Most teachers are spoon-feeding students in liberal studies classes, a University of Hong Kong study has found, despite this method being discouraged in a subject that was a key component of education reforms.
Liberal studies, which was introduced in September last year as a compulsory subject for all pupils in forms four to six, is part of the new university entrance examination, the Hong Kong Diploma for Secondary Education.
HKU researchers said liberal studies, an exercise in reasoned thought and debate, had instilled a sense of critical thinking among students but failed to help them develop the ability to generate new ideas.
Teachers were relying heavily on textbooks, despite an Education Bureau guideline that they should not do so, said Wong Ka-lok, a teaching consultant at HKU's education faculty.
The study also found that many of the 70,000 students who sat the first liberal studies exam in May had resorted to reciting answers.
The study asked more than 300 teachers from some 60 schools between January and May this year to fill out questionnaires, and describe the method of learning among students and their concerns.
Nearly 90 per cent of teachers said their main source of teaching materials came from textbooks. Only a small number believed that pupils should be encouraged to explore new ideas through their own critical thinking, the researchers found.
Of the 335 respondents, more than 200 teachers said bringing multiple perspectives to students and critical thinking were vital for teaching liberal studies, but only 50 of them said students should be encouraged to ask their own questions and explore the answers on their own.
Loretta Ho, an assistant professor of HKU's education faculty, said the reasons behind this phenomenon - such as whether the teachers found no time to encourage students' exploratory thinking, or found it difficult to grasp the teaching principles - remained unclear and would be studied in more depth next year.
The researchers said that they would speak to individual teachers and do case studies to look more closely at the teaching and learning methods and patterns to provide suggestions on how to make sure critical thinking and exploratory learning could be achieved.
The introduction of liberal studies into the curriculum was controversial because teachers were not clear about how students' work should be marked and whether the core subject would become a negative factor when universities assessed students who did poorly in the exam.
Concerns were also raised as to whether pupils would be required to provide politically correct answers to questions related to politics and events on the mainland.
The results of the first batch of pupils will be released on July 20.
The study also found that about half of the schools that were allowed to use English as the medium of instruction switched back to Chinese in liberal studies classes.
'We are not yet saying whether these patterns are good or bad, or if it reflects whether the subject is successful,' Ho said.
'The phenomenon can either be related to students' ability, choices made by individual schools or the ability of teachers.'