Generation 40s – 四十世代

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

CommentInsight & Opinion
2017-11-10
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 can’t Chinese graduates speak good English? Blame the teaching methods

South China Morning Post
CommentInsight & Opinion
2017-09-08


Philip Yeung

Philip Yeung says English-language proficiency will only improve when teachers look past rote memorisation and encourage students to learn how to learn

The Chinese have a love-hate relationship with English. It is the “language of opportunity” – the passport to a coveted overseas education, a well-paid job or foreign citizenship. Zhang Lu, the photogenic English-speaking interpreter for top leaders, is mobbed everywhere she goes, while state interpreters of other languages remain obscure.

But despite its prestige, English is taught unimaginatively on the mainland. Students there say the only significant learning occurs in the first three years of junior secondary, the final three years of high school having been hijacked by endless drills for college entrance exams.

English is mandatory in the first two years in a Chinese university. But the language is taught bookishly, short on functional skills. College graduation calls for CET (College English Test) level 4 or 6 standards. But employers complain that few graduates are prepared even for the simple tasks of writing or responding to an English email or answering business phone calls, much less conducting trade negotiations with foreign clients. There is talk of dropping English from the required curriculum in some jurisdictions.

What has gone wrong? First, there is a singular lack of method. The basic approach is backward – memorising individual vocabulary words and incomprehensible grammar rules. Any effective approach must address two questions: first, how is it that you can understand every word in an English sentence and yet fail to understand its overall meaning? Second, after attaining basic proficiency, why is further progress in English elusive, however hard you study? This is true of many Chinese scholars who return home after decades in the US.

As long as English teaching is hitched to rote learning, Chinese students are denied the chance to “learn how to learn,” or sensitivity training in “pattern recognition”, especially necessary in developing writing skills. It has been said that native speakers, unlike non-natives, learn by “subconscious” acquisition, but I know that students can be taught “subconscious” learning once they acquire pattern recognition.

Each year, nearly half a million Chinese students go abroad. China may be the world’s second-largest economy, but Indian nationals vastly outnumber the Chinese in leading Fortune 500 companies or American universities. China lacks the soft power of English communication. This challenge should not be left to cram schools or tutorial centres, as being exam-savvy doesn’t translate into functionality. English teaching must be reimagined to prepare our people for global citizenship and leadership.

Philip Yeung is a former speechwriter to the president of the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology.


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

CommentInsight & Opinion
2017-09-07
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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ESF school fee rises hurt Hong Kong’s middle class, and the city as a whole

CommentInsight & Opinion
2017-08-14
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.


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Hong Kong schools could learn from the US system, but copying it would be a mistake

CommentInsight & Opinion
2017-08-15
William Pang says critics have a point about the local HKDSE exam being too rigid, but blindly adopting a system with its own inherent faults isn’t the answer

We’ve once again entered the yearly ritual where stories of students attaining top marks in the Hong Kong Diploma of Secondary Education get shared on social media, and become fodder for discussion as students aspire to become the next “DSE scholar” and earn a ticket to medical school.

As well, there are stories of students attempting to crack the exam at their third attempt, and, once again, much criticism is aimed at the DSE exams.

The DSE, dubbed the “single examination that determines your destiny”, recalls the Chinese imperial exams of old – high-stakes and brutal. Not surprisingly, many have compared it unfavourably to education systems elsewhere.

Recently, the American system received much fanfare after former Canto-pop singer and one-time rumoured education secretary candidate Agnes Chan Miling (who sent her three sons to Stanford) made headlines for calling Hong Kong’s education system too rigid.

But is the American education system that much better?

What’s worth examining are the more subjective aspects of the university admissions process, such as admissions essays and extracurricular activities. At elite universities in particular, a “holistic” approach is taken, meaning that grades are not the only barometer for admission. Potential for being the next Yo-Yo Ma or J. K. Rowling counts, too.

The problem with this is that most people aren’t going to be the next Yo-Yo Ma or J. K. Rowling.

Further, not all parents can spend thousands to boost their child’s résumé with projects such as starting a non-profit organisation to help destitute children in India, or hire former graduates of elite universities to help write a compelling college essay.

A highly subjective admissions process opens a can of worms, and can result in a pay-to-play scenario that disproportionately benefits those who are wealthy. By contrast, the DSE is unapologetically tough and unapologetically fair.

There are, however, some US education traits that would benefit Hong Kong. Akin to how the SAT, America’s standardised test for college admissions, is administered multiple times a year, so students should be able to take the DSE exam more than once a year. Taking internal school grades into consideration would also solve the “placing all your eggs in one basket” problem and help relieve student exam stress.

Ultimately, a more flexible system is needed. But should stuents be evaluated only through empirical means? Do we also value traits such as compassion and persistence? In the end , it’s up to society to determine the purpose of higher education.

William Pang is an engineering student at McGill University