Our public education system may be beyond reform. Every attempt at reform either ends up accentuating the very features we were trying to change or making life worse for teachers and students. Take, for example, the new liberal studies curriculum, a signature programme of the government's dismal, decade-old education reform.
A new study by University of Hong Kong academics has found that liberal studies, introduced in September and compulsory for all pupils in forms four to six, has achieved the opposite of the government's original intention.
Most teachers, the study found, admitted they just spoon-fed students with liberal studies materials taken directly from textbooks, a practice they were explicitly told to avoid. Predictably, many of the 70,000 students who sat the first liberal studies exam in May simply repeated answers they had learned from textbooks. Nearly 90 per cent of 300 teachers said their main source of teaching materials came from textbooks. Only a small number of teachers believed pupils should be encouraged to explore new ideas through critical thinking. And while more than 200 teachers said bringing different perspectives to students was vital in liberal studies, only 50 of them said they would do so.
The HKU researchers said further study was needed to determine why teachers found it difficult to encourage students' exploratory thinking and to grasp properly the teaching principles of liberal studies as originally intended. I say, save your time. We all know why.
Teachers and students in local mainstream education spend their whole time relying on textbooks to teach and learn from to get the best exam results. Memorisation is essential; critical thinking is not. In fact, thinking too much or critically might even interfere with the need to answer preset questions and score high marks in exams. All this won't magically change just because the Education Bureau mandates critical and creative thinking during the last years of secondary schooling. It should have happened at the start, not at the end, of public schooling. Liberal studies are better than nothing. But let's not have any illusions about them.