patrick Sum Siu-yuk and mother Janet Woo Kit-Fong at Fortress Hill Methodist Secondary School. Encouraging children and building their confidence starts at home. Photo: Xiaomei ChenAnd while I did not face the same pressures as a child, I can relate to these kids because I faced other pressures. My parents were struggling first-generation immigrants in America and life was very hard. So I know about anxiety and pressure.

Every child is like a puzzle and, to figure them out, you have to be part therapist, part mentor, part teacher. You have to be willing to sift through the huge sandpit of fears and inhibitions until you find the one thing they enjoy learning for the sake of learning – and go from there.

Yet, rather than having to build up our children, there’s no doubting it would be better if we didn’t break them down in the first place. It would be wonderful if we, as parents, talked to our children about things other than school. Maybe then, they wouldn’t fear that our love is tied directly to their grades.

It would be doubly wonderful if teachers were given the freedom and encouragement to teach with passion rather than a long checklist of things that need to be covered for the next exam. Maybe then, our children would actually enjoy school.

Most of all, it would be wonderful if the Education Bureau stopped patting themselves on the back whenever Hong Kong kids score well in an exam, because high exam marks are not the sole indicator of educational success. Things like student happiness, emotional strength, love for learning, ability to think innovatively and creatively – those are the real markers of educational success because they will give children the confidence to forge their own future. And, right now, Hong Kong is falling embarrassingly short.

Kelly Yang is the founder of the Kelly Yang Project, an after-school centre for writing and debating. Her latest children’s novel, Front Desk, is due out next May.

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筆者相信,海外升學並非為了「解決」目前的問題,而應該有更正面的目的。一般而言,家長都希望藉此建立學生的自信,擴闊視野,令學生更獨立等。但是,除了學習上的考慮,學生身心的發展、情緒的依賴、成長的需要亦十分重要。十來歲的青少年最需要家人的陪伴和意見,年紀太小的初中學生往外地讀書,可能令他們在最需要家人陪伴的歲月,只能依賴當地的老師和同學,長遠而言,他們的「重要的他人」(Significant Others)不再是父母,日後與家人的關係也許會變得疏遠。畢竟,前赴海外升學是家庭的重大決定,對尚在青春期的孩子來說,更可能是改變一生的抉擇,家長和學生都要在充分知情之下,共同商討,才作決定。


筆者兩名子女分別就讀高小和初中, 個人建議,即使負笈海外,較理想是在香港完成中學課程後,才到海外升讀大學。完成中六後,他們的中、英語文能力已有一定水平,又已掌握數學能力、邏輯思維和思辨能力,加上情緒和身心已發展成熟,更適合海外升學。

事實上,就經濟合作暨發展組織(簡稱「經合組織」)比較 2015年和2020年的人才應該擁有十項特質,其中兩次均高踞榜首的是Complex Problem Solving (面對複雜問題的解難能力)。既然如此,家長送子女到海外升學,不妨重點訓練子女這種特質,不要替他們安排和張羅太多,不要給他們太充裕的金錢和物質,亦不必急於讓他們每逢長假期便回港。相反,讓子女在海外「捱點苦」,長假期留在當地,讓他們多了解當地文化,如果當地准許學生在課餘工作,讓他們自力更生,用勞力賺取生活費。這樣,他們在幾年間獲得的,或許會更多,亦不致糟蹋了海外留學的獨特價值。

提到海外升學,一般人都會想到英、 美、澳、紐、加,但這些地方的學費和生活費實在不是一個小數目。筆者任教學校的學生大多數家境一般,但不少學生仍嚮往到海外升學,放眼世界,提升自己的全球競爭力(Global Competence),卻總覺得是無法達到的目標。因此筆者近年到訪過一些亞洲區的大學,替學生探索其他海外升學點,在此亦向讀者簡單介紹一下其特色。



近年「韓風」成為主流,因此往韓國升學的念頭亦開始在學生之間萌芽。現時到韓國升學的香港中學畢業生不多,主要是語言問題。事實上,不少韓國大學都有語言中心,香港的中六畢業生可先到韓國的大學修讀一年韓語課程,考獲TOPIK (「韓語能力檢定」Test of Proficiency in Korean)第三級,便可於韓國修讀學士學位課程。相對台灣,往韓國升學的文化衝擊較大,但亦因此感覺較國際化。每年的學費和生活費大約10萬港元,相比其他熱門升學國家較便宜。韓國不少著名大學都有國際課程,即是課程的70%至100%英語授課,香港學生在這方面有優勢。


根據世界經濟論壇(World Economic Forum)在2016年所發表的報告「The Future of Jobs」提出,不少行業現時最缺人的職位,其實在5至10年前,根本從未出現過。對於現時在學的少年人來說,有65%日後將會從事尚未出現的新工種。因此,我們的教育並非是「職業工廠」,替學生配對職業,而是要讓他們掌握將來社會需要的能力。「生涯規劃」關注的,並不局限於「事業」,無論在香港或海外升學,我們都希望幫助年輕人在步向成年人的生活模式時,明瞭自己不同的人生角色,因而承擔不同的責任,又規劃自己的興趣和閒暇,並讓他們掌握將來的世界需要的能力,讓他們在往後數十年的人生,選擇適合自己的生活方式,在不同的領域發揮所長,綻放光芒。


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Hong Kong’s schoolchildren are being left defenceless against the robot onslaught on future jobs

CommentInsight & Opinion
Kelly Yang fears that, with creativity and soft skills neither fostered nor rewarded in a test-focused system, the city’s children will be left without the tools necessary to survive in the age of AI

If there’s one thing Asian schools excel at training kids to do, it’s copious amounts of boring, repetitive tasks. Here in Hong Kong, schoolchildren are given tremendous amounts of homework at very young ages. The assignments are not creative. They do not call for innovative or imaginative thinking. They are simply busy work – designed by educators from decades ago to keep children occupied and prepare them to be good followers.

But children these days face a radically different future, where artificial intelligence is predicted to wipe out 40 per cent of jobs by 2030. If we do not adapt and change the way we teach, there will not be a future for Hong Kong children.

If you’ve talked to a Hong Kong child recently, you might have noticed that they seem different during the summer. They don’t look quite as defeated – one might even say they look happy. That’s because they’re out of school, and not subject to the daily mountain of mindless homework.

There used to be a time when such homework served a purpose. It instilled in children a good work ethic, time management skills, the ability to sit at a desk and perform a task, however boring, for hours on end. That used to be what companies looked for in employees. But, increasingly, machines are able to do that better than us humans.

As artificial intelligence surges in computing power (expected to surpass that of human brains in 2040), we have to face facts. We’re never going to outcompete robots on work ethic, time management, or anything that involves crunching numbers or knowing facts, codes or rules.

The robot will always do all that better, which is why jobs in accounting, telemarketing and sales are so vulnerable. Think computer science jobs are safe? Think again. According to Toby Walsh, professor at the University of New South Wales, “AI programmes will likely be better coders than humans.”

Ultimately, I think the only industries “safe” from AI are the service and creative sectors.

There will always be jobs in the service industry because humans are social creatures and we need social interaction. Robots, though more efficient and cheaper, simply cannot replicate the emotional connection and comfort that humans can provide. As such, jobs like those of nurses and therapists are probably going to be around for a while.

Likewise, creative jobs will probably increase. Computers can’t write stories that make people weep, or create shows or movies that make hearts sing. With ever increasing numbers of people out of work, their lives and sense of self-worth interrupted by AI, we’re going to need a lot of entertainment.

Thus, the people who are going to thrive in the next century are those who are super creative, with excellent people skills and communication skills. Currently, not one of these three skills is being taught in Hong Kong schools.

Creativity is neither fostered nor rewarded in the Hong Kong education system, nor is having people skills such as empathy or tolerance, or the ability to think about something from multiple points of view and come to a compromise. Because these are not “testable” skills, sadly, they have no place in the current education system.

And while Hong Kong children are constantly being asked to copy passages, and write and recite things, they are not being taught how to properly communicate in a global language (that is, English). They’re not taught how to get their point across effectively, much less in a moving, emotive way, which will increasingly be the standard for humans.

Hong Kong parents realise this, and so some send their children to after-school programmes for “enrichment”. But there are only so many hours in the day. And it’s expensive. And sometimes the kids have already spent so many years learning how to write in the most boring, formulaic way, utterly devoid of imagination, that it takes an incredible amount of time to unteach them.

This summer, I was teaching creative writing to a group of 12-year-olds. They were gung-ho creative writers. They loved reading and writing stories. Still, it took me weeks to get them to come out of their shell, to take a risk with their writing and really let their imaginations go. When they finally did it, I was so proud of them. We all stood and clapped as the kids read their stories; I was moved to tears.

It is my greatest hope as an educator that more schools in Asia teach kids to work smart, not just work hard. We’re never going to be able to work harder than robots, so having our kids grind away, doing endless dictation and revision, is pointless.

It’s time to stop preparing them for a future that will not exist when they graduate. We need to give them the gifts of creativity, empathy, imagination, people skills and excellent communication skills in a global language, so they will actually have a future.

Kelly Yang is the founder of the Kelly Yang Project, an after-school centre for writing and debating. Her latest children’s novel, Front Desk, is due out next May.

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ESF school fee rises hurt Hong Kong’s middle class, and the city as a whole

CommentInsight & Opinion
Mike Rowse says the parents whose children rely on the English Schools Foundation for an education deserve government support, as they are an integral part of the workforce that keeps the economy growing

The impoverishment of Hong Kong’s middle class came a step closer this month with the assistance of our ever helpful Education Bureau. The English Schools Foundation announced that fee increases of up to 27.5 per cent had been approved by the government to take effect from the coming academic year. Year Two fees in the foundation’s nine primary schools will now cost HK$106,500. Fees for Year One – which had a similar steep percentage rise last year – will be the same. In the years to come, increases on this scale will work their way through the whole school system until ESF fees at all levels will approach those charged by international schools.

In the past, such an announcement would have evoked howls of protest from parents whose children attend ESF schools, all heaping blame on the foundation. But now it is widely understood that the cause of these enormous increases is the progressive withdrawal of the annual government subvention.

Announcement of the subvention cancellation – phased over a number of years so as to “soften the blow” – is the enduring legacy of our previous education minister, Eddie Ng Hak-kim.

It is easy to forget that at the time of the 2012 chief executive election, all three candidates pledged to retain the subvention if they were elected. They may well have been sincere, but they were no match for the fanaticism of the education bureaucrats.

When the ESF was first established, it was basically to provide schooling for the children of expatriate civil servants. The government met the whole cost. This was manifestly unfair to locals, including civil servants, as ESF classes were smaller and the facilities were better, hence the subsidy per child was much higher than for local children. After many years of complaint, the subvention formula was changed so that the subsidy per child in an ESF school was pitched at the same level as the cost of educating a local child in a local school. The difference in costs was met by the introduction of fees. That made things fair, and there matters should have been allowed to rest.

But that is to reckon without the professional fury of some education bureaucrats who saw the popularity of all international schools, especially among local parents, as a standing indictment of the standard of education in local schools, for which they were directly responsible. Which of course it was. They reserved a dedicated corner of their hearts for a special hatred of the ESF, because it was similar in many respects to a full international school and even got government money to boot. They bided their time, and under a weak minister eventually got their way.

But their “success” completely overlooks the identity of the children now being educated in our international/ESF schools, and totally ignores Hong Kong’s overall interests. There are three categories of family: traditional expatriates, sent by their overseas employer to head up local operations; Hong Kong returnees from favoured emigration destinations, such as Canada, Australia and the US; and local parents who want their children to have a top-class international education.

These are precisely the people Hong Kong needs to attract and retain if our economy is to succeed and grow for the benefit of the whole community. But school fees and increases on this scale seem designed to drive them away.

Is there no way back, or are we destined forever to drive away the very people essential for the future success of our economy? I think we can forget about restoring the subvention, because too many people would have to eat too many of their own words. But if we start by asking ourselves what would be fair, for someone who is from Hong Kong or has made his life here, is or has become a permanent resident and paid his taxes, then is it stretching things too far to suggest he should be given a measure of public support towards the cost of educating his children? Pitched, say, at a level equivalent to the cost of educating a local child at a local school?

Perhaps our Marxist theoreticians could give some advice on what happens to a community where the middle class become disaffected.

Mike Rowse is the CEO of Treloar Enterprises.