Teachers train to master liberal studies

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 20 November, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 20 November, 2010, 12:00am

A new subject that became compulsory for all senior secondary students last year, liberal studies takes pride of place among the many initiatives in the government's latest education reforms.

The broad-based subject, with topics ranging from globalisation to contemporary Chinese history, is part of a push to abolish early specialisation and the rigid segregation of students into arts and science streams.

The subject is divided into six modules - personal development and interpersonal relationships, Hong Kong today, modern China, globalisation, public health, and energy and the environment. Each has several themes.

With inquiry-based learning, discussions and independent projects making up a large part of the curriculum, liberal studies is meant to develop students' critical thinking skills and give them wide exposure to many fields of knowledge. The subject is also intended to help students form links among the six subjects and the 'other learning experiences' of the new curriculum.

Liberal studies won near-universal support within the education sector when it was first proposed as the answer to Hong Kong's ingrained rote-learning culture, but its implementation has proved controversial.

Teachers have complained about the difficulty of preparing lessons for the wide-ranging subject matter, following advice from the Education Bureau that they should develop their own teaching materials rather than rely on textbooks.

Concerns have also been raised about subjectivity and fairness in marking because the subject's assessment system requires markers to make personal judgments about students' essays based on a set of indicators.

These issues, combined with the difficulties that teachers face adapting to a subject without fixed content, have prompted the launch of a spate of master of education programmes specialising in liberal studies. Institutions offering the subject include the University of Hong Kong, Chinese University and Hong Kong Institute of Education.

Dr Ki Wing-wah, who heads HKU's two-year, part-time programme, said: 'Teachers of the subject are under a lot of pressure. A topic such as globalisation is endless in nature. It covers a huge variety of things. Teachers have the sense that they have to teach everything, and they feel at a loss and overwhelmed.'

Ki said lecturers helped students to explore the difficulties they faced - designing the curriculum and delivering lessons in liberal studies - and to come up with solutions. 'We will discuss the approaches to curriculum design and assessment to help students make better pedagogical decisions,' he said.

Open only to experienced teachers, the programme has three modules: issues of curriculum philosophy and design, learning and assessment, and from principles to practice.

'The course starts with theories,' Ki said. 'Students have to read literature and understand what liberal studies means and involves. After they get well-versed in the theories, they have lots of opportunities to put the knowledge into practice through project work.'

Jacob Hui Shing-yan, a co-teacher in the master's programme and liberal studies teacher, said there were many similarities between teaching liberal arts and teaching English.

'The demands of the subject are a bit like those of English composition,' Hui said. 'Students have to be exposed to current affairs and various kinds of newspaper articles so as to be conversant with new trends and a wide-ranging vocabulary.

'Candidates in English-writing exams don't know what topics will appear on the paper and they also have no fixed syllabus to fall back on. If they choose to answer a debate topic, they have to spell out various perspectives on the issue and have a viewpoint.'

Ki said one of the keys to teaching the subject effectively was to enable students to deduce first principles from the details of minor events.

Ryan Lam, an economics teacher who plans to switch to teaching liberal studies, is among 17 students taking the HKU programme this year.

In spite of all the workshops organised by the Education Bureau on assessing students' work in the subject, Lam said many teachers still felt uncertain about it since they were accustomed to traditional assessment methods that relied on model answers.

'There are no model answers in liberal studies, which is all about nurturing students' values,' he said. 'As markers, we have to assess the analytical ability of students and see whether they can bear out their arguments with facts.'