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Hong Kong schools

Yidan Prize winner Carol Dweck urges against cramming culture of the kind Hong Kong has become known for

Stanford professor in the city to receive world’s biggest education prize, as government mulls continuation of exam derided as encouraging high-pressure rote learning

PUBLISHED : Monday, 18 December, 2017, 6:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 18 December, 2017, 9:00am

Children’s learning should be joyful and focused on understanding and inquiry – rather than the drilling that Hong Kong schools have become known for – a renowned psychologist, recently in the city to receive the world’s biggest education prize, has said.

Professor Carol Dweck’s remarks come as the city’s government prepares to announce whether a standard test often associated with high-pressure rote learning will continue next year.

Dweck, from Stanford University in the US, was in Hong Kong last week to collect the inaugural Yidan Prize for Education Research, for her groundbreaking research on the power of the “growth mindset”, based on the belief that intelligence is not fixed and can be developed over time, given the right approach.

The prize was started in 2016 by Charles Chen Yidan, co-founder of mainland tech giant Tencent. It comprises one award for education research and another for education development. Each laureate receives a gold medal and HK$30 million (US$3.9 million).

Dweck, 71, said her research, which goes back about 40 years, was prompted by her interest in why only some children fulfil their potential.

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She said her interest stemmed from a much earlier experience when she was in sixth grade, with a teacher seating her class according to their IQs, despite it being the cleverest class in the school, by IQ.

“Once she did that, no one cared about learning any more, just about not making a mistake; not losing your seat,” she said.

After years of research, Dweck – whose findings have been implemented in countries such as the US, Norway and Peru – found that children with a “fixed mindset” would worry whether they were smart and would succeed in life and stop caring about learning. Those with a “growth mindset”, she found, could joyfully learn and develop their abilities.

But Dweck noted that the concept was not about telling children to work hard, which is common in Hong Kong, where many parents view academic success as paramount to their children’s future.

“Chinese culture is already telling children to work hard. That’s not growth mindset because they’re working hard for the product, not for the growth or the joy of learning,” she said.

The professor also warned against “tiger parenting” – referring to demanding parents, particularly in Asian cultures, pushing their children to attain high grades using methods such as relentless drilling.

She said these students could be extremely anxious, and feel worthless and depressed if they did not succeed at something.

She said the “growth mindset” should instead be about focusing on understanding, questioning and thinking, and results would follow after that.

The Hong Kong government is expected to announce in the next two months whether the Primary Three Territory-wide System Assessment will continue next year. Originally designed to enhance learning and teaching by providing the government with data to review policies, the assessment has become associated with a drilling culture in Hong Kong.

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This has led parents and educators to call for the test to be scrapped, ending the pressure it puts on pupils, and for the curriculum to be reviewed as a whole. The government recently began a review of primary and secondary school curriculums.

With some educators not knowing how to truly implement the “growth mindset” or some applying it incorrectly, Dweck and her team are working on developing a curriculum based on the approach. She said she would spend part of her prize money on that.

She said it could focus more on collaborative problem-solving, understanding, giving children time to revise and using grades that recognise improvement, rather than just performance.