Let kids be kids, and give them a break from the grammar books

Kelly Yang says by forcing children to do endless exercises, Hong Kong schools and parents are creating a generation of followers, not leaders, and we would do better by giving our kids some space

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 26 July, 2016, 2:27pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 26 July, 2016, 7:03pm

As a children’s book author, it pains me to hear that some of the most popular books at this year’s Hong Kong Book Fair were exercise books for kids who aren’t even old enough to hold chopsticks! That, to me, speaks volumes about the kind of education system we have and the kind of future we’re headed towards – one as mundane and unimaginative as a grammar book.

Exercise books have a place – in math classes, perhaps, or, better yet, stuffed inside school lockers, out of sight and out of mind. It’s not that they’re an utter waste of time, although studies show that simply doing more homework is not effective for young children. It’s that there are far more effective ways to teach kids, like having them read actual books, for instance, books that have the power to delight and enchant youngsters, tickling them with their magical words.

Cultural revolution, Zhao Ziyang and Mao Zedong: Hongkongers and mainlanders buying politically sensitive books at Hong Kong Book Fair

When I was a child, that’s what I did every summer. I spent my summers in the public library while my wealthier classmates jetted off to faraway, fancy-sounding places. It was there at the public library that I developed a thirst for writing, not by using a single exercise book, but by consuming actual books – loads of them. I read everything I could get my hands on, even the unauthorised biography of Elton John which, if you’re an eight-year-old, can be a bit confusing but nonetheless riveting.

When was the last time someone was inspired by an exercise book?

By the end of the summer, I was ready to go back to school, roll up my sleeves and get down to the business of writing. Why? Because I was rejuvenated and inspired. Now tell me, when was the last time someone was inspired by an exercise book?

Sadly, I know that no matter what I say in this column, Hong Kong parents will carry on buying more and more exercise books, in the erroneous belief that academic success is somehow dependent on the number of exercises completed. I have news! It’s not. You need interest in order to do well at anything, particularly academics, and nothing kills interest faster than 300 pages of mindless exercises.

And yet there’s nothing Hong Kong schools love to dole out more than exercises. Why? Because it’s easy. It’s something that gives the appearance of being productive but essentially is just a quick and easy way to fill time. The ramifications of this strategy, though, are massive. By ramming exercises down kids’ throats, we’re cultivating entire generations of followers, because that’s all these kids have ever been trained to do – just follow directions.

Too young for chopsticks, but old enough for homework: exercise books for kindergartners a big hit at Hong Kong Book Fair

If we want to start cultivating leaders instead of followers, we need to give kids space. Let them be bored for a change, because only in boredom do they have the freedom and space to truly think. That’s exactly what one of my students did recently. In class, I taught my students about a radical model of payment some restaurants in the US are experimenting with, called “pay what you want”. It turns out, sometimes when people have the option to pay nothing, they will pay a lot. This kid then went home and got to thinking. Would it work in Hong Kong? He decided to find out. He rounded up a couple of other kids, baked some chocolate chip cookies, and set up a table by the side of the road with a sign saying “Pay What You Want!” After 10 days, the business is still going strong. One guy even gave them HK$100!

When this kid looks back on his childhood in 30 years’ time, I’m sure that’s what he’ll remember: the crazy summer when he sold a guy a cookie for HK$100. That’s something you can’t learn from an exercise book.

Kelly Yang teaches writing at the Kelly Yang Project, an after-school centre for writing and debating in Hong Kong. She is a graduate of UC Berkeley and Harvard Law School. www.kellyyang.edu.hk