Come to think of it
'The chain's clothes are cheap, which is attractive to students, and its hip designs also spice up local youth fashion. But their exploitation of cheap labour is a matter of concern,' Sandy Yeung Tsz-shan tells her classmates. The sixth former at the Christian and Missionary Alliance Sun Kei Secondary School in Tseung Kwan O is having fun sharing her views of Japanese clothing chain Uniqlo.
The lesson on globalisation has sparked a lively discussion about major international companies as students analyse popular brands such as Apple, Nokia, Louis Vuitton and McDonald's, and set out their contributions and shortcomings on a blackboard.
It's all material for liberal studies, which was introduced two years ago as a compulsory subject for the new Diploma of Secondary Education (DSE). To qualify for university entrance, secondary students sitting for the DSE next year must get a pass in liberal studies, along with three other core subjects - Chinese, English and mathematics.
The liberal studies curriculum, covered in the three years from Forms Four to Six, comprises six modules - personal development and interpersonal relationships, Hong Kong today, modern China, globalisation, public health, and energy technology and the environment. The Education Bureau trumpeted the subject as part of a drive to end the segregation of students into science and arts streams and help them develop critical thinking and research skills.
However, liberal studies teachers such as Jacob Hui Shing-yan, who takes Sandy's class, are finding it a stiff challenge to prod students out of their habit of memorising and regurgitating facts.
'Students must nurture a daily habit of reading newspapers but it's difficult as they rarely extend their reading beyond textbooks,' Hui says. 'Instead of just asking them to read newspapers, I will set certain topics. For Form Four students who just started the academic term, I asked them to look up news articles about the 10-year anniversary of [the] 9/11 [terrorist attacks] and the lead-up to the chief executive election.'
Hui often draws on material from pop culture and everyday situations to spice up his lessons; for instance, screening the movie Crash as part of a lesson on racial tension, or showing video footage of pandemics for a module on public health. 'We enjoy considerable leeway in the design of the curriculum ... The key is to make things interesting and relevant to students' daily lives.'
With the first exam just seven months away, schools are busy preparing for the wide-ranging subject. A survey by youth group D-Dong in June found that many students have difficulty with the subject. More than 60 per cent of the 545 respondents say the extensive curriculum requires a lot of memorising, with nearly half saying they had difficulty completing independent projects on their own.
Chan Kwok-wai, a Form Six student at Tam Pak Yu College in Tuen Mun, worries how he will do in the exam.
'I feel like a guinea pig,' he says. 'There are no past papers to fall back on. Each of the six modules is so extensive in nature that you don't know where to begin your revision. Take modern China, as an example. Everything happening in China nowadays and all world events in which China plays a role could be used as exam questions. Even if I read the newspaper every day, it would be difficult to keep abreast of everything.'
However, the Hong Kong Examinations and Assessment Authority has released a series of mock papers to help students and teachers prepare for the upcoming exam. Two papers, which include data-response and long essay-type questions, will account for 80 per cent of marks. The remainder derives from the Independent Enquiry Study - a project that students undertake over the three years under teachers' guidance.
Unlike other subjects, the liberal studies programme doesn't feature a list of recommended texts; the Education Bureau has advised against their use, saying 'teachers should employ a large variety of updated materials from diverse sources in order to provide pupils with a wide range of perspectives'.
Yet 80 per cent of schools are estimated to have bought textbooks despite doubts about their quality (none have been vetted by the Education Bureau).
'The culture of developing their own teaching materials has yet to be established among teachers,' says Dr Lo Tin-yau, head of the Centre for Research in Interdisciplinary and Liberal Studies at the Hong Kong Institute of Education.
'It's understandable for less experienced teachers to rely on textbooks. Given their tight teaching schedules and poor support in curriculum development, developing their own teaching materials would increase teachers' burden. But given the nature of the subject, it's better for teachers to regard textbooks as only reference and make other sources available.'
The new approach is raising stress levels among liberal studies teachers. A survey by the Professional Teachers' Union in May found that 35 per cent of the 769 teachers polled rated their pressure at nine, out of a maximum 10 points. The average pressure score was 7.9. Reasons cited for stress included shortage of staff, long working hours and big differences among students' academic levels.
Tsang Ka-chun, a liberal studies teacher at Tam Pak Yu College, says supervising student projects occupies much of his time.
'I am in charge of more than 50 students, with each tackling a different topic,' he says. 'I have to give individual guidance through all three stages, from when they hand in a project proposal, collect data and finish the final report at different points throughout the three years. The bulk of my time after class is devoted to talking to students and guiding them.'
Ensuring fair assessment of students' work is a big concern, Tsang says.
'Teachers have different marking criteria, some are more strict and others lenient. The exam authority has rolled out detailed marking schemes spelling out assessment criteria for each question, but elements of subjective marking still remain.'
However, an exam authority spokeswoman says measures will also be in place to ensure impartial assessment, including using two independent professionals to mark each question.
Besides, students can acquire many skills from the projects, she says, including data handling, argument development, issue inquiry and how to draw conclusions.
Meanwhile, Tsang also worries how students are gleaning information from the internet for their project reports.
'There isn't enough time to check whether students engage in wholesale copying,' he says. The situation may be worse two or three years later, when a host of finished projects are available online, he adds. Few students will bother completing their own work as they can buy it from others or simply use the one completed by an older brother or sister who attended a different school.
Sixth-former Leung Ho-yee, whose project is on youth attitudes to money, concurs. Information supposed to be collected from questionnaires could be made up, says the student from Tam Pak Yu College. 'Teachers won't know if you make up the data. We have a lot of assignments and revisions to do for other subjects, and need to devote most of our time to preparing for the public exam. I just look for information for the project one or two days before the deadlines for different stages.'
That marks for his project will be adjusted by the exam authority according to his school's performance in public exams further dampens Ho-yee's enthusiasm.
'A school's performance in the public exam will take precedence no matter how well you do your project. When I think about that, I don't want to do it at all. It's like the whole exercise is to satisfy a whim of the Bureau.'