Long study hours for Hong Kong students will only kill their appetite for learning

Sun Kwok says local students are subject to such an overload of work and study, both in class and after class, that they are already exhausted by the time they get to university

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 05 April, 2016, 4:29pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 05 April, 2016, 4:29pm

University should be the best time of a young person’s life. You are at the peak of your physical and mental abilities. You are part of a community filled with scholars of the highest calibre. You are among peers who are your intellectual equals and have been through a highly selective process to enter this institution. You are exposed to the excitement of arts, literature, science and technology that challenge your mind to the fullest. Students entering university should be filled with excitement about an adventure that will benefit them for the rest of their lives.

But these are not the reactions that I encounter among freshmen entering the universities in Hong Kong.

The most common sentiment that I have observed is relief. Students are glad that the days of studying are behind them. The hard work, the burden of learning and pressure of exams are over. When I ask incoming students what they look forward to, the most common answer I receive is “having fun in the halls”.

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As a professor who taught for almost 30 years in Canadian universities, I hear such answers with great surprise and astonishment. The typical answer I receive from Canadian students is “to learn”. One might question how genuine this answer is; maybe they are actually looking forward to the parties and the alcohol. But they at least know what they are supposed to achieve at university. In Hong Kong, many students view universities as diploma mills, not centres of learning.

Why are our students in such a sorry state of mind?

After I found out more about the Hong Kong education system, I understood why. Before they enter university, students are subjected to such intense amounts of work and study, both in class and after class, that by the time they get there, they are already burned out. Once they get the entry ticket to university, they feel like they have “made it”. This is the end of the road as far as study is concerned. Learning is not the goal, but a means to get their hands on a university diploma, a meal ticket for a job.

This is most unfortunate. Today, we have excellent universities in Hong Kong and a lot to offer for students’ intellectual development. Why are our students in such a sorry state of mind when they are supposed to be enjoying the greatest opportunities of their lives?

The more I learn about the students’ school experiences, the more sympathy I have for them. They must endure long class hours, tutorial schools, private tutors, endless homework, and mock and real exams – starting at the age of not six or seven, but two or three.

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My two daughters went through public schools in Canada. Instead of endless homework and exams, they went on field trips, explored nature, got their hands and feet dirty or simply had fun with other kids. They had lots of time to develop their hobbies and read books outside of school. Their education focused not on memorisation, but thinking, reason and debate. Curiosity and questions were encouraged, not suppressed. In spite of the lack of “work”, I believe they received an excellent education.

The long hours and hard work imposed on Hong Kong students do not promote intellectual development; on the contrary, they hamper it. It still haunts me that a student in my class once said, “All my years of schooling, I was told to memorise. Now you want me to think, and I can’t do it.”

To prepare our children for a true education, we must leave our kids alone. Once a young person’s mind is stuffed full, it is difficult to open it again.

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As a university teacher, all I ask is that schools send us students who are curious and hungry for knowledge, have respect for intellectualism, have an open mind and are eager to learn. These qualities are far more important than any piece of “knowledge” that may be forced into them against their will.

Sun Kwok is a chair professor of space science at the University of Hong Kong. He taught in Canada for 29 years before returning to Hong Kong in 2006 as dean of science at HKU