• Mon
  • Dec 29, 2014
  • Updated: 3:16pm
CommentInsight & Opinion

Teacher training is key to improving Hong Kong's English language skills

Philip Yeung says focus on exams stifles English language education

PUBLISHED : Monday, 16 September, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 16 September, 2013, 2:59am

A new school year is here, and so is an old problem. To put it bluntly, Hong Kong sucks at English. Everyone laments this, but no one is doing anything about it.

So, where should we begin? At the source: teacher training. All education reform lives or dies at the point of delivery. Michelle Rhee, the former chancellor of the Washington school system, is right when she says that at the heart of any quality education is a good teacher.

But, in Hong Kong, we have been turning out teachers who are handcuffed to the exam machine, whose job is to drill, not to inspire, students. Good language training is never a purely linguistic matter, either. It goes with an understanding of its ambient culture. This understanding comes from reading and living the language. Any teacher-training programme that does not induce teachers to read and reach into the wider world is a poor professional preparation.

In the past, I have strongly supported upgrading the Hong Kong Institute of Education to university status. I suspect that until such time as the Education Bureau is convinced that HKIEd shows a dramatic improvement in teacher training, this quest is unlikely to succeed. The government, for its part, needs to spend more on scholarships to entice quality students to become teachers and do something about the low occupational status of teachers. Above all, spare teachers the drudgery of needless paperwork.

But this does not absolve teacher-training institutions of the obligation of improving the way we train teachers. Here, fresh thinking is called for. Teachers should be, first and foremost, language practitioners, skilled in the art of writing and speaking. Few of our language teachers ever indulge in any writing. Local teachers are indifferent to book reading as a source of enlightenment or entertainment. A teacher who repeats himself, year after year, recycling stale knowledge, is a poor role model.

Time to take a long, hard look at our teacher-training curriculum, and put the pleasure of learning at the top of the agenda. The most precious thing in a teacher is a passion for learning and teaching; it transforms everything he does in the classroom.

There is another elephant in the room - our examination authority. We all know public exams drive all the learning activities in this city.

Unfortunately, exam preparation, by definition, is short-term learning, discarded as soon as the ordeal is over. This system churns out students with little curiosity and no creativity. We produce graduates who are robotic, shallow, inarticulate, and who crave diplomas but not the skills behind them. We are a society without the suppleness, originality and lubrication of literature, lost to the wonder and power of the mind.

This season, however, there is reason for hope. A new leader, Professor Stephen Cheung Yan-leung, takes over the presidency of the Institute of Education. Can he lead our teacher training out of the wilderness?

He must realise the problem will remain unsolvable until the Examination Authority works with our teacher-training institutions. We can no longer afford "business as usual".

With public exams the be-all and end-all of learning in this city, exam designers have a special responsibility to see that they generate learning that is relevant, functional and exploratory, beginning with our teachers. Otherwise, we are, linguistically and culturally, a doomed city.

Philip Yeung, a Hong Kong-based writer, is a former speechwriter to the president of HKUST and author of Make Every Word Count and the forthcoming The DNA of English and the Art of Writing


For unlimited access to:

SCMP.com SCMP Tablet Edition SCMP Mobile Edition 10-year news archive



This article is now closed to comments

Laudable sentiments, but how does one change the narrow, ethno-centric bigotry of Education Bureau officials whose stupid, misguided nationalism has wrecked English language teaching in Hong Kong?
We already had an excellent English medium school system in the ESF which wants to take in students from families of modest incomes, but the officials have pursued an irrational and spiteful policy of financial persecution to the point where ESF soon loses its subvention. Its fees will have to increase to the point where it will beyond the reach of middle income families, thus having been forced to become an "elitist" institution.
Well done Education Bureau, you have shot Hong Kong's kids in the head and yourselves in the foot, but never mind, you can congratulate yourselves on being good little patriots.
Singapore 9 : Hong Kong 0.
"Time to take a long, hard look at our teacher-training curriculum, and put the pleasure of learning at the top of the agenda. The most precious thing in a teacher is a passion for learning and teaching; it transforms everything he does in the classroom."
Isn't this a sensible foundation for almost every subject taught in high school and college? While English teachers might face particular challenges in engaging Chinese students, it behooves dedicated teachers across the board to know students and push students to realize their personal learning goals. Unfortunately, especially in light of the extreme pressure to reach target scores on standardized exams, many teachers and students feel chained to a narrow, impractical, and often tedious curriculum that fails to meet the hopes or authentic needs for innovative and creative 21st-century adults. Or so it seems to me.
I completely endorse Philip Yeung's call to improve the quality of teacher training. However I would add the rider that should Professor Stephen Cheung Yan-leung decide to do that, he best not replicate what happens elsewhere.
I say that because the results of students learning English in most parts of the world is not something one would want to emulate. This is because the uptake rates and the numbers who actually go on to the advanced levels are surprisingly low. They are low because the methods and approaches used have not made much headway in the past few decades. Certainly the books are glossier and look more appealing, we now have online delivery and blended programs BUT the outcomes just do not improve!!
We are stuck with paradigms that do not produce the results we would all expect. After all we all learned our first language successfully. What happens after? Coincidentally our success rates plummet once we hit school!! There is more to the problem than that, but we have for too long ignores the incomparable capacities we develop as we learn our first language.
I would hope the good Professor looks further afield and at least looks at programs that walk the talk, not just talk the talk. A new book out, Language Learning Unlocked looks at some of the these issues and ways of seeing language learning which embrace how we learned our first language.
First of all, we must recognize that Hong Kong government since the colonial day fosters elitism in education. While we produce few A students, we produce and accept the making the majority just being D students. Without political muscles, Hong Kong parents has long accepted and even defended the inequality in education and bet on their children would be the A student. Teachers for D students subsequently are of lesser ability which is a sure way to perpetuate the making of D students and upholding the elitism education system.
Hong Kong is saturated with brokers – real estate and stock. Some are even university graduates who are lured for the high income those jobs can generate. There may be a silver lining over the contracting development now and future in real estate and stock to go into education in numbers.
For English language, for immediate result import more qualified native English speakers to teach in our schools as well in all universities and particularly the Teaching Institute. Send these teachers in group to a school on certain days so they wouldn’t be isolated by local teachers. Make the English teaching pleasant to all.


SCMP.com Account