Generation 40s – 四十世代

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Hong Kong education reform continues, but Beijing’s role presents new challenges

South China Morning Post
CommentInsight & Opinion

Katherine Forestier


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Opinion: Hong Kong’s science students shouldn’t be strong armed into liberal studies

South China Morning Post

Richard Wong
‘The inclusion of liberal studies might have stemmed from noble intentions to train critical thinking, but the skills learned are more compatible with non-science than science electives’

The recent report on “Science, Technology and Mathematics Education” (or the Tsui Lap Chee Report) issued by the Academy of Sciences of Hong Kong finds our secondary school curriculum and university admissions criteria have under-emphasised science education, and that this will hamper prospects in the new economy.

Another education failure, not the subject of the Tsui Report, is the underinvestment in senior secondary and tertiary education for at least two decades. This has been the leading cause of our lacklustre economic performance.

Both failures should be corrected at the same time for the sake of Hong Kong’s economic future.

Domestic and foreign investments are attracted to localities where they can recruit the necessary skilled manpower. For a small open economy like Hong Kong, an abundance of science, technology, engineering and medicine (STEM) graduates is absolutely necessary for attracting business investments in the new innovative technology economy.

Many commentators and even economists blame our failure to develop new innovative and technology industries on the government’s misguided belief in positive non-interventionism.

Much of this criticism is ideologically motivated rather than evidence based. It is not obvious that facilitating institutions and a pro-active policy to correct market failures and capital market imperfections, and provide preferential tax treatments and land subvention advantages for innovative and technology industries, can compensate for the lack of skilled manpower. The latter is a prerequisite for attracting investments in the new economy.

I subscribe to what I call the “Gobi Desert” narrative. Adopting the best institutions and policies in the middle of the Gobi Desert will not spawn new industries because no one is willing to go there to live. It will remain empty and desolate.
It very sensibly recommends module flexibility for science subjects to cater for a range of aptitudes among students

In Hong Kong, among the population aged 25 to 34 in 2012, only 34.7 per cent had university degrees versus 49.3 per cent in Singapore. Among those aged 35 to 44, the corresponding figures were 24.8 per cent and 40.4 per cent. Is it at all surprising that Hong Kong has lagged behind Singapore in new economy activity given our inability to attract educated and skilled workers and our failure to invest in education?

This does not mean that everyone will become a scientist, engineer or technologist. But it does mean more and more jobs will require workers to possess scientific and technological know-how. Workers in the new economy must possess an understanding of the fundamentals and principles of science and technology to engage in lifelong learning.

Government policy can address the problems of attracting skilled workers to Hong Kong but it must also address the greater challenge of developing home-grown talent.

In this regard, curriculum reform in the schools and admissions criteria of the universities should be revisited.

Nearly half of senior secondary students have no exposure to a science subject. Moreover, students taking advanced mathematics have dropped from 23 per cent in 2012, when the new Hong Kong Diploma of Secondary Education (HKDSE) was introduced, to 14 per cent in 2016.

Moreover, over two-thirds of the students sitting the HKDSE examinations took only two electives due to overemphasis on the four core subjects—English, Chinese, mathematics, and liberal studies. Before 2012, students took on average four elective subjects outside three core subjects. The dominance of the four HKDSE core subjects crowd out electives and effectively stream students away from science.

The Tsui Report recommends trimming the core HKDSE subjects to achieve better balance between science and non-science subjects. It does not recommend which ones to trim, but liberal studies is an obvious target, which could either be dropped or changed into a pass-fail subject. This would create room for more students to pursue a balanced choice of elective subjects between science and non-science subjects.

It very sensibly recommends module flexibility for science subjects to cater for a range of aptitudes among students, and greater recognition of advanced mathematics to encourage its inclusion as a core subject.

It also calls for universities to review their admissions criteria to redress the imbalance between core and elective subjects to achieve a better balance between science and non-science subjects.

The inclusion of liberal studies might have stemmed from noble intentions to train critical thinking, but the skills learned are more compatible with non-science than science electives. The large majority of students, especially those with self-doubt about abilities, have chosen non-science subjects in a bid to improve their public examination scores as they compete for heavily-subsidised scarce university places.

Liberal studies is often mistaken for a “liberal arts” education, which it is not. The latter is a conception of university education that covers a balance of humanities, social and natural science subjects, and generally refers to studies not relating to professional, vocational or technical education. Given this, dropping liberal studies from the HKDSE core will better prepare students that wish to pursue a “liberal arts” education.

Richard Wong is the Philip Wong Kennedy Wong Professor in Political Economy at the University of Hong Kong

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Liberal studies helps open minds, rather than creating radical students

South China Morning Post
Comment›Insight & Opinion

Stephen Chiu and Trevor Lee

Stephen Chiu and Trevor Lee say the focus on balance may temper activism, as research shows

Months after the end of the Umbrella Movement, its student leaders continue to shine in the international media spotlight. Alex Chow, Lester Shum and Joshua Wong have become household names.

Apparently, today’s students are playing a vanguard role in protest politics.

Many people have sought to explain why this “post-90s generation” have taken a radical turn politically, and some members of the political establishment have pointed to the introduction of a new compulsory subject at senior secondary level – liberal studies.

Liberal studies became part of the curriculum in 2009. Since then, it has been blamed for opening the floodgates, allowing radical ideas into the classrooms and prompting students to take their views to the street. Among its six modules, one – “Hong Kong Today” – covers the topical issues concerning citizenship, identity, rule of law and socio-political participation.

Conservative politicians and commentators have expressed serious concern over the politicising effect of liberal studies. There have therefore been calls to overhaul the curriculum in several ways, including trimming the political content and even making it an elective subject, rather than a core one.

More recently, a number of officials – in Hong Kong and on the mainland – have denounced teachers who, according to these officials, have used their classrooms to promote left-wing political causes. However, this was not what we found in our in-depth interviews with 36 senior secondary students from 15 schools and 20 core members of Scholarism who had taken classes in the subject. Liberal studies had little impact on student activism, the survey showed.

Firstly, most respondents said liberal studies helped them develop a more all-round and in-depth understanding of controversial political issues and disputes that made them “think twice” when considering taking any action.

Secondly, student activism is likely to be dampened – not encouraged – by the prevailing exam-oriented attitude towards liberal studies.

For the majority of the students, the exclusive motivation to study the subject was to secure a high grade.

Respondents were often drilled, through assignments and tests, on exam skills that encourage them to consider multiple points of view, balance the positive and negative aspects of an issue, and offer a rebuttal to each argument in an essay-type answer.

Surprisingly, even those politically engaged students from Scholarism we spoke to had similar experiences of the gap between knowledge acquisition and political participation.

While they said that the politics-related content and in-class discussions of controversial issues had enhanced their political knowledge, they also admitted that their main purpose for study was to pass the exam.

Over half of them had never participated in any protest before joining Scholarism. Looking back, none attributed their decision to join the group to having taken lessons in liberal studies. Instead, the group had got together initially to oppose the government’s plan to introduce moral and national education in local schools.

In most cases, politicisation seemed to have intensified through their experiences in taking social and political action and through personal or online contact with activists.

In general, the heightening of political knowledge led to empathy towards the protesters’ grievances. However, the training they received in liberal studies made them more circumspect about taking part in overt political engagement.

Only two respondents said liberal studies classes had a direct impact on their political engagement, crediting their teachers for inspiring them.

Looking at the findings, however, we believe politically radical teachers appear to be in the minority. The same could also be said of politically conservative teachers.

Despite the political significance that many observers have attributed to this new subject, one clear conclusion from our research is that liberal studies classes are far from being a hotbed for student radicalism. In Hong Kong, the school is nowhere near as effective an agent of political socialisation as the city’s vibrant and ultra-open mass media, especially online and social media.

The emergence of student activism may be more a function of the increasingly polarised and radicalised political climate in Hong Kong.

In fact, the emphasis of liberal studies on multiple viewpoints, the complexity of politics, and the skills to verify dubious information (especially from the internet) may even have a “moderating” effect on student motivation to take part in political action.

Stephen Chiu is co-director of the Institute of Asia-Pacific Studies at the Chinese University of Hong Kong and also the chair of the Curriculum Development Council-Hong Kong Examinations and Assessment Authority Committee on Liberal Studies. Trevor Lee is a research associate at the Institute of Asia-Pacific Studies

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Teach Basic Law in liberal studies in the true spirit of inquiry

South China Morning Post
Comment›Insight & Opinion

Kerry Kennedy

Kerry Kennedy says including the Basic Law in liberal studies could help develop enlightened thinkers, as long as the aim is to broaden, rather than narrow, the school curriculum

Now, it seems, Occupy Central is to be blamed on liberal studies. There has been too much teaching about politics and this is what has brought students onto the streets. At least this is the implication of the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong’s advice to the Education Bureau that the politics component of liberal studies should be reduced.

Instead, there should be a greater focus on the Basic Law rather than the rule of law and socio-political participation. In other words, a more conservative school curriculum will produce more conservative citizens.

There are many problems with the DAB argument. The main one is that only two cohorts of secondary school students have completed liberal studies, representing those currently in the first and second year of university. Most of the students involved in the Occupy protests have probably never heard of liberal studies.

A second problem is that students are not necessarily passive learners soaking up everything teachers and schools tell them. Study after study has shown that students think for themselves and make their own judgments about issues.

A third problem is the tendency to regard the school curriculum as an instrument of propaganda, as was the case in the national education debates in 2012.

Nevertheless, the issues raised by the DAB and what appears to be a not unfavourable response from the Education Bureau deserve further consideration: the need to consider the role of the school curriculum in these particular times and the suggestion to focus more teaching on the Basic Law.

The DAB argument is basically an argument to narrow the curriculum. Yet that is the last thing Hong Kong needs. Rather, there needs to be a renewed commitment to making sure students develop the kind of skills that will allow them to understand the current issues, consider alternative points of view and learn how to negotiate with others over areas of disagreement.

Students need to learn about the true nature of dialogue, how to engage in it and how to produce outcomes acceptable to both sides. Hong Kong needs civically literate citizens, not single-issue citizens looking for quick fixes to complex problems.

At the same time, Hong Kong does not need servile citizens ready to acquiesce to any authority without truly understanding the issues and the consequences that follow from actions. We do not need a narrowing of the curriculum but a broadening that will contribute to the development of more enlightened citizens. Such citizens will know when to act, when to negotiate and when to compromise. They will come to value the democratic way and what is expected of democratic citizens.

None of this rules out teaching about the Basic Law. Indeed, the opposite is the case. The more Hong Kong people know about the Basic Law, the better it will be. Students in particular should know it is a national law, not a local law, and can be amended only by the National People’s Congress. They need to know that the final interpretation of the Basic Law rests with the NPC Standing Committee, although Hong Kong’s courts can also interpret some provisions of the Basic Law.

These sound like dry legal facts – and they are. But understanding the instruments that govern them will also help students to understand the limits of what is possible under the law as well as the responsibilities of different parties affected by the law. Law-related education should certainly be part of any liberal studies course.

These are the different ways the school curriculum might be used to help students learn about citizenship and their responsibilities as citizens.

Yet it has to be recognised that there are many other ways in which students might learn these things.

Parents, peers, traditional and social media and social groups such as churches provide additional ways of learning about citizenship. None of these is under the influence of the school and, in Hong Kong at least, they are not under the influence of the state.

Thus students come into contact with political ideas and thinking from a variety of sources. Students must evaluate these different sources and make decisions about what they themselves will believe.

The key contribution of the school curriculum is to make sure that students are well equipped to make these judgments, using evidence and making an assessment of how different courses of action will benefit the majority and not just a privileged few.

Using the school curriculum as an instrument of propaganda should not be on any educational agenda. Recognising the role the curriculum can play in developing intelligent and caring citizens who can make a difference to the future of Hong Kong should be a key priority in these troubling times.

Professor Kerry Kennedy is director of the Centre for Governance and Citizenship at the Hong Kong Institute of Education

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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