How to navigate the learning curve

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 04 December, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 04 December, 2011, 12:00am


'Learning for life, learning through life' is a much-touted slogan that accompanied Hong Kong's education reform launched in 2000 to cultivate talent for the 21st century. A decade later, local students are certainly exposed to diverse learning opportunities.

But an aspect of this worries educator Lam Bick-har, an associate professor at the Hong Kong Institute of Education's department of curriculum and instruction. She supports the reform but fears the students' schedules are so packed, they are missing out.

Lam, who also won the HKIEd's Excellence in Teaching Award last year, presents many of her views in Learning and Teaching in the Chinese Classroom. It's published by Hong Kong University Press and co-written with Dr Shane Phillipson, an educational psychology expert at Monash University in Melbourne.

'The aim of education is to help individuals to develop their thinking abilities, potential and interests for living and enjoyment,' she writes.

As Lam sees it, the ideal education has its roots in the 2,500-year-old Confucian tradition, which places value on personal development and moral education. 'According to Confucius, the 'ideal person', zunji, is the human being committed to a search for personal moral perfection, without forgetting that his/her personal moral growth has social implications,' she says.

Yet what she found through contact with youngsters today is a potentially lost generation immersed in plentiful tasks in an increasingly competitive environment. They have little time for personal reflection and understanding values.

'I feel that students are overloaded today,' Lam says. 'Learning the piano is a basic activity for many now.

'Students are given a lot to do, but it is questionable whether they have any time for self-reflection.'

Teaching about personal development, or what Lam calls the cultivation of the self, is something the implementation of school-based assessments (SBA), has stolen away.

While qualities such as adaptability, creativity, abilities for communication, self-learning and co-operation - as stated in the government's education reform document - are important in an age of globalisation, the SBAs have added to the students' and the teachers' workloads.

'Teachers have much administrative work to do. They have to provide the Education Bureau with samples of their students' project work and do moderations on students' grades. There need not be SBA for all subjects. Integrated assessment can be done instead for various subjects to test students' generic skills,' says Lam.

The world these primary or secondary school students know is a high-pressure, achievement-orientated environment obsessed with success. Lam sees an uncomfortable parallel in the business world, where product and service quality suffers as companies become obsessed with maximising sales. Success is measured quantitively - in education by scores on exams, and in the business world by money.

'The Hong Kong classroom is miles apart from the Confucian model,' Lam says. 'The reform talks about learning to learn and broadening one's perspectives. But what about small-class teaching and additional resources for teachers?'

It is all too common for Chinese communities to attach too much importance to academic results, says Lam, who is a former secondary school teacher.

In her book, she writes that one thing Chinese learners have in common is to respect and not to question the authority of teachers. Families favour rote memorisation and drilling. They believe in diligence and say that a good academic performance is a route to personal success and glory.

But this emphasis on achievement and success, bringing glory to the family, and carving out a career, puts too much pressure on the students, says Lam. 'We need to respect diversity. Not everyone is suited to being a university professor. The problem is, people cannot accept being ordinary.'

What Lam calls the 'degeneration' of the Confucian educational model has deep historical roots. Passing the exam was the only goal of learning under the tradition of the imperial examination system.

Memorisation, citation and rote learning became prominent as the only way to achieve that end. Under China's 2,000-year-old tradition of authoritarian regime, they were the criteria that the state used to select successful officials from among the hopeful candidates.

The system made the scholarly elite subordinate to the system. Critical analysis and creative thinking were never considered. There were no graduates of the 'pass the exam' mentality who knew how to teach it.

Even Qing dynasty Emperor Qianlong conceded there were problems with the exam system. Lam quotes him as saying: 'The pursuit for a degree in the examinations creates a kind of person who is only interested in name and profit.

'The desire is deeply planted in their thinking. It is very difficult to lure them back.'

Confucius advocated the teaching of the six arts. These were mathematics, rites, music, archery, charioteering and writing.

What mattered to him was not mere knowledge and skills, but the integration of knowledge with the highest ideals of humanity.

'Many still see education as a means for attaining security and material benefits,' says Lam. 'Despite the reform, little transformation has occurred culturally. Parents need to strike a balance between attaining security and encouraging their children's personal development.'