Students involved in a mobile democracy class write with chalk on the road during the Occupy protests.

Protests offer students chance to learn about social issues and history

Educators see the pro-democracy protests as a chance to teach students about civics, history and even comparative governments

One outcome of the "umbrella protests" has been to turn the events of the past few weeks into living, breathing classes in history and politics.

Many of the student activists know the issues they're demonstrating for, but for others, the meaning behind the events can be confusing. Educators and parents are seizing the opportunity to teach the issues that are part of the Occupy/student protest movement. International and local schools are treating these events as a "teachable moment" in civics education, humanities, history and media relations. What's more, all the stakeholders - students, parents, educators and administrators - are learning from one another.

"As an IB [International Baccalaureate] school, our teachers are expected to keep in mind the IB mission statement, which is to encourage students across the world to become active, compassionate and lifelong learners who understand that other people, with their differences, can also be right," says Tim Kaiser, upper school principal of the Canadian International School of Hong Kong (CDNIS).

Soon after the Occupy protests emerged last month, school administrators encouraged teachers to establish an age-appropriate platform of discussion. Teachers were asked to remain as objective as possible in debate, discussions and expression of views through writing, art or drama.

A mobile democracy classroom for students who have been boycotting classes since September 22.

"The strength and vibrancy of our humanities curriculum allow our teachers to present this subject to all our learners through an integrated approach to concepts such as power, communities, perspective, change, and systems," Kaiser says. "In the Primary Years Programme, 'systems' may be a difficult word for our youngest learners to understand, so part of their learning is centred on an understanding of how we organise ourselves."

Besides the IB curriculum framework, CDNIS students also participate in the Ontario Secondary School Diploma programme in grades nine to 12, examining issues of political history and government in civics classes. The Grade 10 course compares governance models in Canada, Hong Kong and others around the world.

Parents are also encouraged to take part. They are asked to share reliable information with their children to help them better understand the ongoing situation, teach them to think critically, and draw their own conclusions.

The movement is a valuable frame of reference for students to inquire further
Dr Flora Kan, HKU

Early on, head of school Gregg Maloberti tried to keep parents updated on disruptions to bus routes and schedules, and encouraged them to take the time to help their children make sense of what was happening around them.

"As a school, we are committed to encouraging our students to discover the facts and beliefs that influence the actions of the individuals and groups we see in the streets, government and commercial offices, and legislative bodies," Maloberti says. "As educators, our role is not to pass judgment. Instead, we must help our students come to their own conclusions and understand why others may disagree."

CDNIS has an active parents' association, and members are using Facebook to share information about what their children are being taught in class, as well as their own experiences of the protest sites.

A recent post on the blogsite Independent Thinking, titled "Some Questions From Hong Kong's Occupy Barricades for Teachers Everywhere" was written by British education writer Ian Gilbert and shared among parents and staff.

It lists 17 questions and photographs for teachers to share with their students, such as: "Can you have genuine education without genuine democracy?" Or "Would one of your students be in a position to lead a movement as 18-year-old Joshua Wong has?" Or "Is critical thinking taught and to what extent is there a forum in your school where discussion is welcomed?"

Roger Cheng, professional consultant at Chinese University, delivers a lecture in civics at Tamar Garden.

Flora Kan, associate professor at the Division of Policy Administration and Social Sciences Education at the University of Hong Kong, offers a more local perspective on the events and their significance for educators in Hong Kong schools.

"This Occupy movement is an important part of Hong Kong history," she says. "It provides a golden opportunity for students to empathise, step into the shoes of different players - protesters, anti-protest groups, democrats, pro-establishment, [Chief Executive] C.Y. Leung, media tycoon Jimmy Lai and so on - and try to make sense of their views and feelings.

"At the same time, the movement is a valuable frame of reference for students to inquire further into governance, universal suffrage, 'one country, two systems', civil disobedience vs breaking the law, and so on. Eventually, however, all of these should direct towards the education of love, which is an important element in learning and teaching history," Kan says.

Or history in the making.

The Hong Kong Professional Teachers' Union has called on schools to explain - at school assemblies or regular weekly meetings with class teachers - the background of the pro-democracy movement and encourage students to reflect on what has happened.

It also encourages schools to share their teaching materials on "democracy education" with one another by emailing them to [email protected].

Cheung Yam-lung, principal of Methodist Lee Wai Lee College, expects his liberal studies teachers to explain the concept of democracy in class. The school offers the subject to both junior and senior secondary students. "Hong Kong is going through a very special moment ... On display boards and at assemblies, we've presented views supporting and opposing the movement, but we expect students to make their own judgment," Cheung says.

In the past few weeks, more than 100 teachers and academics have delivered public lectures at Tamar Park, a buffer zone near the protest sites, covering such topics as history, young people's participation in social movements, and citizenship. People who are not students have been encouraged to join in the discussions.

"Words expressed in classrooms are usually more sophisticated, whereas outside people tend to be more outspoken and honest," says organiser Roger Cheng Hon-man, who is also a professional consultant in education at Chinese University.

"They feel freer in expressing views on public issues with strangers," he says.

Link to Occupy questions: independentthinkingblog.

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: Road scholars