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Help our teachers reform Hong Kong’s distorted education system

  • Philip Yeung says our ailing school system, as evidenced by survey findings of unhappy teachers and students, must be fixed. In its role as a trainer, the Education University must steer teachers to stop teaching to the test
PUBLISHED : Sunday, 30 December, 2018, 10:18am
UPDATED : Sunday, 30 December, 2018, 11:51am

Hong Kong public education is in crisis. The numbers don’t lie. A recent survey by the Hong Kong Psychological Society found 52.2 per cent of teachers showing symptoms of depression, plagued by hopelessness, fatigue and sleeplessness.

A similar percentage of secondary school students are similarly afflicted. Unlike suicides, which have the power to shock, depression is invisible; it spares the government public embarrassment. But how is such a mutant system able to manufacture so much misery to those who live by it? 

Blame it squarely on bureaucrats who know little, and care even less, about education. Teachers were first turned into report-writing clerks, spending much of their time on drafting reports to the Education Bureau, where they sat unread. Then they are yoked to a system that exists to endlessly over-test our kids.

Teachers, dictated to by desk-bound bureaucrats, mutate into drill sergeants. In a culture that reveres teachers, respect is in surprisingly short supply.

We now only have a narrow interest in test results. The reading culture, so vital to creative education, predictably fails to take root in this barren teach-to-the-test topsoil.

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I recently asked a leader in a top local international school what advice he would give to our education chief. The success of his school, he said, is predicated on the pursuit of passion by students. That is, allowing them to find their own interests and individuality. It is also predicated on happy teachers who are well respected.

The local system, by contrast, worships the wrong god: the god of cookie-cutter tests. The constant testing is exacting a psychological toll on all concerned. Suicides of schoolchildren is part of the collateral damage.

But the teacher is not the master of this disaster; they are victims themselves. If more than half of our teachers are in despair, what hope is there for our students? It’s time to upend this rotten system.

Why are Hong Kong’s primary school kids still suffering so much?

Any shake-up, however, must begin at the top; Hong Kong’s chief executive should appoint only educational experts to decision-making positions in the Education Bureau, from the secretary down. Being a parent is an insufficient qualification, as officials always elect to defect from the local system by sending their children, out of harm’s way, to overseas or private schools. With their children out of the system, they have no vested interest in making it work.

Why do we continue to have wishy-washy generalists and system-deserters running an education body that mistreats teachers and mutilates the young? If you can appoint financial experts to an economic bureau, why couldn’t you pick specialists for the education portfolio where the stakes are no less high and inter-generational?

Any appointment of future senior education officials should be made conditional upon them keeping their children within the local system. Otherwise, the hypocrisy renders them unfit for office.

Any meaningful educational reform begins with teachers. In the final analysis, the quality of teachers determines the quality of learning. So, for our educational mess, I name our teacher-training institutions as “co-conspirators”.

As an early advocate for granting university status to the former Hong Kong Institute of Education, I am glad that prayer has been answered. But what has the Education University done with its new-found status? Some say it is focusing too much on international rankings. As a teaching institution, that chase is doomed to failure. Attaining university status is only a first step. Becoming the finest teacher-training institution in Asia is a worthier goal.

We need to steer our schools back to sanity. First and foremost, we need happy teachers who learn, read and want to teach. Remember, one teacher can transform the lives of hundreds, if not thousands, of students.

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Gordon Brown, the former British prime minister and currently UN special envoy for education, recently left these wise words for us at the Yidan Prize Summit on innovation in education, held in Hong Kong: “You cannot be materially rich forever, if you don’t have a good education system.” By a good education system, he means one in which children are not just learning to remember, but learning to understand. This is a role only a teacher can play.

Hong Kong has set its sights on becoming Asia’s innovation hub. But you can’t leapfrog from memorisation to innovation without going through understanding. I urge the Education University to focus on its primary role as an educational trainer. In the age of creativity, teachers can help children understand the world and imagine the future.

Finally, don’t forget the iron rule in education: a healthy system begins with happy teachers. It ends with the room to grow and the freedom to teach.

Philip Yeung is a part-time university lecturer and ghostwriter to university presidents and civic leaders. [email protected]