Hong Kong schools

Technology will change society, and we need to change our schools

Kerry Kennedy says the Hong Kong government’s education reforms have not addressed the right problems, focusing on Chinese history and the influence of ‘liberal studies’ when they should think about training students for the technology of the future

PUBLISHED : Monday, 26 March, 2018, 5:02pm
UPDATED : Monday, 26 March, 2018, 7:11pm

The effects of the fourth industrial revolution are all around us – robots, artificial intelligence, virtual reality, the internet of things, driverless cars, drones, etc. These and more are already changing the way people live and work. The digital revolution is behind us and we now see how technologies are fused to create new lifestyle technologies, business processes, approaches to logistics management and labour market realities that rely less on low-level skills and more on high-end skills, and less on people and more on automation.

There is also a downside. Recently we saw how social media such as Facebook can be corrupted by unscrupulous people using data without permission and for purposes never intended.

The late Stephen Hawking was pessimistic about all this, recognising that society needed to move forward but fearing that technology would continue to create inequalities. How are schools preparing students for these new realities?

Hong Kong’s current school curriculum was framed for basic education in 2001 and for senior secondary in 2009. These represented significant breaks from the past. Real attempts were made to cater for significant social and economic changes as the system broke away from its English origins to forge a distinct system for young Hongkongers in the 21st century.

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Yet time has moved on while the education system remains static. New challenges have emerged in the light of the fourth industrial revolution but little seems to have happened to enable schools to meet these challenges.

To be fair to the government and Education Bureau, there is talk of reform. Yet, from what little is known publicly, it is more likely tinkering than reform.

Now is the time for boldness in school reform, not timidity

The chief executive’s task forces on education are meeting, but it seems their main brief is to find a space for Chinese history and ameliorate the “radical influences” of liberal studies (though every piece of research conducted indicates that for most students, liberal studies is little more than another pesky examination subject). Some see Beijing’s hand in all of this, despite the fact that under the Basic Law, education is a responsibility of the Hong Kong government.

It is more likely that the somewhat timid approach to reform comes from the current administration’s lack of vision than any strategy by Beijing.

It is important to recognise that this is not the time for timidity: it is time for a vision to confront a complex and demanding future.

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Such a vision was evident in the reforms launched in 2001. Yet the curriculum continued to be based on very traditional academic subjects and an end-of-school examination that continued to exert heavy pressure on not only what students learned but the way they learned.

What is more, these reforms are now almost two decades old: no amount of tinkering by the chief executive’s task forces will make them suitable for the challenges of the 21st century. This issue has been recognised by other governments in our region.

Countries such as Korea, the Philippines and Malaysia have recognised the need for skills development that focuses on technology, and automation management linked to the increasing pervasiveness of artificial intelligence.

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Some of this needs to be done in an enhanced technical and vocational education system. We cannot continue with a traditional academic curriculum in a world where new skills and new ways of working are needed. Technology is at the centre of the massive changes taking place so that the push for more focus on science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) has to be recognised as central to reform, rather than a diversion from the traditional academic curriculum.

At the same time, organisations such as the World Bank highlight the importance of non-cognitive attributes, such as the cultural sensitivity and socio-emotional skills needed to support transnational workforces and societies. The world around us is changing. The question is whether students are being prepared to contribute to these changes and understand their impact.

Now is the time for boldness and innovation in school reform, not timidity and political correctness. Learning Chinese history and classics may meet some people’s idea of a “good education”, but this is the 21st century. The key issue is whether Hong Kong students will be equipped to create the future or be engulfed by it. Merely tinkering with the school curriculum is not the answer.

Professor Kerry Kennedy is adviser (academic development) at the Education University of Hong Kong