In the early years after the 1997 handover, Hong Kong residents were accused of lacking a sense of national identity and solidarity with mainlanders. But as the years have passed, annual surveys have shown a steadily growing sense of nationalism in the city. That has been best encapsulated by the outpouring of compassion for the victims of the Sichuan earthquake and strong support for China hosting the Olympic Games in the wake of worldwide protests over human rights marring the torch relay. Local academic Roger Cheng Hon-man said it was this sense of nationalism that had marked the biggest change in the way values were taught in Hong Kong schools in the decade since the handover. Dr Cheng, a professional consultant at Chinese University's educational administration and policy department, presented his work on how values education in Hong Kong has changed since 1997 at an international conference yesterday. About 50 academics from Hong Kong, the mainland, Britain, the United States, Canada and Singapore joined more than 250 local teachers and principals at the conference entitled After Values: Practising Values Education in Changing Societies, hosted by CUHK. The conference, which concludes today, aims to give the education community an opportunity to explore the challenges schools face in teaching values and the approaches used by different cultures. Dr Cheng said values education had been one of the three pillars of the government's education reform since 1997. He said that before the handover, the main influences that helped shape values were Confucian traditions taught primarily in the home, Christian traditions advocated by Christian schools and liberal/civic traditions, such as concern for social justice, as advocated by NGOs. Since the handover, nationalism has been added to the list. Dr Cheng said that since 1997 there had been a greater push for schools to directly promote values. He said curriculum reform papers published in 2000 listed about 100 values that were considered important, and this had been whittled down to five key values: perseverance, respect for others, responsibility, commitment and national identity. 'In the last three or four years, they found ways to show that national identity could be and should be taught in schools,' Dr Cheng said. 'They try to use life education as the platform to teach national identity.' 'Life education' refers to the method of using real-life events to promote certain values. Dr Cheng said the Sars outbreak in 2003 provided a concrete example for teachers to discuss issues like life and death to help children develop perseverance and resilience. The earthquake could be used to promote compassion and charity. 'If you elevate the compassion to the national level, this kind of sentiment is a nationalistic sentiment. We identify with the suffering of Chinese people ... that then becomes a national identity lesson.' Dr Cheng said schools could complement lessons about national identity with an element of critical thinking to help create a 'healthy nationalistic sentiment'. For example, if they were discussing the Olympic torch relay, they may encourage students to think about whether the torch-bearers were selected in a transparent and democratic manner. Dr Cheng said values education should also take in the situation in other countries, such as Myanmar, to increase students' international awareness. 'I think we can actively open students' eyes by addressing global citizenship,' he said. While providing values education has been recognised as an important role for schools around the world, the distinction between religious instruction and values education is often blurred, with some schools promoting religious messages under the guise of values education. With more than 50 per cent of Hong Kong schools run by Christian sponsoring bodies, Dr Cheng said they had traditionally been a major influence on shaping values. Some promoted values that were common throughout society, such as social justice, while others advocated a more fundamentalist perspective. Dr Cheng said parents wanted schools to provide their children with strong moral instruction to help develop their character, but schools needed to be up front about the values they promoted. 'On the one hand, if the school is not very strong on values education, it's difficult to build up good character, but on the other hand we have to allow transparency and diversity,' he said. 'We need a healthy balance.' Given that Hong Kong is home to a diverse range of schools whose sponsoring bodies enjoy autonomy, Dr Cheng said schools needed to be open about the values they promoted. 'I think the most important thing is to allow parents to have an understanding of the school practices,' he said. One of the conference's keynote speakers, Columbia University's David Hansen, said teachers were often unaware of the important role they played in shaping values. 'Schools and educators are always shaping values whether they are aware of it or not,' said the director of Columbia's programme in philosophy and education. 'All adults who have any role in the lives of children are shaping their values simply by the decisions that they make ... It's happening all the time, usually informally, indirectly and unawares.' Professor Hansen said this lack of awareness was a common situation in schools around the world, and teachers needed to be more conscious of their influence. However, he stressed that this was not a criticism directed at educators. Rather, adult communities everywhere failed to recognise their influence. 'If it's happening all the time, why not become more mindful of it and play a more thoughtful role in trying to have a direction of values cultivation, go in directions that we really do think are good and helpful for this very complicated world that we are living in,' he said. Professor Hansen said schools should give students a chance to think about values and why they differ around the world. Values education could be made part of any subject, from maths and art to history and languages. 'A key thing is how can we learn to hold our values in ways that help us respect others and interact with others who are different,' he said.