When making decisions about their children's educational needs, many parents choose to take the long-term view, envisaging how their young ones might someday contribute to society as adults. And while forecasting potential career opportunities for your infant may seem a little futile given the rapid pace of socio-economic change, one thing is for certain, at least according to business leaders: countries in Asia will likely experience a significant shortage of individuals with the ability to lead and innovate (see box).
David Wu, a Beijing-based partner at PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC), which recently conducted a global survey of 1,250 CEOs, largely attributes the situation to schools. 'Our education system is designed for following, for obeying, for not standing out. That makes it a challenge for us to produce good people with the talent to lead and innovate,' he says.
Many educators have long felt the same, taking steps to ensure that their programmes and facilities not only steer children towards the standard markers of academic attainment, but also equip them with traits beneficial to society.
Cheung Siu-ming, principal of Creative Secondary School (CSS) in Tseung Kwan O, is one such educator.
Hong Kong's school system, he says, still reflects society's bias towards quantitative, tangible, 'useful' subjects such as science, maths and economics, which has resulted in the best and brightest being channelled into 'left brain' courses, and the downplaying of subjects such as literature and arts, which stimulate originality and free thought.
'That kind of mindset is very deeply rooted in our society and has to change,' Cheung says. 'You need a broad and balanced curriculum. And in our school, design and creativity has its place.'
This approach, especially its emphasis on free thought, is embodied at Tai Tam's Montessori for Children school.
For the very young, classroom activities and materials seek to encourage the use of all the senses, explains Chiara de Silva, the school's group director. Centred initially on colours, sounds and tastes, the basic Montessori philosophy is to allow independent exploration and freedom, albeit within certain limits. The aim is to introduce children to the 'endless joy' of learning and to start them off on an educational path where creativity has an outlet and engenders interests, and then to enable them to pursue those interests with confidence.
In an ideal world, parents would have the time to follow a similar programme at home, says de Silva, allowing young children to satisfy their curiosity and develop sensory awareness, which she says can give them a head start when it comes to thinking creatively, as well as concentrating on and pursuing goals.
Schools like CSS strive to remove potentially discouraging competitive elements from subjects such as music and drama, which often become a quest for 'grade 8 piano' or inter-school prizes.
In her comments for a Harvard University Graduate School of Education newsletter, Stanford University professor and psychologist Carol Dweck concurs that excessive focus on extrinsic rewards can cause children to lose their inner drive which, she noted, was a key determinant of leadership ability.
'We have fallen into a culture that tests and labels,' Dweck added. 'And we need to be creating people who are visionaries, who are risk-takers, who know how to adopt a challenge and pursue it over time.'
The Harvard bulletin suggested creating opportunities for children to 'connect with real-world experiences, to fail and pick themselves up, and to connect with passions they can master.'