Generation 40s – 四十世代

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Free kindergarten education in Hong Kong is a welcome step towards language equality in class

South China Morning Post
Comment›Insight & Opinion

Alfred Chan

Alfred Chan says new policy support will strike at practices that discriminate against ethnic minority students, but government monitoring is needed

Since taking up the chairmanship of the Equal Opportunities Commission in April, I have emphasised my commitment to advancing equal opportunities for marginalised and underprivileged groups in society. One such group is ethnic minorities. Of particular concern are their education and employment opportunities. I recently heard the case of a Pakistani mother who went to a local kindergarten to get an admission form for her son. She spoke to a staff member through the intercom from outside the gate. After checking if either parent spoke Cantonese, which they did not, the staff member declined to give her a form. Unfortunately, her story is not unique. Many ethnic minority parents have to knock on several kindergarten doors before finding a place.

Education Bureau figures for 2015-16 show that 44 per cent of kindergartens do not have non-Chinese-speaking students, while ethnic minority students are concentrated in a small number of kindergartens where the environment is less conducive to Chinese learning. We have been notified that more than a few practise one of several measures that prevent ethnic minority students from enjoying access to equal education opportunities. Some reportedly flatly refuse to admit ethnic minority children. Others choose to conduct interviews for applicants only in Cantonese or provide information exclusively in Chinese. Not only is this tarnishing Hong Kong’s image as a diverse, inclusive society, but the act may also be unlawful.

We have called on kindergartens to be open and inclusive in their admissions. Recently, we launched a booklet for schools, parents and students on promoting racial integration and preventing racial discrimination in schools. It provides essential guidelines, besides examples and suggestions, on the application of the Race Discrimination Ordinance in schools, particularly in the areas of language requirements in admissions, exercise of school rules with respect to religious practices and communication with ethnic minority parents.

Kindergartens justify their admission decision by citing the unavailability of language support for non-Chinese-speaking students in their schools. We don’t expect this justification to be valid for long. The government announced in the policy address the extension of the current 12 years of free education to 15 years, by introducing free kindergarten education from the 2017-18 academic year. We welcome the move.

Of particular interest to us is that the policy of free kindergarten education also includes support for children with diverse needs, which includes non-Chinese speakers and children with special educational needs. We believe both categories would benefit from the additional support. Non-Chinese speakers will gain substantially from any scheme that encourages kindergartens to integrate them into classes with their Chinese peers. As scholars point out, an integrated classroom has many benefits, including language acquisition. This is a significant benefit, especially given the dire state of Chinese language learning among non-Chinese-speaking students.

The Education Bureau should carefully monitor the implementation of the new policy to ensure fair admissions and adequate support for Chinese language learning, so more mainstream kindergartens are encouraged to admit non-Chinese speakers. It should also keep an eye out for inadvertent reverse segregation that may result. Some kindergartens might choose to take in more ethnic minority students due to the additional funding, which may lead to a rising concentration of non-Chinese-speaking students, again creating a ”segregated” environment.

An immersed classroom supported by additional language learning measures is expected to lead to non-Chinese speakers “mainstreaming” early in their school lives, thereby having a greater possibility of being on a par with their Chinese peers at the end of 15 years. That ideally should lead to a levelling of the playing field when it comes to access to higher education and finally employment. That will be the true test of whether Hong Kong actually lives up to its promise of providing equal opportunities to all, regardless of race, language or colour.

Professor Alfred C.M. Chan is chairperson of the Equal Opportunities Commission


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Open Hong Kong must not tolerate discrimination against migrants

South China Morning Post
Comment›Insight & Opinion

Peter Kammerer

Peter Kammerer says prejudice against outsiders, particularly the outright hostility against mainland migrants, shames us as a society

Newcomers to any society usually have a tough time fitting in. Hong Kong makes it especially difficult for mainlanders. While those from the West are generally welcomed, those from places seen as less sophisticated are looked down upon. Call it snobbery, arrogance or discrimination, but it is not what should be expected of “Asia’s world city”.

A recent study of 1,038 migrants from the mainland revealed how uncaring we can be. Although Chinese in a city that is 95 per cent of the same ethnicity and mostly able to speak Cantonese, the majority lived as outsiders. The Institute of Education survey showed that nearly 57 per cent perceived daily discrimination, 60 per cent believed Hong Kong people were intolerant towards new immigrants, and 66 per cent thought locals misunderstood and held biases towards them.

As a result, more than nine in 10 had not participated in community activities in the six months before the poll and just 12 per cent felt they were Hongkongers.

There is arguably nothing unusual about such figures for any big city. I don’t have statistical comparisons for New York, London or Paris, but know from friends who have lived in these cities that they can be equally inhospitable. Part of it is down to the rush of life, which gives the perception that people are cold. But the best opportunities are also in such places and that leads to higher housing costs, bigger disparities in income and a sense among some that they have reached the top. Hardly surprising, then, that there are those with superior attitudes.

Anyone who makes an effort to fit in will tell otherwise, of course. But that may not be so easy when a community is against you. The hostility that mainland boy Siu Yau-wai has encountered since his grandmother revealed how he had been living illegally in hiding for nine years shows how rabid some of us can get. Even though he had been brought here aged three and this was the only home he had known, protesters railed at a school’s offer of an entrance test. A voluntary decision for his return to the mainland was met with cries of victory.

Domestic helpers are daily looked down upon and those from the subcontinent are often treated less than equally. An inability to adequately communicate also keeps some groups apart; it is why many foreigners prefer their own kind. In such circumstances, it is easy to claim that integration is difficult.

Our government has a role: it can improve job prospects and assure education. Individuals and families also have to make an effort to avoid becoming isolated by getting involved in communities. Complaining about not knowing who neighbours are is of little use if no effort is made to even say “good morning”. But the most effort has to be made by Hongkongers.

Refugees and migrants built Hong Kong. They came in search of a better life. It is shameful that they and their offspring should deny the same for others – particularly those from the same country.

In a fast-ageing society like ours, the doors should be open wide. Daniel Bell, a philosophy professor at Beijing’s Tsinghua University, gave a good reason why, pointing to the Confucian saying that exemplary people should value harmony over uniformity.

“Harmony here means respect for, if not celebration of, diversity in the context of peaceful order,” the author of The China Model: Political Meritocracy and the Limits of Democracy, told me. “New migrants that promise to enrich social life should be welcomed, so long as social order can be maintained.”

It is a philosophy all in Hong Kong should live by.

Peter Kammerer is a senior writer at the Post

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The woman declared the world’s best teacher cares nothing about test scores

South China Morning Post

Lauren Gambino

Nancie Atwell, the world’s best teacher, cares nothing about test scores but instead puts her emphasis on student choice and self-expression

Nancie Atwell’s school in the rural town of Edgecomb, in the US state of Maine, is no ordinary place of learning. Then again, Atwell is no ordinary teacher.

At her school, all classrooms have libraries, standardised tests are forbidden, classes are small, every religious and cultural holiday is celebrated, and children pick the topics they write about and the books they read. And read they do: her pupils wolf down about 40 books a year, well above the national average.

Earlier this month, Atwell was named the winner of a competition to find the world’s best teacher. She accepted the Global Teacher Prize, dubbed the Nobel Prize of teaching, at a ceremony in Dubai.

Atwell chose to dedicate the award – US$1m worth – to the Centre for Teaching and Learning (CTL), the non-profit demonstration school she founded 25 years ago, which she said is in need of upgrades, including a new roof and furnaces, and many more books. “We will have a very healthy book-buying fund,” Atwell said. “It’s the thing we never have enough of.”

Atwell’s prolific teaching career spans four decades and several school districts. She is also the author of nine books for teachers, including In the Middle, which sold half a million copies. Her goal, she said, is to make the classroom a place for “wisdom and happiness”, rather than one of stress and frustration.

The world’s top educator, however, said she never intended to become a teacher. Instead, she fell into the position while trying to figure out what to do with an English degree. After graduation, she took a student teaching position as a “fallback plan”.

“I fell in love with teaching,” she said. “I felt like I was home. I love literature and I really loved adolescents, I found out. And to have relationships with kids around books and to talk to kids about books seemed like the best gig in the world.”

She began teaching in New York in 1973, starting out with a classroom full of children aged between 12 and 14 in the seventh and eighth grades, her favourite grades. “When you hook seventh and eighth graders on something, I think you’ve hooked them for life,” Atwell said. “It’s such an important age in terms of kids establishing their world view and figuring out how the adult world works.”

But during these early years, Atwell realised children weren’t “hooked” on the books or writing prompts she assigned. She began researching alternative teaching methods and stumbled on the work of Donald Graves, a University of New Hampshire professor of early childhood education who is credited with pioneering the “Writing Workshop” teaching method that Atwell dedicated her career to improving.

Writing Workshop is a teaching framework that champions choice and self-expression. Children choose their own books and writing topics, advance at their own pace and spend one-on-one time with teachers. This discovery revolutionised her classroom. She immediately noticed pupil engagement increased when the children were allowed to choose what they wanted to read and write. “When I let go of my last bit of total control of everything in the classroom and let [the children] choose, they made wonderful choices – smart choices.”

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While still working in the confines of the state school system, Atwell had no choice but to innovate without permission. “I closed the door of my classroom and talked to my kids,” she said. “I’ve found, consistently, kids know what’s interesting and what’s valuable if we let them have some say in it.”

After teaching in New York, Atwell moved to Maine, where in 1990 she founded CTL to experiment and share new ideas of teaching writing and reading. The school serves a maximum of 80 pupils from kindergarten to eighth grade.

At the school, teachers engage with students as fellow writers and readers, rather than the traditional instructor-pupil relationship. Each day the children spend time reading books they have chosen. They even curate a website of recommended books for other young readers. And Atwell makes a point of exposing them to as many cultures and traditions as possible.

“We celebrate the Chinese New Year, the Day of the Dead, the start of Lent, the end of Ramadan,” she said. “I want them to have a knowledge of and passion for the whole of society, and not just the tiny little slice they’re exposed to here in rural Maine.”

Every year teachers from across the country visit the school to observe the Writing Workshop method in action – and, Atwell hopes, integrate it into their own classrooms. The method has proven to work in diverse classrooms of children from all different cultures and socio-economic backgrounds, she said.

The majority of her pupils excel in high school, and 97 per cent go on to study at college or university. But when she looks at the nation’s vast state school system, with its rigid infrastructure and focus on standardised testing, Atwell said she sees a wholly detrimental shift toward uniformity in the classroom.

“Teachers are being essentially asked to be technicians, to read a script, and the script is not valid,” Atwell said. “[Test scores] are all that counts right now. It’s all data analysis, metrics and accountability. It’s a business model that has no business being applied to the craft of teaching or the science of learning.”

Atwell disagrees with the politically-contentious common core educational standards, which she believes focuses too much on test scores, rather than lessons learned, or books read, as a mark of achievement. Students all learn at different paces and levels, and the common core standards steamrolls individuality and forces everyone to be quite literally on the same page, she said.

On receiving the award, Atwell said she was “gobsmacked”. She said the attention-grabbing prize is affirmation that the non-traditional teaching methods she has championed for more than four decades are not only valued and prized but are, more importantly, successful.

“I think the one thing we had in common, and it was really powerful to see this, was that none of us talked about test scores,” Atwell said. “We were talking about making meaningful changes in kids’ lives. I am so proud to be a part of a group of people who are professionals in every sense of the word. You just feel proud to be a teacher who was chosen to represent the profession.”

So what’s next for the world’s greatest teacher? Back to school, of course.

The Guardian

Competition highlights privilege of teaching

The US$1 million award for teaching is made by the Dubai-based Varkey Foundation. It recognises outstanding contributions to the profession.

US teacher Nancie Atwell fought off competition from 10 global finalists to become the first recipient of the Global Teacher Prize. The other nine finalists were from countries including Afghanistan, India, and Cambodia. The 10 finalists were themselves whittled down from of thousands of nominations.

The winner was announced at a ceremony in Dubai earlier this month. The event was attended by former US president Bill Clinton, Paul Kagame, the president of Rwanda, and Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al- Maktoum, Prime Minister of the United Arab Emirates and leader of Dubai.

Speaking at the ceremony, Clinton said: “I think the most important thing this prize has done has re-awaken the world’s appreciation of the importance of teachers.”

Atwell said she was honoured to accept the award. “I hope to convey to young people considering teaching that it’s a privilege,” she said.

Richard Spencer, a British science teacher from Middlesbrough College, Teesside, in northern England, who was among the final 10, said he enjoyed every minute of the experience. “The one thing we all have in common is enthusiasm for what we do,” he said.

Spencer said teaching was not viewed with prestige in the UK. “[But] there’s nothing greater than moulding the next generation and helping young people succeed,” he said.

Vikas Pota, the chief executive of the Varkey Foundation, hoped the prize would elevate the status of teachers around the world.

Atwell hoped the award would send a positive message about the profession. “I hope this will invite creative, smart young people to consider teaching as a career, because now it’s become more difficult in the US to attract smart young people to teaching. They see it more as an act of being a technician who administers a programme, not a reflective practitioner.”

The Guardian

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No place in liberal studies for ethnic stereotypes and overgeneralisations

South China Morning Post
Comment›Insight & Opinion

Liz Jackson

Liz Jackson says Hong Kong’s approach to liberal studies is falling short of its aim to embrace and understand the full range of perspectives in society, including those of minority groups

The need for multiculturalism, which can be defined as fair approaches to managing diversity and cultural understanding, has become urgent in Hong Kong. Many feel that schools should do a better job of educating students in light of challenges some face due to barriers of language, race/ethnicity, and class.

On the other hand, what students are learning in schools, about “racial harmony” and other forms of social diversity, is also being scrutinised. Recent news stories have exposed how primary school textbooks reinforce cultural stereotypes that Filipinos in Hong Kong are all domestic helpers.

Racial and ethnic stereotypes also predominate in liberal studies textbooks. Describing ethnic minorities mostly as “grass roots” and underprivileged in Hong Kong, such depictions do a poor job of meeting the subject’s multicultural aims: of enhancing understanding of society, respect for diversity, and ability to handle conflicting values and develop positive attitudes to be informed, responsible citizens.

Of course, there are “grass roots” ethnic minorities in Hong Kong. There are Filipinos who are domestic helpers here. But does it enhance student understanding for textbooks to send these messages, as they do, in broad sweeping statements?

Textbooks for subjects like liberal studies tend to echo what students and society already know about social issues and diversity, which mostly comes from the media. In the textbooks, as in the news, Muslims fare very badly. They are featured almost exclusively as bad guys: cartoonish terrorists, fundamentalists and sexists, ill-equipped to live in the modern liberal world.

News media is more justified in providing this perspective. News has the responsibility to share “bad” stories. We expect to be informed when terrorism happens. The news rarely featured stories about the 99 per cent of Muslims who are ordinary rather than extraordinary, going about their daily, mundane lives.

Schools have a different role. Teachers must share with their students their observations of both the ordinary and extraordinary of our world. For education to only focus on the newsworthy 1 per cent does an injustice to the 99 per cent, making the 99 per cent seem invisible, unworthy of consideration and unimportant. In the case of Filipinos in Hong Kong, schools have a responsibility to enhance understanding, not just echo news and television. In science, this would be like teaching only the physics and biology relevant to the latest Star Wars film rather than explaining scientific principles completely, as observed in reality.

People sometimes assume that multiculturalism is beneficial primarily for minorities. After all, multiculturalism teachings tend to focus on the challenges minorities face, when they are misunderstood or treated unequally. Yet, as the aims of liberal studies make clear, multiculturalism serves all members of society. In a democratic society, the stakes of poor education of all students, minority and mainstream, are high. To effectively make decisions in a democratic society, people need to understand other people and groups, who will be affected by their decisions.

They need to be able to meet and discuss controversial issues with these diverse others without prejudice or fear. Without this understanding and these abilities, people cannot act in their own best interests. Education has a special and noble duty here.

Unfortunately, liberal studies teachers face serious challenges conveying multiculturalism and cultural understanding for social democracy. First, they are encouraged to focus on news media, which rarely provides a total picture when it comes to minorities, in any society.

Second, liberal studies textbooks lack vital regulation and oversight, to ensure that subjective opinions (which can result from extreme watering down of social science theories) are not emphasised over fuller pictures. Such regulation is a standard process for other required subjects in Hong Kong education, and is common for social science texts in Western countries. It can include review by members of multicultural groups in society, regarding whether coverage is balanced and helpful to the goal of enhancing understanding.

The aim of such oversight is not to ensure that only nice things are said about minorities; rather, it is to prevent the likely unintentional, yet inaccurate and overly negative, depictions of minorities we see in the texts today. As the Education Bureau website still features old curriculum guides for religious studies using the term “Islamist” in place of “Muslim” (these terms have distinct meanings), there can be no doubt that it’s time to include all stakeholders meaningfully in the educational conversation in Hong Kong.

Groups and individuals must be able to represent themselves, their values and cultures in their own terms in order for democracy to flourish. That liberal studies textbook writers have instead negatively labelled minorities through vast overgeneralisations, related to religion, or what hemisphere they live in, reflects a lack of commitment to such democratic processes and to the subject’s mission of cultural understanding.

Minority voices must be included, when it comes to their lives, goals and values in Hong Kong, if majority and minority populations are to meet each other and participate in democratic dialogue without misunderstanding. Such democratic dialogue should also be embedded in curriculum and textbook development in Hong Kong, if we are all to learn from and live alongside our neighbours without undue disharmony and for mutual benefit in the future.

Liz Jackson is a professor at the University of Hong Kong and the author of Muslims and Islam in US Education. Her project “Ethnic and Religious Minorities in School Textbooks: Multiculturalism and Liberal Studies” is funded by a UGC Early Career Scheme award

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Grounding in Cantonese will help ethnic minorities learn Chinese

South China Morning Post
Comment›Insight & Opinion

David Li

David Li says to be really effective, a Chinese-language curriculum for ethnic minorities must take account of the way the language is learned

The government’s decision to set aside HK$200 million in the next academic year to support the development of a curriculum of Chinese as a second language is a welcome move.

It remains unclear, however, what kind of support measures are being explored, and whether they address ethnic minority students’ learning difficulties adequately, especially in written Chinese.

Referring to ethnic minorities, the policy address said that, “to integrate into the community and develop their careers, they must improve their ability to listen to, speak, read and write Chinese”. This gives the impression that the Chinese language is the same across the four skills. It is ambiguous, to say the least.

Listening and speaking are done in Cantonese, whereas reading and writing, taught in Cantonese, require students to acquire vocabulary and grammar grounded in Putonghua. Research has shown that the successful decoding of hundreds of non-alphabetic Chinese characters is not easy for first- or second-language learners alike. It is the main cause of ethnic minority students’ linguistic predicament.

A recent study of the linguistic perceptions and language-learning experiences of 15 South Asian undergraduate students (including four from the Philippines), at the Hong Kong Institute of Education, found that the methods for teaching written Chinese were far from efficient and effective. Some students compared their experience of composing Chinese characters with drawing pictures, which, according to their teachers, could only be learned through rote learning and frequent practice. They found Chinese characters difficult to learn and easy to forget.

Worse, a failure to pronounce those characters accurately in Cantonese was a frequent source of frustration. The majority had to put up with embarrassment and sometimes humiliation when the mispronunciation led to laughter, causing bitterness and damage to their self-esteem, dampening any motivation to practise using Cantonese.

The study also found that three of the 15 students whose self-ratings of Cantonese and written Chinese were relatively high shared one thing in common: they studied in Cantonese-medium kindergartens and Chinese-medium primary schools, which enabled them to master Cantonese tones accurately and develop a network of Chinese friends and peers to turn to for help.

Written Chinese is challenging for Chinese and non-Chinese speakers alike. This point is encapsulated in the title of an informative research-based book, Difficult Characters, which presents compelling empirical evidence showing speech plays a crucial role in the process of becoming literate in Chinese (and, indeed, in any language).

In Hong Kong, where Chinese is taught in Cantonese, it is crucial for ethnic minority students to master Cantonese early. Without a solid foundation, there is virtually no hope for them to develop a grade-relevant level of Putonghua-based written Chinese like their local Chinese peers. Special teaching methods are needed to help newly arrived young ethnic minorities who missed out on learning Cantonese and written Chinese at pre-primary level.

David C.S. Li is a professor in the Department of Linguistics and Modern Language Studies at the Hong Kong Institute of Education