Creative factor

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 30 September, 2004, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 30 September, 2004, 12:00am

A pioneering educator has bent old habits to make learning fun

Children today do far more in school than just cover the formal curriculum. They hear authors read from newly published novels, learn about healthy eating, attend after-school drama clubs, receive Aids awareness instruction and learn traditional arts.

In most countries, many different agencies would be involved in providing these enrichment activities, but in Hong Kong, there is a good chance all the extras your child enjoys will be due, in part to one woman: Sansan Ching Teh-chi.

Arthur Li Kwok-cheung is chief of the Education and Manpower Bureau, which provides the statutory aspects of children's education, but Ms Ching is his unofficial chief critic, who tries to provide whatever the bureau has overlooked.

She is director of the Council of Early Childhood Education and Services, a non-profit organisation that promotes children's education, health and welfare and aims to put the creativity and fun back into schooling.

The council's self-styled 'pioneers of informal education' run myriad innovative projects that try to fill gaps in the education system.

Many of them have gone on to win government funding or been emulated by other providers.

Recent initiatives include a new drama curriculum for primary schools using real actors, a primary English language programme that involves parents and cookery workshops in schools to promote healthy eating.

'Everything we do is targeted at encouraging children's all-round personal development,' she says. 'It is something that was desperately lacking from Hong Kong education for so many years.'

Today, the council is largely self-financing and schools buy its services as required to complement their mainstream curriculum.

Under its summer programme, 975 children at 17 schools took part in English courses and about 500 children at nine schools were involved in a range of drama activities.

When Ms Ching founded the council in the 1980s, she had already played a leading role in a series of other campaigning educational bodies. In the 1970s, she started the Committee for Improvement of Primary School Entrance Procedures, a pressure group that was instrumental in getting the bureau to ban competitive primary entrance tests.

She was also a member of the Education Action Group, which campaigned to make secondary schools less exam-orientated and co-founded Playwright, which lobbied for safe, enjoyable and child-friendly playgrounds across the city.

Its efforts spelt the end of many grim colonial play areas with their concrete surfaces, chain and plank swings and cast-iron roundabouts. Gradually, her work won official recognition and in the 1980s she was appointed to the Board of Education and the Education Commission.

Ms Ching was a humanities student at the University of California at Berkeley in the heady days of 1968.

'I experienced the height of rebellion in the US and it had its influence,' she admits.

'It showed me that a well-organised form of pressure will change things. The techniques of the political activist inform my work. But education is a more gentle way of influencing people - you bring their minds up a notch.'

However, her greatest driving force is the memory of her own school days at Diocesan Girls' School. 'I was so unhappy. Children had to fall in line and it seemed like a prison. I was a professional daydreamer thinking about what I would do when I wasn't at school, and many of my ideas today come from sitting in the class daydreaming.'