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Hong Kong schools

Hybrid approach goes beyond IB and A-Levels

PUBLISHED : Friday, 24 August, 2018, 10:05am
UPDATED : Friday, 24 August, 2018, 10:04am

When deciding which curriculum to use for secondary-level students, international schools in Hong Kong take numerous factors into account.

There are the basics of subject choice, course content, academic standards and leaving qualifications. Another essential element is to weigh up what the different options will offer in terms of all-round development, extra-curricular involvement, and creating the right pathways for university entry – and to improve on that where necessary.

What that can lead to in the Hong Kong context is schools offering more than one curriculum as a way of catering to divergent needs and academic goals.

Students are split into different streams, one perhaps following the IGCSE or International Baccalaureate (IB) programme, with English as the main medium of instruction. Another may be taught primarily in French, German, Korean or other languages, with the national curriculum of those respective countries generally a key point of reference.

One advantage of this hybrid approach is that it provides more choice and flexibility. There is room within the overall framework to include additional or alternative courses. It is possible to cater to local needs by incorporating, say, extra classes in Mandarin. And students transferring to or from schools in other countries should find it easier to fit in.

It also means that schools should be proactive. Any curriculum provides the foundation, and they must be ready to enhance and build on this as they look to raise standards, broaden horizons, and provide new opportunities for learning.

For example, the German Swiss International School (GSIS) has added Mandarin for both its German and English streams. The school is also putting greater emphasis on extra-curricular activities and community involvement. And this year a new “makerspace” will be available to facilitate project-based learning in areas such as design technology, coding and 3D printing.

“We want our students to be motivated to learn in ways that have a sustained, substantial and positive influence on how they think act and feel,” says GSIS principal Ulrich Weghoff. “Therefore, we teach a programme that gives each student the opportunity to experience success, yet challenges them to achieve their full potential.”

In the school’s view, both the IGCSE, which leads on to either A-levels or the IB Diploma, and the German International Abitur provide a strong academic foundation. They offer a broad and balanced choice of subjects, as well as options to branch out. Each is also recognised and accepted by the best universities and top employers around the world.

However, since high academic standards are no longer enough to guarantee a place at a preferred university, the school also makes a point of focusing on personal qualities and all-round development.

This goes well beyond the acquisition, structuring and use of information in the classroom to promoting teamwork, communication skills and a strong sense of responsibility. Teaching such values – and providing opportunities to see them in action – is regarded as a key adjunct to the core curriculum. It also ties in with the increasingly widespread concept of building relationships rather than simply building resumes.

“Universities are keen to see students’ original thinking and independence, developed in projects that go beyond the taught curriculum,” says Simon Misso-Veness, head of English secondary at GSIS. “That’s why there is an emphasis now on service learning – a key theme in an IB education – that demonstrates genuine commitment to a community or social group over time.”

The school also has a well-structured programme that lets students explore interests in everything from sport, debating and science to robotics, AI and music. Where possible, teachers will find ways to tailor curriculum content in subjects such as history, geography, visual arts and drama in order to highlight connections and relevance to the local environment.

“This kind of enrichment can include field trips and site visits which help students appreciate the context of what they are learning,” Misso-Veness says. “Hong Kong offers many opportunities for this with its art galleries, theatres and museums.”

At Hong Kong International School (HKIS), one particular enhancement, within a US-style curriculum, is the use of standalone AP (advanced placement) courses.

These are roughly equivalent to introductory-level university courses in maths, science, languages, arts and the humanities. Students can take one, or several, over their high school career, and those who enrol are expected to follow through and take the final exam. A noted strength of the programme is its flexibility, which allows students to take different subjects year by year. And the way courses are structured mean they also teach self-management, organisational skills, research techniques, time management, and how to get the most out of a lecture.

“AP is a good fit for students who want more choice and to pursue interests in a range of subject areas to find out what their academic passion is,” says Brent Brayko, associate principal for teaching and learning at HKIS. “The programme gives them a chance to experience college-level courses and demonstrate to college admission officers their willingness to take on a challenge.”

He adds that universities tend to be more interested in seeing an AP course listed on a student’s transcript than in the actual exam score. There is a chance, though, that good marks will count towards first-year university credits.

Instead of teaching the AP Chinese course, HKIS offers several others considered more advanced for near-native speakers. Separately, the school has also taken steps to integrate design thinking and process into the overall curriculum, with classes in the digital and interactive media and the foundations of visual arts.

“We want to reflect the needs of our community,” Brayko says. “For instance, design thinking – with its ideation, experimentation, building and fixing to get to a product or solution – is a mindset which is now embedded in our curriculum.”

For Stewart Redden, ESF (English Schools Foundation) teaching and learning adviser, the elements and electives of the IB Diploma Programme (DP) give senior students a balanced curriculum that includes languages, mathematics, a science, humanities and the arts.

However, a specialised career-related programme (CP) now offered by five ESF secondary schools, with the help of partners such as the Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts and the Savannah College of Art and Design, adds something extra.

“These courses complement the broad approach of the DP for students who already know which career pathway they want to follow at university or college,” Redden says. “Also, the recent STEM initiatives in our schools are very motivational and help students make the right choices for their futures.”