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Hong Kong parents should know that ‘winning at the starting line’ is so yesterday in today’s age of AI and rapid change

Stephen Cheung says our children can go further in life if we guide them to nurture their curiosity and motivation for learning, rather than pile on the pressure for them to excel at an early age

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 06 June, 2018, 1:19pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 06 June, 2018, 8:46pm

So much has been said about “winning at the starting line”. This is a presumption held by many Hong Kong parents, who enrol their children in tutorial or interest classes after school to help them improve their schoolwork, speak foreign languages, master musical instruments and excel in sports.

It is not uncommon to see parents queuing up outside elite schools in the hope of securing admission, which they see as a ticket to their children’s success. Many believe toddlers and preschoolers must start “winning” at the earliest stage or be left behind.

It is natural to want the best for our children, but are we pushing them too hard, too early? In 20 years’ time, when these toddlers become adults, what skills, knowledge and talent will be the most sought after, given the rapid technological advances and socio-economic transformation?

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Artificial intelligence, in particular, is set to change the job market by replacing or displacing much of the workforce. While views are mixed, some experts forecast that up to half of the jobs that exist today will disappear or become obsolete by 2025. And the remaining jobs are likely to be redefined in terms of the required qualifications and skills.

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Recent reports indicate, for example, that AI outperforms doctors in diagnosing skin cancer. And time-consuming, detail-oriented, but lucrative tasks in the accounting and legal sectors may well be taken over by AI to eliminate errors and inefficiencies. As for education, the Post has reported that one in every four schools in China has begun trials using AI to mark student essays.

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And let’s not forget that massive information is already at our fingertips, thanks to popular search engines like Google and Baidu. Uncertainty seems to be the only certainty these days; we are not sure about whether the starting-line winners will hold up at all in the long run.

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While no one can doubt the value of a university education, academic success is just one of the many factors that contribute to career success. Apple co-founder Steve Jobs, for example, left Reed College at the age of 19. Both Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg dropped out of Harvard University to pursue their visions, which turned out to be Microsoft and Facebook, respectively. Harper Lee gave up law school to become a writer, and her decision resulted in the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, To Kill A Mockingbird. And the list goes on.

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Self-motivation inspired by curiosity is perhaps the best driving force for learning. When I was young, I loathed Chinese history because of the need to memorise what to me were boring details for quizzes. My interest in Chinese history remained dormant for decades until my recent discovery of a book series about the Ming dynasty. To my surprise, reading about Chinese history is now one of my favourite pastimes.

For our children to become lifelong, self-directed learners, it is important to help them find their interests, and keep their curiosity and passion alive.

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Instead of working so hard to help our children win at the starting line, we should teach them to pursue whole-person development. Character-building is more important than examination scores. Positive attributes such as empathy, compassion and open-mindedness will contribute to their well-being and empower them to become agents of social betterment. To help them navigate through the tides of change, we need to ensure that they do not fall into the trap of complacency. Creativity, adaptability and an innovative spirit all matter.

Hong Kong has come a long way in transforming its education system over the past two decades. A lot has been done, but much more remains to be done. Let us take stock of where we are and contemplate what education is all about.

Let us work together to ignite the learning interest of our children and get them prepared for this fast-changing world.

Professor Stephen Cheung Yan-leung is president and chair professor of public policy at the Education University of Hong Kong