For years, Hong Kong's star tutors have capitalised on a formula that has made them millions - education as entertainment. Star tutors like Richard Eng and Kelly Mok have branded themselves as not just teachers, but also rock stars, attracting hundreds of students to their classes and mesmerising them with their cool looks, stylish clothes, latest gadgets and expensive cars. But are these star tutors right? Should the future of education be like watching a show?
The big tutoring agencies, among them King's Glory, Modern Education and Beacon College, lead Hong Kong's HK$400 million industry. These big players operate on a business model of charging a relatively small fee per student but packing them in. As such, star tutors need vast numbers of students, sometimes hundreds per class. And in Hong Kong's cutthroat tutoring industry, the pressure is high for the classes to be as entertaining as possible.
When I talk to students who go to these institutions, they say their star tutors often swear in class, sing, and even tell inappropriate sex jokes. Unlike their conservatively dressed teachers, the female star tutors wear high heels and miniskirts. Tutors add their students to Facebook and often talk in the same text-speak lingo. Students were quick to point out the advantages. 'We can't help but put our iPod Touches down and listen,' said one.
Is this where education is heading? And if it seems to be working, is this bad? After all, education experts have recently acknowledged that Generation Y children are harder to teach. With all their gadgets and addiction to instant gratification, children now have a harder time paying attention and staying focused. Yet, they still need to learn 'mundane' subjects like calculus. Is the solution simply for teachers to jump up on a table? Or write obscenities on the whiteboard?
As much as I'd like to say 'no', I have to admit that when education is entertaining, more often than not, it works. The fact is that in most secondary schools in Hong Kong, teachers struggle with students who are falling asleep in class, listening to their iPods, or texting on their phones. Ironically, the cram schools do not seem to have this problem. It used to be that introducing technology to the class would be enough to grab students' attention. But what do we do when technology on its own is no longer sexy?
The truth is that education as entertainment works. No child would ever turn down a hilarious, attractive teacher. However, we do not want to teach children that the reason you pay attention is because a person looks nice. Over time, it stops working - because the one thing even more stimulating than listening to an attractive person is listening to someone who is really smart.
The problem with the tutoring schools is that they do not think children can figure out the difference between a teacher who is really great at teaching and one who is just popular. But they can. So, instead of spending so much money on their appearance, star tutors should take a leap of faith and believe in our city's students. And just teach.
Kelly Yang is the founder of The Kelly Yang Project, an after-school programme for children in Hong Kong. She is a graduate of the University of California, Berkeley, and Harvard Law School. firstname.lastname@example.org