Generation 40s – 四十世代

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Why can’t Chinese graduates speak good English? Blame the teaching methods

South China Morning Post
CommentInsight & Opinion

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
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
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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可以預計的是,派糖派錢的保守措施,比追求嶄新發展,把人們推出舒適區(Comfort zone)的教育政策更受認同,阻力亦更少,可是近年社會上卻少有人提起,當初這些「問題」究竟從何而來:幼師為何被取消薪級表?為何會出現合約教師?事實上,兩大聘任問題的源頭,皆源於政府的教育市場化理念。

2006年,小學剛經歷了嚴峻的殺校潮,教育局為方便彈性安排人手(或曰隨時削減人手),容許學校以合約方式聘請新教師,並推出不同類型一筆過撥款,予學校聘請各類非恒常教席;2007年,政府藉推行學券計劃,取消沿用多年的「建議的幼稚園教學人員標準薪級表」,讓幼稚園直資化,幼師薪酬從此被喻為「海鮮價」。此兩項措施,反映着政府一改回歸前的管理焦點,從以往每分錢也牢牢控制的監察投入(Monitor input)改為更具彈性的監察產出(Monitor output),以各種績效指標與服務使用者的滿意度來分配資源,提升教學質素,而這亦是九十年代起政府公營部門改革(Public Sector Reform)的延伸理念。









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Carrie Lam must have a clear vision for Hong Kong education

CommentInsight & Opinion
Kerry Kennedy says the city’s schooling system needs to be transformed, from early childhood learning through to university, to provide the foundation for the renewal of Hong Kong as a whole
Chief executive-elect Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor has promised Hong Kong more funding for education. However, the Paris-based Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development has made it that clear funding is not always the answer to an education system’s woes.Abandoning the Territory-wide System Assessment or inserting Chinese history into the core curriculum are also not the answer: they represent tinkering and pandering to populist prescriptions.

What is needed is a clear vision to move Hong Kong forward at a time of considerable volatility and uncertainty.

What needs to be faced is that the education reforms which started in 2001 have played their role in seeking to transform the system to meet 21st-century needs.

They started with great support from then chief executive Tung Chee-hwa but languished as successive chief executives delegated and forgot about education. They funded it but did not care for it. This is an important lesson for Lam: she must set the direction, monitor it and constantly refresh it. There will be a new secretary, but it is the chief executive who should set out and carry the vision. There are significant challenges.

Some progress has been made on making early childhood education more accessible and this is an important achievement. But, from now on, the issue of teacher quality must take priority, so that children have access to the best teachers. This means the early years’ curriculum must be carefully crafted so it is not just maths, Chinese and English. It needs to encourage creativity and problem-solving, so children make a start on developing lifelong learning skills. A consensus needs to be built about the direction of this, now widely accessible, early childhood education.

The curriculum of primary and secondary schools must also be carefully considered. “Key learning areas” were part of the 2001 reforms. But are they still useful? Science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) subjects are now considered very important but are lacking in the current curriculum.

Historical, geographical and ­cultural understanding need to be better incorporated into the curriculum. Civic and citizenship education can’t continue to be neglected or left up to individual schools. ­Future citizens need to understand their rights and responsibilities and see the value of constructive ­engagement in the city’s affairs.

The city’s universities, most of which feature in top international rankings, must be given a freer hand to manage their affairs. The dead hand of bureaucracy needs to be ­removed. They do not need to be micromanaged around narrow sets of expected outcomes and performance indicators.

At the same time, young people need greater access to government-funded institutions: Singapore currently provides 40 per cent of the age cohort with access to university education while Korea provides the same for 80 per cent. This compares with just 18 per cent in Hong Kong.

Previous administrations have sought to build up private provision of higher education, thus forsaking their public responsibilities to ­develop an educated and caring ­citizenry. By all means develop the private sector, but as an adjunct to – not a substitute for – a thriving, innovative and leading-edge public sector with public responsibilities for the future welfare of the city.

There is currently no coordinating body that views education in an integrated fashion across all sectors. The Education Commission has served this function for the schooling sector, the University Grants Committee tries to do it for the university sector. But while recommendations have been made for a separate body to oversee the private education sector, no thought has been given to oversight of the early childhood sector. This results in a fragmented education system in which territory is protected, a common vision is avoided, and over which bureaucrats can rule without interference from either politicians or the public.

It is time for a Hong Kong education council with a brief for vision development and strategic thinking. The new chief executive must lead this council on behalf of the people and on behalf of the future. Education is not a bureaucratic area to be delegated: it is a strategic area on which Hong Kong’s future rests.

Across all sectors of education, teachers are the central players – supporting students’ learning and liaising with parents, with some rising through the ranks to lead schools. These schools can provide the foundations for renewal in Hong Kong.

A new education vision can bind a society through enunciating its common values and commitments. This process can start with the new chief executive embracing education as the key area of her ­administration. This would be a strong signal to the community that Hong Kong can rise again, with an educated and intelligent citizenry ready to face the future.

Professor Kerry Kennedy is a senior research fellow in the Centre for Governance and Citizenship at The Education University of Hong Kong