Hong Kong school course promotes critical thinking on rule of law
Understanding the rule of law and being able to formulate an opinion of our own based on facts are important for our personal development and Hong Kong society at large. This is why Chong Chan-yau launched an introductory course on legal studies for secondary students in April this year.
"The rule of law is relevant to our daily lives; it is a core value upheld in Hong Kong. It is very important we uphold it and not let any political power override it," says Chong, director of EL Education, a company he set up six years ago that provides English learning courses to students and teacher training to fellow teachers.
Made an honorary fellow of University of Hong Kong in 2012, Chong is a graduate in information systems from the London School of Commerce and a household name highly recognised for his dedication to community services and advocacy for the underprivileged in the city. In the early 1990s, he joined the civil service and helped the government to draft policy papers on gambling, higher education and labour legislation review. He was executive director of Oxfam Hong Kong and remains an adviser of the organisation. He is currently president of the Hong Kong Blind Union. His passion for justice has never ceased.
"We hope that through our course, students can develop a deeper understanding of the rule of law, its origin and related fundamental concepts," says Chong.
The new course on legal studies is the first of its kind offered to secondary students in Hong Kong. It has three levels. Level One takes 12 hours to complete and covers the fundamentals such as the branches of law, basic contract, basic tort, and an introduction to criminal law. Real legal cases and judgments will be introduced. Students are given different scenarios to discuss, analyse, debate and come up with a solution based on what they have learned. The level of interactivity is high with role play and plenty of discussion time. In April, the first level was run to 20 students on a trial basis for three hours.
Unlike many student learning courses on the market, its purpose is not to prepare students for sitting examinations, but to train them to think independently and critically.
"We didn't design the course for examination - it is beyond examination," Chong says.
"But the skills they learn in our classes will benefit them for life. They will experience the process of thinking and learn to express their beliefs in a rational manner supported by reasons and evidence," says Chong.
"What our course offers is a platform for students to think and ask questions, to challenge others' viewpoints and be challenged. This is rare to find in Hong Kong's examination-oriented education," adds Johnson Chan Man-long, designer and instructor of the course and senior academic consultant of EL Education, and a scholarship winner Juris Doctor from Chinese University of Hong Kong.
"I think many students are not able to analyse issues clearly. They aren't always clear which facts are associated with the problem. This legal studies course will train them to do so," Chan adds.
Chong observes that many young people today are afraid to express their opinions and the kind of training in school doesn't equip them to do so.
"For example, in liberal studies classes students will be taught to analyse different viewpoints and answer the [examination] questions by expressing a balance of viewpoints. But gathering different opinions is only the starting point in the process of critical thinking. It is not critical thinking until you are able to own your opinion. It's very important that young people are passionate about their beliefs," Chong says.
"I think our students are locked in the examination system. To achieve high marks, they need to follow certain ways suggested [by their teachers or tutors]. I even heard that some were taught how to predict the marker's thinking, rather than how to develop their own thinking. So they ended up giving you the 'model answer' or the so-called 'balanced' view you want and not telling you what they really think. It is only pretending," Chong adds.
Chan is adamant that students do not need to pretend in his class. "Students are free to express themselves in a safe and respectful environment. They will learn to listen to each other. Listening is very crucial in the development of critical thinking," he says.
Mark Chow Ming-kin and Anna Tse Sze-wai, both 17, were among the 20 students who attended the three-hour trial lesson in April. Both of them have planned to study law in university and found the course interesting and innovative.
"I joined because there isn't any course on legal studies for secondary students in Hong Kong," says Chow, who is in Secondary Five at St Francis Xavier's College.
"In school, the liberal studies classes only focus on social issues. Besides, there isn't enough time for us to discuss things in depth as there is too much to cover for the examination," he says.
"I like the way Johnson taught us. He involved us in role plays and there was a lot of interaction. The scenarios given were interesting. We had plenty of time and space to think about the issues.
"I was able to hear the arguments from other students who disagreed with me, which allowed me to question myself of my beliefs again. I enjoyed the learning process a lot."
Another participant, Tse, also found the lesson exciting. The Secondary Five student at Belilios Public School says: "I'm impressed with how we were led to analyse the issues and how freely we were allowed to express our views. I learned a lot by hearing what the others said. Their different views made me rethink and reflect on my own beliefs."
Tse enjoys taking liberal studies lessons but thinks the subject has its own limitation.
"We're supposed to learn to think critically but it's hard to do so in the classroom when we have to follow a tight syllabus and schedule," she says.
Both students think it is important for young people to know where they stand among different issues and to have a clear idea of their own future.
"I think it's important to have an opinion of your own, especially when nowadays we are faced with an explosive amount of information on the internet," Chow says.
Chong and Chan are warmed by the positive feedback from students in the trial class. They have already scheduled to run the full course twice in July and are hopeful the course will continue to run after the summer.
"I'm sure secondary students will benefit from our course, which they are ready for. At 18 years of age, they can vote, drive and sign documents. Teenagers today are mature enough and we need to give them more trust to think critically," Chong says.