Don't lose sight of the goal when it comes to education reform

PUBLISHED : Monday, 07 July, 2014, 6:01pm
UPDATED : Monday, 07 July, 2014, 6:03pm

A preliminary review of curriculum reform, which is one of the most important instruments to implement education reform, was completed recently.

There is a long list of achievements to date: the new 334 academic structure, a new exam for secondary graduates, new examinable subjects, a whole array of curriculum guides and syllabuses, overseas recognition of the new Hong Kong Diploma of Secondary Education examination, a scheme for other learning experience (OLE) for students in school and the smooth transition of university education to a four-year mode. We can, and should, celebrate all of them.

While mid-course reviews are necessary, more should be done to strengthen the link between the reform measures and the original vision of the reform. We must not lose sight of the kind of ideal graduate we strived to nurture when we first set out on the reform journey.

We need to stop and ask: do our formal curriculum and informal or hidden curriculum, which is as significant as the former and embraces all aspects of school life, produce desirable qualities in our graduates? Are their academic standards maintained or even raised, have their critical thinking, independent study, communication, problem-solving, creativity and team skills - to name a few - been nurtured, and are their moral character, civic mindedness and sense of national identity well formed?

Do educational personnel see how the vision and the curriculum measures are linked and how the link can be practically strengthened?

It may be time to start collecting data on how good the link is, as well as living examples of good practice of alignment so that curriculum reform will not be just a case of much ado about nothing. What worries me is that curriculum reform to date has a structure but no living spirit.

A closer look at the situation on the ground may reveal that school education in general is as exam-oriented as ever, rote learning remains the predominant mode, school life is still devoid of meaningful other-learning experiences for students, lecturing and drilling are still the main modes of teaching and public exam results and university admissions remain the overarching goal.

For curriculum reform to work as it should, teachers need to learn and relearn, through professional learning programmes, all the necessary teaching skills. These include questioning techniques to stimulate critical thinking instead of lecturing all the time, and also unlearn those old skills that do not work, such as excessive reliance on rote and individual learning as opposed to group learning. However, they need time and space to do that, as well as good training programmes.

Curriculum and instructional leadership by the school heads, as well as subject panel heads, can help them make a more genuine transition. In-school communities of professional learning and inter-school communities of the same kind, to be fostered by leaders at different levels, are also a good means to nurture a new learning and teaching culture territory-wide.

Even sustained changes to exam formats or the types of exam questions set can shift the mentality of teachers and their teaching to a more open-ended, multiperspective, application-sensitive mode. In addition, a stable job environment is also a prerequisite for deep and genuine change in curriculum focus and teaching.

Working under constant threat of closures and job losses, schools often seek cosmetic changes and quick returns. The government should continue to stabilise the education system so that school personnel can find more space for implementing real and deep changes.

Indeed, the kind of educational outcomes our reform seeks are not like factory products that can be mandated and then mass-produced.

The process involves genuine change on the part of educators in terms of methods of teaching and learning, administrators in terms of leadership and policy making and students in terms of aspirations and attitude towards studies. It takes genuine interaction among the different parties.

Other measures could also help make the reform process tick. On university admissions policy, more emphasis should be given to the role of interviews so that applicants' individual talents and OLE can be given more recognition.

Better articulation between primary and secondary schooling is another measure that could help ensure proper nurturing can start early. Parental education to help parents see different routes to success for their children can definitely shift societal expectations away from mere academic achievements.

Indeed, it takes lots of effort and time for our curriculum reform to acquire its living spirit. Robin Cheung is a retired school principal