Education Bureau puts liberal studies under the microscope
Educators are divided over the effectiveness of liberal studies being taught as a mandatory subject in local secondary schools. Linda Yeung found students also had strong opinions on the subject
A jovial atmosphere prevailed in the classroom as groups of senior form students took on adult roles as directors of a company debating where they should set up a regional base - Hong Kong or Shanghai. In turn, they argued their case before the audience of fellow students acting as company shareholders.
The students appeared to enjoy the role play in the liberal studies class at De La Salle Secondary School.
A core subject in the senior secondary curriculum launched in 2009, liberal studies is intended to broaden the mindsets of students and encourage them to put on their thinking caps. But it has remained controversial, being blamed for exacerbating the workload of both students and teachers.
Many have also cast doubt over its effectiveness in fostering critical thinking.
As part of a mid-term review of the new curriculum, the Education Bureau is seeking views from schools and other stakeholders on improving the subject's curriculum and assessment methods.
Students have griped about the extra work needed for the independent enquiry study (IES), an extensive research endeavour that includes a 1,500- to 4,000-word research essay for the school-based assessment of the subject. Some want liberal studies to be an elective, not a core subject.
"Nobody would choose it if it were an elective subject," says Betty Kui, a Form Six student. "Its content is too broad. The IES just made you exhausted. We were supposed to get individual guidance from teachers, but there was not enough time for them to discuss the projects with each student in class. Often I could not find them after school and I ended up doing it mostly on my own."
The bureau is due to make recommendations on refining the IES this July and on liberal studies by July next year.
Judging from responses so far, the IES will most likely be further simplified and the weighting in students' final grades reduced.
Lee Suet-ying, chairman of the Hong Kong Association of the Heads of Secondary Schools, notes the gap between the ability of students and the demands put on them by the research exercise.
"About half of the students at an average school cannot handle it. They have to formulate their own inquiry-based topic, research scope and research method," she says.
"What is being asked for is university level, not what a Form Four or Five student can handle."
But she does favour retaining the subject in the core curriculum as it exposes students to topical issues under the six prescribed modules: personal development and interpersonal relationships; Hong Kong today; modern China; globalisation; energy, technology and the environment; and public health.
"There is room to cultivate critical thinking. Students today pay more attention to newspaper reports. They all know about the Occupy Central movement, for example.
"No major [events] have happened since the subject was introduced so there is no good reason to go backwards."
Terence Poon Man-yiu, a liberal studies teacher at De La Salle Secondary School, agrees. "When I was in school, I did not know as much about current affairs as students today. Keeping it as a core subject helps broaden students' horizons and nurture students' critical thinking."
But views are split on how effective it is in achieving that goal. A liberal studies teacher who asked not to be named is highly sceptical, given the proliferation of courses and so-called star liberal studies tutors at tutorial schools.
"They teach model answers and it is easy for them to guess what topics are likely to be featured in the public exam. They are likely to be hot topics. Hong Kong is the only place in the whole world with this subject called LS."
He also questions the professionalism of those teaching the subject. The teachers come from various disciplines and often simply took up the subject at the request of their principal.
"You can be a geography or biology major. Not all are capable of leading discussions or research projects."
He thinks the subject should be an elective. "For students' well-being, they should be given the freedom to choose to take it or not."
Fifteen-year-old Joy Pamnani, who is studying at a local school, says many teachers make students follow a particular writing style or stick to model answers. "And most students do so because they are scared they will be penalised in terms of marks if they don't. This defeats the whole purpose of liberal studies. If we are learning to express our opinions, why should we follow model answers?"
Jessie Pang Yu-tung, a Form Six student, says many teachers and students focus more on acquiring the skills necessary to answer exam questions than on discussing current affairs. "It would be better if LS was more coursework-based than exam-based."
Poon maintains there are no model answers and students are simply expected to provide reasoning for their answers.
To ensure fairness, examiner meetings are held before the grading of the papers in schools and by the Hong Kong Examinations and Assessment Authority for the Hong Kong Diploma of Secondary Education examination.
"Students need to show they have a clear stance on an issue. Those who only memorise views will not get a good grade."
Poon says teachers without a social science background can gain an understanding of various issues by taking part in joint lesson preparations.
Tsang Sui-ming, a liberal studies teacher and spokesman for the Education Concern Group, supports a review of the subject to explore how best to develop civic-mindedness and independent thinking in students.
"It serves the important value of developing civic qualities which are indispensable for democracies," Tsang says.
"Civic education is weak here and students tend to know little about the outside world. But the scope of the subject can be narrowed down. An unhealthy aspect of our education system is that it is examination-oriented and drillings are common. We can explore whether liberal studies has to be exam-based," he says.
One possibility, he suggests, is to model it on the International Baccalaureate Diploma Programme where students submit an essay on a topic before graduation.
Together with liberal studies, one goal of the new senior secondary curriculum is to broaden students' knowledge base. Whether that is happening is also being studied by the bureau. With an emphasis on core subjects, the response may be negative.
"We can't say their learning scope is broadened when most students take two electives on top of four core subjects.
"Schools need to make sure they get good results in the core subjects for the purpose of university admission as universities give limited recognition to students' other learning experiences," says principal Lee.