Rethink needed on kindergartens

PUBLISHED : Monday, 31 March, 2003, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 31 March, 2003, 12:00am

Hong Kong is believed to have the highest proportion of young children going to school. Even though there is no public provision for pre-primary education, virtually all children by the age of three or four are enrolled in privately run kindergartens.

So the latest report on kindergartens by the inspectorate of the Education and Manpower Bureau should come as a concern to all those who care about the education of our next generation. Its key finding: rote learning is still prevalent. Despite the call for creative learning, many teachers are still sticking to the old ways of requiring young minds to 'learn' by dictation, as if learning was about recitation. Some kindergartens even require pupils to write difficult Chinese characters and English words before they have developed the necessary skills of eye-hand co-ordination.

Kindergarten teachers defend their practices by blaming primary schools, which expect pupils to know a minimum vocabulary in Chinese and English. This is despite the fact that the primary curriculum makes no assumption that the typical six-year-old knows the alphabets or any Chinese characters. Others say teaching is poor because most teachers are inadequately trained and underpaid as kindergartens are unable to charge tuition fees high enough to attract qualified staff.

Even more worrying is the fact that the problems identified in the report mirror the conclusions of another report on primary and secondary schools. All reveal glaring weaknesses in learning and teaching. A cursory glance at the reports find repeated references that teachers are textbook-bound and fail to stretch pupils' imagination by challenging them with thoughtful questions. Students generally fail to read widely. While they are attentive in class, there is little interaction between teachers and students and among students.

There is no question that the quality of teaching and learning at all levels in Hong Kong leaves much to be desired. In so far as kindergartens are concerned, the critical issue is to what extent the generally poor learning habits among our young people could be attributed to their experience at that level.

Experts agree that the early years of a child are critical to their development in later years. A young mind encouraged to explore and experiment is more likely to develop an intrinsic drive to learn on their own and the confidence to form and express their own views - qualities that are sorely lacking in most of our youth.

It appears that a good case could be made for the government to fund pre-primary education as a means of improving the quality of an essential component of the education system. Some years ago, the Education Commission proposed a recommended pay scale for trained kindergarten teachers and introduced a fee remission scheme for needy parents. But these had only limited success in raising quality, largely because of insufficient funding.

With the government facing a budget deficit and universities forced to trim their expenditure, subsidising kindergartens may not seem like a starter any time soon. But the issue should certainly be revisited in time. Quality costs. If that requires the community to pay more taxes, so be it.

Yet, quality is not simply about funding. More often than not, a change of emphasis is all it takes to produce qualitative improvements. A more thoughtful and smarter way of teaching does not necessarily cost more. Instead of blaming primary schools for imposing unreasonable demands on them, kindergarten teachers should sit back and think how they can better prepare young minds to learn effectively in primary schools by stimulating their interest to learn.