• Sat
  • Aug 30, 2014
  • Updated: 3:00pm
PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 18 March, 2014, 1:38pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 19 March, 2014, 2:07am

Hong Kong students must learn to co-operate, not just compete

Kelly Yang says an obsession with being competitive means our children are missing out on the many benefits of working with others

Last week, an old student of mine came home for a holiday from boarding school in the US. I asked him what he found most difficult about going to a boarding school. Surprisingly, it was not keeping up with the reading or managing his time. It was agreeing to help a friend, sharing his notes and lab work, and contributing his best ideas to his class. In other words, it was learning to work as a team.

It took him the entire first year to learn the first rule of teamwork - how to put aside his own competitiveness. This was no easy feat considering that during all his life growing up here, he was told competitiveness is the key to success.

Surprisingly, America is not all about individualism. The most popular sports there are American football, basketball and, to a lesser extent, soccer. All are team sports. Children are encouraged to care about their peers. Those who are outstanding are encouraged to lead, rather than go it alone.

The long-term ramifications of co-operation are huge. Studies show teamwork boosts intelligence. At leading universities, leadership is the No 1 character trait admissions officers look for in applicants.

Companies look for it, too. In the business world, it's simply not enough to have a bunch of brilliant people. If they cannot come together as a team, it doesn't matter how bright they are individually.

Perhaps more importantly, teamwork feels good. When my student finally adjusted to the team environment in his new school, he said he felt like a giant weight had been lifted off his shoulders. It turns out that he was exhausted from years of being so competitive, from always guarding his best ideas and hoping his classmates, even his best friends, all failed their exams just so the class curve would be improved in his favour.

Increasingly, here in Hong Kong, that's how many students think. It's how parents and teachers encourage them to think. By emphasising exam results and always talking about who got into which school, over and over, we're losing sight of the bigger picture. I fear that in raising our children to be ultra-competitive, we're also raising them to be incapable of surviving, let alone thriving, in any kind of team.

When I was 10, I loathed group projects. Teamwork, as far as I was concerned, was something concocted by teachers to reduce the number of papers they had to grade. Who needs others when one can be a lone tiger?

Many parents I've met here share this sentiment. One mother said she won't let her son join the school debating team because "he'd have to rely on other people to do well". My thoughts exactly - when I was 10.

But the 10-year-old me was wrong. It took many years - and much unnecessary frustration - to finally realise that the lone-tiger approach can only get one so far in life. To truly go the distance, we need the power of the collective. We need to tone down the competitiveness and increase the co-operation. We have to shift the focus away from "I" if we want to give all our "I's" a real chance.

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


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"The most popular sports there are American football, basketball and, to a lesser extent, soccer." The article left off baseball, one of the longest existing and among the most popular games in the USA. If the point of this argument is that sometimes we really can't see or understand what we aren't used to, this omission is an excellent example of that in miniature.
As for the main thrust of the article, I have found that many students believe that their marks are the reason for school and when I tell them that actually the marks are a measure of how much they have learned they don't believe me. It's as if we sent our children to the shop to buy gold but when it is measured out they bring home the lead measuring weights instead and don't even know the difference.
While being taught to collaborate, students may also learn to work independently because some deep thoughts come from a quiet place.
But, gee, the author's lone tiger upbringing led her to the Nirvana of a Harvard degree which is ostentatiously displayed around her neck. Methinks the lady doth protest too much.
Good work
Well done
May I apply your observation to problems:
in local sports
where we have outstanding athletes
but no outstanding sports team
in the financial industry
where HK effectively is a rent-collector
playing landlord to international firms
which utilize / control local “talents”
but has never considered / attempted
development of institutional capability
in socio-political development
where false individual entitlements dominate the agenda
public sentiments are mostly antagonistic and seldom cooperative
protest matches are popular
but not cultural events
No writing or any suggestion about change of education in Hong Kong. Parents of Hong Kong school children are calcified in the colonial elitism in education system. They all think even many kids are consigned to improper education with less teaching quality; hopefully their kid would prevail and enroll in the elite school. The graduates of elite school also lead a cottage industry to perpetuate the name of their elite school for their kids by establishing schools in the name of their mother school.
Yang, if you want to right the wrongs of the education system you should begin with the parents. Even government can’t do much to reform Hong Kong education when most of the officials are the products from the elite schools in Hong Kong.
If you write to reform education in your column it would be met either with mostly silence or ridicule. At least this is my experience to share it with you.
Elitism is a dog eat dog practice which has no social value.
How many (remote?) airports in the Maldives are good enough to land a 777? Seems like the perfect remote spot for landing a plane! Torsten @ ****www.mightytravels.com


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