It’s our education system, not students, that’s locked in a cage

Exams are fine but the key is to stimulate pupils’ interest in learning and develop independent thinking

PUBLISHED : Friday, 18 March, 2016, 1:17am
UPDATED : Friday, 18 March, 2016, 1:17am

An interesting question was raised by a top academic during a forum on education hosted by the South China Morning Post this week. Suppose schools are zoos, he asked, and students are animals locked in cages – what should be done when disaster strikes? His answer – open all the cages – appeared to have bemused many in the audience.

The analogy not only brought a light moment to a rather serious discussion; it provoked a fundamental question on our education – why are students confined in cages in the first place?

It does not take an expert to realise that prolonged captivity weakens animals’ ability to survive in the wild. So instead of spoon-feeding our students in a pressure-cooker environment, our education system should be preparing them to adapt to the wider world. But this is easier said than done. The emphasis on moving up a highly competitive system inevitably nurtures an exam-oriented culture, where a single benchmark is used to screen out those who fail to produce the model answers to the questions asked. The result is that only the crème de la crème can go to universities. The rest are branded losers and destined for inferior jobs.

The mixed feelings towards exams is reflected in the recent saga over a test for mid-primary pupils, known as the Territory-wide System Assessment (TSA). The government was forced to launch a review of the test after tens of thousands of parents complained that children as young as eight were being drilled by schools to sit the exam. While the number of schools willing to join the trial of a revised testing system fell short of the target, some enrolled voluntarily. They say that as their pupils are not drilled for the test, parents see no problems in participating.

The TSA has its merits, in that it provides schools with feedback on how effective their teaching is. The latest response from schools shows that exams are not necessarily negative. Our students are not animals in cages. The key is to stimulate their interest in learning and develop independent thinking.