Stop teaching children that exams are more important than moral values

Kelly Yang says things have gone badly wrong in society when academic results take precedence over a child's moral education

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 10 June, 2014, 1:50pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 11 June, 2014, 2:27am

The savage beating of a teacher recently in Shaanxi by a group of students, followed by the teacher's decision to keep quiet about the assault until after the national university entrance exam, gives new meaning to the term "high-stakes testing".

The teacher was battered about his head with three mops until the handles broke, and all because he didn't let the students take part in an annual event of textbook ripping. After the bloody assault, the regional education bureau convinced the teacher to stay quiet about the assault until after the students who hurt him had taken the gaokao that weekend.

This is a prime example of what can happen when the Asian emphasis on education goes too far. After news of the incident broke, many Chinese took to weibo to ask questions like, "Why on earth is gaokao more important than everything else?"

Indeed, why on earth has education completely taken over our lives, to the extent that our very values and moral judgment have become clouded?

Similar trade-offs are made here in Hong Kong all the time. A student cheats on an assignment. The teacher decides to turn a blind eye rather than bother with the repercussions of taking him to task. A child's parents demand a glowing recommendation letter. The teacher has serious reservations but opts to write a good one anyway, all in the name of education.

These compromises happen every day. So many teachers I talk to are worried about getting into trouble, not with their superiors and school principals, but with parents. This is not just a Hong Kong problem. In the US and Britain, parents will even sue schools if they are not satisfied. Soon it will take real guts - and maybe even a lawyer - to give a child a B grade.

Nowhere is this academic priority greater, though, than in China. During the gaokao, parents and teachers even give female students birth control pills so they can avoid menstruating during the exam.

But to cover up assault is pushing it even for China.

One of the worst things we can do for students is to prioritise academic education over character education, which teaches important moral qualities. Without character education, academic education is useless. Increasingly, though, parents are much more concerned about test scores, admissions and exam results than who their children are as people.

The other day, I went to a school to give a talk. The graduating seniors were just leaving the auditorium as I got there. This was an impressive group of young adults, with many heading to Ivy League universities and other top establishments around the world. But what I'll remember is this: they left litter all over the auditorium, half-empty bags of crisps, trays of fries and sticky sweet wrappers, all tossed carelessly on the floor.

Still, many parents will only see their Ivy League gloss. If we want our kids to behave well, not just score well, it is up to us, as parents, to shift the priority and change the conversation.

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. kelly@kellyyang.edu.hk