Perverting the purpose of education

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 09 May, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 09 May, 2007, 12:00am

April is the cruellest month - when the dreaded HKCEE, the be-all and end-all of local secondary education, begins. On day one, a flap over an essay titled 'Lemon Tea' erupted. This topic takes the cake for silliness. Every year, topics are a cat-and-mouse game between the examination authority and fat-cat tutors.

This examination fixation has cost us dearly. Local schools begin gearing up for the Hong Kong Certificate of Education Examination in Form Four. Nothing is learned unless it feeds the exam fetish. From January or February in Form Five, all teaching ceases. Students stay at home to bone up for exams, or worship at the altar of 'super-tutors'. On paper, secondary students enjoy five years of schooling. In reality, they get three, plus two years of exam preparation. Lunacy is dressed up as learning.

Like the Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL) and the International English Language Testing System (IELTS) - a test taken by overseas applicants for study at universities in the US, Britain and other parts of the English-speaking world - our public exams should be offered year-round online, so the HKCEE will cease to be the rite of passage that defines or devours our young.

The HKCEE has perverted the purpose of education - in content and methodology. Teachers drill and students cram.

This year, exam designers have to dodge another bullet: concocting an English exam that masks the failure of mother-tongue teaching. The early verdict is that the threshold is so low the candidates are 'unchallenged'.

Classroom teaching is long on form and short on function or foundation. Why wrestle with offbeat questions when many students cannot tell the difference between 'confidence' and 'confident', as in 'I have confident in you', or 'I am an office assistance'. Or this old chestnut: 'I did not success'? Meaningful questions would target the linguistic differences. Chinese draws no distinction between 'succeed', 'success' and 'successful'. Yet word classes are the molecules of English expressions.

In Chinese, prepositions have few or feeble meaning-making functions. In English, there is a world of difference between a 'contract with you' and a 'contract on you'. We cringe at local specimens such as 'voice out your opinions', 'investigate into your complaints', or 'I apply the job'.

With the grammar epidemic infecting all social levels, why does the exam authority still fiddle with shallow topics?

Stop trying to outfox the clever tutors. Bring back foundational grammar and proofreading questions. This way, you neuter them, forcing them to coach the basic rules of use. Take cleverness and political considerations out of exam designs. We should worry more about students who say 'I cannot breath' than trying to wrong-foot the slick exam decoders or save the face of bumbling educational policymakers.

Philip Yeung is director of the Hong Kong Society for the Promotion of English