TSA row provides an opportunity to reshape Hong Kong’s learning environment

Gary Wong says now’s the time to address the root cause of the public discontent with the TSA – an abject failure of our education system to nurture our students’ bodies and minds for happiness

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 23 December, 2015, 10:26am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 23 December, 2015, 10:26am

The Territory-wide System Assessment (TSA) saga has plagued Hong Kong with negative sentiment. More than 40,000 Facebook users have called on our education officials to scrap the tests. Parents, school organisations and political groups have all spoken out against TSA-related exam pressure and excessive practices.

READ MORE: TSA fight continues: Hong Kong principals slam education bureau for telling schools to stop drilling for exams

The problems created by the assessment are apparent before any potential benefits materialise. In theory, it is not designed to pressure students. However, in reality, it does. Some elite schools have incorporated elements of the tests into homework for Primary One pupils. Parents then responded by buying TSA exercise books. Due to the difficulty of some questions, students who haven’t received adequate training in the TSA would usually find it hard to score well in school assignments and tests. If schools are setting exam questions based on the assessment, how can students not study TSA questions?

Moreover, some teachers have revealed that the Education Bureau has, in the past, given schools a hard time over their TSA performance. If this is true, the public might want to know how the bureau plans to improve the quality of primary school education after collecting and analysing the test data.

In response to the social pressure, the bureau has issued a non-binding notice to all primary schools, banning the administering of TSA-related make-up classes and homework at weekends or during holidays. However, this temporary measure has not resolved the dispute but, rather, shifted responsibility and blame to the schools and school councils.

The key question is whether children as young as seven or eight should be exposed to such intensive and mechanical training

What is the root cause of the TSA’s battered public perception? Even if exercises that target the assessment are scrapped, would that mean children could enjoy an education that takes care of their mental and physical well-being?

Examination drills are ingrained in Asian culture. This is why tutorial schools grow like mushrooms and “tiger” mums and dads dominate the Asian parenting scene. I believe parents and students who are concerned with exam results will not deny or reject the need for drilling before exams. But the key question is whether children as young as seven or eight should be exposed to such intensive and mechanical training.

READ MORE: Hong Kong parents condemn education minister over primary school exam controversy

The controversy reminds me of the book, Some Thoughts Concerning Education, by John Locke. He believed education should aim to train sound minds and bodies, because these are the source of happiness. How well are our children doing in these two aspects?

If society really wants our children to experience whole-person development, the last thing we should do is put all our attention and resources on academic attainment

Organisers of the School Physical Fitness Award Scheme attracted little public attention when they made public their findings earlier this year. Their data was gleaned from 100,000 Hong Kong primary and secondary students. The results showed our children have a poorer physique than those on the mainland, in Singapore and Europe. The survey looked at students’ bones, upper body muscles, grip strength, heart and lung functions.

Frankly speaking, if physical education takes up only about two hours in a child’s standard weekly schedule, while time spent on TSA drills and other subjects is 10 times longer, how can we expect them to stay healthy in body and mind?

After all, what is education? Fitness data may not perfectly reflect a well-balanced state of mind and body, but if society really wants our children to experience whole-person development, the last thing we should do is put all our attention and resources on academic attainment. It is high time Hong Kong devised a better way to shape students’ learning environment.

Gary Wong is a governor at the Path of Democracy think tank and a Chevening Scholar