Our young people need a more balanced education

As well as acquiring knowledge they should be developing social skills, like in the West

PUBLISHED : Friday, 06 December, 2013, 4:28am
UPDATED : Friday, 06 December, 2013, 4:28am

A few years ago, a distinguished scholar from an overseas university took up the presidency of a local university. He is a rather courteous and considerate individual. Whenever he goes through a door, he usually holds it open to let others go through first.

One day, as he was about to enter a building on campus, a steady stream of students was emerging from the other side after class. As usual, he held the door and let them come out first. And that went on for a minute or two, as there was a continuous flow of students out of the building.

He kept smiling and holding the door for them, but no one bothered to say thank you. They simply breezed past, more or less ignoring him.

On another occasion, I accompanied the president of an American university to visit Peking University, where she had been invited to give a talk on US liberal-arts education.

The talk lasted for about 45 minutes, followed by a question-and-answer session. Each of the dozen or so students who sought to ask a question would stand up, compliment the guest speaker politely in his or her own words, then ask a thoughtful or serious question - a question with depth, reflecting a good understanding of the content of her talk.

At dinner time that evening, she told me this was undoubtedly the most enjoyable lecture in her entire academic career.

A teacher does appreciate feedback received in class. Teaching and learning constitute a two-way process. The more appreciative or responsive the class, the more enthusiastic the teacher becomes.

It is the experience of many university teachers in Hong Kong that their students seldom ask questions in class. This appears to have become an inherent part of our classroom culture, and has been for some time now.

From early childhood, many of our pupils are loaded up with schoolwork. A lot of them can still be found working at their desks well into the evening. There is always so much to learn, and so much to study each and every day.

I have many friends whose children grew up in countries such as Canada. Their common experience is that the children do not seem to have a lot of homework during their primary and junior high school years.

This, however, does not mean their children learn nothing during those years. They have to do various projects from time to time.

In order to do so, they have to read many books, collect relevant research materials and eventually produce research reports for presentation to the class.

The other important thing that they spend a fair bit of time learning is social skills. For example, if a child bumps into another person in the hallway, he or she is expected to say "excuse me". Otherwise, the teacher may issue a reminder or even a black mark.

In other words, education encompasses both knowledge and social skills. Students learn how to be courteous to others and how to develop good interpersonal skills, in addition to acquiring knowledge.

By the time they reach senior high school, their social skills are fairly well developed. The emphasis is then shifted to academic studies, in preparation for entering university.

Maybe it is time we considered striking a better balance between knowledge acquisition and personal development for our children, including the learning of basic social skills.

Professor Lee Chack-fan is director of the University of Hong Kong's school of professional and continuing education