Hong Kong students need inspiration, not more tests, to excel

Sun Kwok looks at how HKU's science curriculum has been reformed to shift education away from rote and abstract learning, to instead create a passionfor problem-solving and a wider world view

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 28 May, 2015, 5:44pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 28 May, 2015, 5:44pm

It is widely reported in the media that Hong Kong students excel in standard science and mathematics tests. For example, the Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa) tests 15-year-olds in many places, and Hong Kong students - along with those in Singapore, mainland China, Japan, Taiwan and South Korea - always rank near the top.

When I arrived in Hong Kong to become dean of science at the University of Hong Kong in 2006, I had high hopes, as HKU takes the top students in the city. I thought it would be a pleasant change from the university students I had been teaching in Canada for the previous 20-some years, as Canadian students usually performed less well in these standard tests.

Indeed, I have found that some Hong Kong students are the smartest and hardest-working students I have ever met. Some are highly motivated to succeed.

At the same time, I can't help noticing that they have been let down by the system. While Hong Kong students can calculate mathematical problems very quickly and accurately, they have no idea what maths is for.

To them, mathematics is just an abstract exercise unrelated to the real world. Their idea of maths is to mechanically and repeatedly grind through formulas. When asked what mathematics can do to solve problems around us, few can give any answers.

Similarly, science in secondary schools is taught in a segregated manner, and students cannot relate physics to chemistry to biology. Even fewer can relate these subjects to nature, our environment or our everyday lives. Students are very good at learning the abstract knowledge in books, but many fail to see the science present all around them.

Few university students know why it is hot in summer and cold in winter, why the sky is blue, when and how the mountains were formed, why the oceans are salty, or why the moon has phases.

Every child is born curious. Five- and six-year-olds are observant and ask questions about their surroundings all the time. Our schools should promote their curiosity and encourage them to learn more about our world.

However, the education system in Hong Kong burdens them with tons of memorisation and, in the process, strangles their desire to learn.

When they get to university, they are already totally exhausted.

The goal of science education is to show students how to think, analyse real-world problems and come up with solutions. In my classes, I tell my students there will be no memorisation. To reassure them, I allow them to bring papers with notes to the exam. The exam tests their understanding of the subject and their ability to extrapolate this knowledge to new situations. Students find this very hard as they are used to memorising notes and reproducing model answers to standard questions.

Changing the state of science education in Hong Kong is not easy but we have to try. Over the past several years, the Faculty of Science at HKU has made significant changes to our science curriculum. We introduced a credit-based major/minor system to replace the previous fixed-recipe programmes. We now have more than a dozen science majors outside the traditional subjects of physics, chemistry and biology. Students can choose any major and are admitted based on a common admission policy. They are required to undertake experiential learning to help them relate theoretical concepts to practical applications.

In 2012, we created a new one-year sequence of compulsory science foundation courses. In the first course, we discuss the nature, history and methodology of science. We introduce different branches of mathematics and show how maths can be used in different disciplines. The emphasis is on formulation of problems but not calculations. The second course is about integrated science. It encompasses physics, astronomy, earth sciences, chemistry and biology, so students can see how different subjects are intertwined and relevant to each other.

These reforms are based on the philosophy that university education is more than vocational training and our goal is to provide students with a whole-person education with a broad world view, abilities in critical thinking and the flexibility to adjust to a rapidly changing world.

Our science graduates go into many different professions, and they need to have an education that they feel is relevant and will benefit them for the rest of their lives.

Whether such reforms will succeed in changing our students' thinking and better preparing them for the real world is yet to be seen. But it is clear that the quality of education cannot be measured by standard tests. Instead, we must measure our students by their ability to innovate and compete in the modern world.

Professor Sun Kwok is the dean of science of the University of Hong Kong