How one Hong Kong school broke away from city’s cramming culture
Extra classes like gardening and magic tricks on timetable at Tin Shui Wai primary school, which focuses less on exams and academia than its peers
When the school bell rings every Wednesday afternoon for the last class of the day at W F Joseph Lee Primary School, textbooks are closed and classroom doors fling wide open.
That is the time when the school’s 900 pupils learn a range of 40 different activities – from gardening to learning how to wash dishes – during an hour of class time each week.
Located in Tin Shui Wai, New Territories, the school has been running “multiple intelligence” classes for a decade, aiming to give an education that is not just focused on academic learning.
“It’s the class that I look forward to all week,” said 11-year-old Ivan Lim Ji-shing, who is learning how to do magic tricks in the first semester.
“It’s the most relaxing and it’s not so boring like other classes.”
The school’s principal, Alan Chow Ping-yan, said he believed the programme exposed pupils to different activities and “intelligences” early in life.
“School life is not just about academic learning,” he explained. “We don’t want pupils to complain about having to get high marks. Instead, they should enjoy learning in school life.”
Parents may well appreciate such freedom for pupils, as the government mulls reviving the controversial TSA exam next year – maligned by critics for an emphasis on rote learning – and as officials grapple with the grievous problem of student suicides.
The school stands out from most schools in Hong Kong’s pressure-cooker education system, where syllabuses and teaching methods traditionally lean towards preparing pupils, as early as kindergarten, for exams and academic success.
Throughout six years of primary school at W F Joseph Lee, each pupil participates in five different activities a year.
“Everyone gets to try something different. If they’re not good at rugby, maybe they’ll like ceramics instead,” Chow said. “The idea is that maybe they’ll find something they’re interested in, or find their potential and they can develop it further.”
The school’s atypical approach to education doesn’t stop there. They have no exams or tests for Primary One pupils. On Monday afternoon, they have “life education” classes in which they learn about different moral values and how to apply them in daily life. On Friday afternoon, language, maths and general studies classes are taught according to ability. Pupils who need some catching up spend time strengthening basic concepts, while others try more advanced activities such as debating or current affairs analysis.
The school is one of 73 direct subsidy scheme schools in the city, meaning it receives government funding, but also charges its own fees, at HK$14,500 a year. Such schools are given more autonomy and flexibility over teaching.
Education lawmaker Ip Kin-yuen said he expected more schools to follow their lead, introducing more group activity-based classes and teaching children self-care skills to prepare them for adulthood.
“There are more voices in society today saying that there is too much drilling, homework and stress in Hong Kong’s education system,” Ip said. “Students want a breath of fresh air.”
“It’s yet to become mainstream. That will take time and a certain process. But we have to remember that at the same time, there are parents who will choose schools that focus on academics and grades, so I think both types of school will coexist.”
Despite it being called the “multiple intelligence” programme, vice-principal Bonny Lau Yau Woon-man said the focus of the school’s teaching philosophy was not about making pupils smarter.
“We want to give them the space to adjust to school life and learning, and not to be occupied with tests, exams and stress,” Lau said.
“Learning is a lifelong process. As they say, if you give a man a fish, you feed him for a day. But if you teach a man to fish, you feed him for a lifetime.”