Hong Kong educators must focus on teaching critical thinking skills

Alan Wong says helping students develop their skills in critical analysis is far more important than cramming them full of textbook knowledge

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 23 April, 2014, 12:58pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 24 April, 2014, 2:23am

The chief executive's policy address has made education a key area in Hong Kong and has proposed giving students a lot more financial support. But will it really solve the long-discussed educational problem in the city?

It is not news any more that Hong Kong secondary school graduates have low levels of Chinese and English skills. Mathematics teachers and even engineering and computer science professors at local universities are now starting to complain about the decline in numeracy standards. The exam-based curriculum here has long been notorious for stifling students' creativity and independent thinking.

As a Form Three student, I believe this issue is highly relevant, and I have first-hand knowledge of it.

I do not criticise the government for taking measures to support students financially, as they aim to ensure that no student will be denied the opportunities to pursue high-quality education. However, none of these measures will actually raise the quality of teachers; none of them fosters critical thinking or learning outside the classroom; none of them reaches into the roots of the educational problem.

Some commentators have suggested reducing class size so teachers can devote more attention to students and foster interaction in class. Schools such as mine have been slowly reducing the class size from 30 to 25 or fewer. Despite all the effort, this is a superficial change. Whether for a class of 25 students or 40, teachers tend to take the same approach: lecturing and occasionally asking and answering questions. Reducing class sizes alone will not change teachers' teaching habits.

If we are to add elements of the Western-style discussion-based education into our curriculum, teachers need to be re-educated to understand that helping students develop critical thinking skills and learn to judge and analyse is more important than cramming them full of textbook knowledge.

Teachers have to be transformed from lecturers into facilitators of discussions; they have to put aside preconceptions about teaching they have been holding onto for years and accept the new teaching methods.

Interest groups have also urged the government to remodel the curriculum to allow for more independent thinking from students. I expect that this is why the government made liberal studies a compulsory subject in senior forms of the Hong Kong Diploma of Secondary Education exams.

Again, we see an insignificant change. Indeed, liberal studies trains thinking skills, but an hour of lessons each week is insufficient.

What we need is a total change in the approach of teaching, from knowledge- and fact-based to explanation- and opinion-based. This should be applied to all subjects, not just liberal studies. Simply adding a subject to the curriculum is not enough.

The path of comprehensive reform will be long, but necessary. The government has only presented to us superficial ways to deal with the problem. Not only do teachers need to be experts in the subjects they teach, they also have to change the way they teach. The Education Bureau has to modify school exams to make critical thinking a necessary part of education.

Alan Wong is a Form Three student from St Paul's Co-educational College