What should we really be teaching children in Hong Kong schools?

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 14 February, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 14 February, 2009, 12:00am

Almost a century ago, the American businessman Henry Ford wrote that 'history is bunk'.

In this article, I will present my views on the best choice of subjects to be taught at school.

I hope that it will lead to further debate on this important issue.

Recently Sir Jim Rose's interim report on the future of the primary school curriculum in Britain was released. The government adviser was tasked with making space for newer subjects by trimming several traditional ones.

However, many commentators said his proposals carried a great danger of chucking out the baby with the bathwater.

Under his proposals the scope of the primary curriculum is to be reduced. Perhaps, understandably, rather than risk opposition by proposing which particular subjects should be dropped, Sir Jim's report instead merely lumps together existing topics under new headings.

Thus, history is to be combined with geography under the new title of 'human, social and environmental understanding'. Some 12 subjects are to be realigned into six 'learning areas'.

It seems a reorganisation has taken the place of the expected trimming.

Nevertheless, vested-interest groups have already derided these curriculum proposals as likely to result in primary school pupils actually learning less, not more.

Here in Hong Kong, there will soon be a rejigging of the secondary school curriculum.

So this may be an appropriate time to consider just which topics should, and should not, be taught in Hong Kong's schools - and in schools worldwide.

Let us start with the premise that school should be a preparation for adult life, rather than a self-contained exercise in itself.

Viewed that way, the benefits derived from our years in school should be judged by the utility, in adult life, of what is taught to children. That measure must include the level or preparedness for the workplace of school and university leavers.

Other factors would need to be considered but the problem of leaving the choice of topics to be taught at school entirely in the hands of teachers and principals is that too few of them have any work experience outside a school, so they don't know what skills are needed when working in a firm.

The Hong Kong Institute of Education has recently announced moves to oblige trainee teachers to undertake work experience away from the school environment.

This will do much to open the eyes of teachers to what they are really supposed to be preparing their pupils for - life beyond the classroom.

So what topic areas would best prepare pupils for the decades they will later spend outside, in the real world where they will operate after completing their education?

Some would say that the really important things in life which we all need to learn are barely covered at school at all - here or in any country.

These include how to select a rewarding career path, how to land a job, how to work effectively in that job, how to manage time and work, how and when to save and invest, how to operate between cultures (so important in 'Asia's world city'), how to get along with other people, how to find - and keep - a lifetime partner and, possibly most important of all, how to be healthy and happy.

These are all areas where most adults learn as they go along, rather than being prepared for them during the years spent at school.

To be more concrete, is it more useful or relevant to teach pupils how mountains are formed, or to develop the skills and knowledge necessary to be able to make informed decisions on where to go on holiday?

Reviewing the unappealing results of global warming and what can be done about this problem might be seen as more useful than knowing the names of all the major rivers in Asia.

In terms of languages, the present focus on Chinese and English seems about right. Many pupils will, one day, need to operate effectively in both those languages.

Pupils would need to build up the skills of formal, written communication in English for later use at work, rather than being restricted to the over-casual short forms commonly employed by teenagers - as u can c here.

Higher mathematics can become the special preserve of the enthusiast, since most of us can rely on a calculator to avoid having to do long division and the like.

A study of history can be presented as a way to understand present issues around the world. Knowing the reigns of the emperors would thus be less useful than developing an understanding of the historical causes of current - and future - international troubles.

The list of 'how to' areas provided above could be moulded into a clear curriculum, with topic areas to be covered at different stages of a school career being devised with a view to instilling and developing such skills - skills which would stand their learners in good stead for life's later journeys.

The present reviews of the school curriculums need to go much deeper and be much more radical if the results are to really improve the relevance - and thereby the usefulness - of the things studied over the long years spent at school.

Paul Surtees is a Hong Kong-based commentator.