Five years have passed since the launch of the new senior secondary curriculum in 2009 before the implementation of the Hong Kong Diploma of Secondary Education Examination (HKDSE) in 2012.
With the goal of diversifying students' learning, the new curriculum introduced the compulsory subject of liberal studies, a host of electives from financial studies to health management, and school-based assessment that has infamously added to teachers' workload. These changes were made with noble intentions - to equip students with the skills and mindset necessary for the 21st century workforce.
But that hardly makes the reform initiatives problem-free. Just before the Easter holidays, the Education Bureau announced fine-tuning proposals for the core subjects of Chinese language, Chinese literature and liberal studies as part of the new academic structure medium-term review conducted by the bureau, the Curriculum Development Council and the Hong Kong Examinations and Assessment Authority.
Also based on feedback from schools, teachers and other stakeholders, the proposals imply changes in future curricula and content of the high-stakes HKDSE exam. On the subject of Chinese language - acknowledging concern among educators about students' falling language standards - it was proposed that from 2015-16, 12 classical Chinese essays will be incorporated into the curriculum at Form Four, leading to the 2018 HKDSE exam. For Chinese literature, two set classical texts will be included in the S4 curriculum from 2015-16. Attempts will also be made to further streamline the school-based assessment.
Many Chinese teachers value the classical essays and see them as model writings that could help avert the slide in students' language standards. But more needs to be done to achieve that. In today's internet age, under the onslaught of ubiquitous social media, teenagers are more prone to using symbols like the so-called martian code than write proper characters. It is vital to reignite students' interest in reading and writing in both English and Chinese.
While the classical texts are full of flair and potentially inspiring to readers, it takes huge effort and patience by youngsters to read through and make sense of their stylistic expressions. It is time for officials and educators to come up with fresh ideas to help youngsters find joy in reading age-old pieces of writing. Combining comic strips with the texts could be a way to arouse interest and aid comprehension.
The other key recommendation - relating to the controversial subject of liberal studies - did not come as a surprise. Taking into account complaints about the workload of the independent enquiry study, which requires a research project on a social issue, the assessment will be streamlined from next academic year to one final report rather than a process report and the final product.
While it must have come as a great relief to teachers, the proposal has also raised concerns about how to ensure the authenticity of the final piece of work. Who can guarantee the final report is really the work of the student concerned? It is very important for teachers to be involved in guiding and overseeing students' research work that spans more than one academic year, says one veteran teacher who calls the latest proposal an easy way out.
Close to finishing a postgraduate degree, the teacher also stresses the importance of having people with the relevant training or a research-based degree teaching the subject. "Now liberal studies is just taught by any teacher who is available," he says.
The issue of quality of teaching was sidestepped in the latest review. But the bureau has pledged continuous professional development for all teachers, acknowledging the need for more sharing of expertise and experiences for the profession.
Curriculum reform has not begun badly. But it remains a journey of exploration. There is much room for reflection and discussion before the bureau comes up with the last batch of recommendations by July next year.