Drilling is not learning, says Thomas Wong, highest ever scorer of Hong Kong’s DSE exam, who draws inspiration from music
The 18-year-old says it’s all about flexibility and enjoying the process, much like how he plays the cello or piano
When Thomas Wong Tsz-hang, Hong Kong’s top performer in the secondary-level leaving examinations, moves into his dormitory at the University of Hong Kong to study medicine, he will be bringing his cello with him, instead of stacks of books.
The city’s first ever student to score a top mark of 5** for eight subjects in the Diploma of Secondary Education (DSE) exams says drilling is hardly a method of learning when it comes to his studies.
For Wong, there is no golden rule to the books, an approach that deviates from a competitive city obsessed with a cramming study culture. Critics and parents have argued that children are denied the joy of learning and become merely exam-wired automatons.
“On some levels, parents and students are well aware of this but some still fall into the trap of believing that if there is enough drilling, eventually they will excel,” Wong says.
The star performer stresses that flexibility is key. Each student is different and has their own set of learning methods to process information, he points out.
Wong scored top marks in compulsory subjects Chinese, English, mathematics and liberal studies, and in four electives – physics, chemistry, biology, and music – as well as a 5** grade in an extended module in mathematics focusing on algebra and calculus.
He says he owes his study approach to a lifelong passion – music.
“Music is my life, I can’t live without it. It has helped me to stay positive and taught me to better manage my time,” he says.
Having played the cello for more than 13 years and the piano for 15, the former member of the Hong Kong Children’s Choir is no stranger to pressure on the big stage.
At a concert in Central’s City Hall, Wong is one with his instrument, his eyes closed, right hand gliding his bow over the strings. It is moments like these that gives him a better perspective on how to focus on the task at hand.
“When I am stressed or overworked at school, I take a step back and turn to music. It always manages to calm me down.”
While many may deem him as a prodigy with talent few can relate to, Wong insists his success in his studies comes down to just having fun and appreciating the learning process – just like in music.
“It’s easy for us [as musicians] to put the spotlight on sections we’re good at playing and neglect parts we have yet to master. But if we fall into this [comfort zone], we will never admit that we need to improve.
“This principle applies not only to music, but also to studies and pretty much everything we do in life,” he says.
Sharing from his past experience, Wong says even musicians have different interpretations of a piece, so each individual has his or her own method to best digest information – this is true also for academic learning.
“Instead of relying on the help of teachers, use critical thinking to develop a useful way that can help you in the long run,” he advises.
“When I started playing instruments, I remember how I would keep practising, over and over again to get a specific note or an order of melody down.
“But no matter how many times I tried, I failed. Then I came to realise that it wasn’t because I was unfamiliar with the combination, it was because I didn’t take time to allow myself to focus on the structural elements of the sounds,” Wong says.
“You’ll eventually comprehend what you’ve learned if you take your mind off of some of the expectations that you must succeed.
“When I get stumped on my homework or DSE revision, I let it go for a while and take a short break to drown myself in music before getting back to it, whether it be playing the piano, cello or just singing,” he says.
Over the next four years at HKU, Wong will continue to balance his time between music and studying to become a doctor. And just like in his secondary school days, melodies will accompany him every step of the way.
“I will definitely bring along my cello with me,” he says.