Poverty of learning killed slumdog spirit

PUBLISHED : Friday, 13 March, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 13 March, 2009, 12:00am

The film Slumdog Millionaire hit me like a chunk of falling concrete. What struck me was not the stinking poverty or the brutish existence, but the vital energy of the street children - who survive through cunning and quick thinking.

Now, pan away to a low-banding local school. It is populated by zombie students desperate to escape its unending tedium.

The Mumbai urchins are an echo of Hong Kong slum dwellers in the 1960s. Back then, children were inventive, with their self-made toys, and helpful with chores. There was no time for boredom, because all their energy was channelled into staying alive.

That fighting spirit is dead among many in Hong Kong, thanks to the stranglehold of big business and an education system that is anti-life. In classrooms with 40-plus students, the teacher's first task is to keep them quiet.

In a 35-minute lesson, with disciplinary distractions, each child barely gets 15 seconds of the teacher's time. Being voluble gets you tagged as a troublemaker. Raising your hand too often marks you as an irritant. This daily suppression flattens students' personality and crushes their spirit.

It is time to cashier a false god - the god of public examinations. Canada's greatest living author, Margaret Atwood, who is in town, did not attend school full-time until the age of 11. Her childhood was defined by books and her fertile imagination stoked by voracious reading. I sometimes wonder, if left to themselves, whether our straying children might fare better. At least their native curiosity would have survived intact.

At its heart, one key concept is missing from our system: 'respect' for students. For 11 years, they are basically handed a script to follow - a list of do's and don'ts for navigating the exam jungle. This is cattle-class education, in which individuality is ignored and differences are squashed.

Mass education requires its own solutions. We need a parallel system where children and childhood are not sacrificed on the altar of exam preparations.

When teaching fails to connect with students, when it causes pain, then it is time to discard it, with its numbing drills and useless learning. Students should be given problems to solve and stories to read or tell.

Abolish the Territory-wide System Assessment, which consumes two precious years of a child's life. Let students choose international testing systems for their primary and secondary exit exams. In between, they will have time to read and explore. Native English teachers can play a truly inspirational role. Scratch the Central Allocations System and restore neighbourhood schools.

When we alienate the young, we seal our own fate. There are no English-speaking 'slumdog millionaires' in Hong Kong, only 'slick tutor millionaires' who care little and know even less beyond playing a clever exam-question guessing game. As one character in another movie said: 'The greatest tragedy is waste of talent.'

Philip Yeung is a Hong Kong- based university editor. philipkcyeung2@yahoo.com