Child-centred reform hailed

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 02 December, 2000, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 02 December, 2000, 12:00am

A truly child-centred approach to learning, so lauded by education reformers in Hong Kong, has 'never been tried' anywhere, according to a visiting educationalist from the United Kingdom.

In Britain, the fact that primary school children are seated in groups and work individually is not a sign that child-centred learning is happening, Professor Maurice Galton, of Homerton College, Cambridge, said. Most of the talking was still done by teachers, giving didactic instructions to one or more children, while other children wasted time 'off task', or not working.

But Professor Galton, in Hong Kong recently to give lectures at the Hong Kong Institute Of Education, still favours the child-centred model, for all its failings. He also praised Hong Kong's education reforms for their 'foresight' and 'imagination'. Most importantly, they focused on teaching children how to learn - the key to successful child-centred learning, he said.

Professor Galton believes genuine enquiry by pupils can work, as long as they are protected from a sense of failure. The freedom to ask questions is crucial, but is often discouraged in Britain, like Hong Kong, because of the pressure on teachers to prepare children for tests and exams. The emphasis should be on the process of learning, as desired in Hong Kong's reforms. 'Hong Kong is taking an imaginative approach, but it won't be easy,' he said. For the change to happen, it had to provide schools and teachers with enough support to adapt.

What went wrong in the 1970s and 1980s in Britain was that the framework of learning remained teacher-directed. 'The 'hint' model leaves children dependent on the teacher, and trying to deal with 35 pupils becomes an impossible task.'

Professor Galton's two Oracle studies comparing the same classrooms in 1976 and 20 years later in 1996 have shown that little has changed in typical practice in English primary schools, and they remain teacher-centred. 'When we talk about teachers being interactive and asking questions, as opposed to merely transmitting knowledge, the ratio has not changed. In the last 20 years, the pattern of organisation in a class had changed, but not the type of exchanges between teachers and pupils,' he said.

These were dominated by teachers giving instructions rather than a two-way dialogue with their pupils. There is also very little exchange between pupils. 'Everyone says co-operation is important, but this is not happening. Talk drives learning, but we need less teacher talk and more pupil talk. The most important thing is to encourage pupils to ask questions,' he said. Tests and exams, though, prevented teachers from adopting the 'why' model of teaching.

While Hong Kong is trying to establish child-centred learning, whole-class teaching has in fact increased in Britain. There, the government has directed that teachers address the whole class for 60 per cent of a lesson in the prescribed two hours dedicated to literacy and numeracy, for instance, in an effort to stem time-wasting and raise standards.

'The solution seen by critics was to introduce more whole-class teaching because Hong Kong, Taiwan and Korea did very well in international maths tests,' said Professor Galton.

But he opposes this trend. 'I think there is a role for class teaching. If you want to teach a procedure, the most effective way is to do it directly, for example how to add or subtract, or put a full stop. But if you want to teach a concept, such as what is a mammal, the best way is not directly.' Within a reasonable framework, children should be given strategies to think and solve such problems themselves, he said.