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The revamped course that has replaced liberal studies focuses on national security, identity, lawfulness and patriotism. Photo: Sun Yeung

Hong Kong teachers avoiding ‘sensitive topics’ in revamped liberal studies subject to keep out of trouble

  • Education Bureau’s teaching materials are poorly designed, full of jargon and hard to digest, they say
  • Teachers frustrated that textbooks will not be ready until next September, as they must first be vetted
William Yiu

Some Hong Kong teachers are ignoring official guidelines and skipping politically sensitive topics in the revamped liberal studies subject, as textbooks will only be available next year and fears abound that devising their own classroom materials could inadvertently land them in hot water.

Teachers who spoke to the Post said they preferred to wait for the textbooks, as some topics in the revamped subject – now known as citizenship and social development – were new, and the materials supplied to schools were poorly designed and too hard for students to digest.

Three educators with at least 10 years’ experience teaching liberal studies told the Post on condition of anonymity they were frustrated because it was hard to teach sensitive new topics without textbooks.

Liberal studies was introduced in 2009 for senior secondary students in an effort to develop their social awareness and critical thinking skills.

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But the Education Bureau unveiled sweeping changes this year after some pro-Beijing heavyweights blamed liberal studies for radicalising young people during the 2019 anti-government protests, arguing that some teaching materials were biased.

The revamped subject has a syllabus focused on national security, identity, lawfulness and patriotism. The bureau said it would screen relevant textbooks from publishers, but the vetted ones would only be available next year.

Citizenship and social development covers three key themes – Hong Kong under “one country, two systems”, China’s reform and opening-up, and the interconnectedness and interdependence of the contemporary world, to be taught in Form Four, Five and Six respectively.

The Post learned that the bureau told teachers during seminars earlier this year to cover the topics in that order, without skipping or reshuffling them.

Three of the six elements being taught to Form Four students are new – the unequal treaties in Hong Kong history, China’s indisputable sovereignty and jurisdiction over the city, and the national security law imposed by Beijing on June 30 last year, banning acts of secession, subversion, terrorism and collusion with foreign forces.
Pro-Beijing figures had blamed the previous liberal studies class for radicalising youth during the 2019 anti-government protests. Photo: Sam Tsang

Teacher Sarah Wong* said only a small portion of the supplied teaching materials touched on these “extremely sensitive” new topics.

She said most teachers did not dare produce their own supplementary materials, for fear that officials might inspect them, declare them wrong and take disciplinary action.

For now, she added, some teachers had chosen to skip the sensitive topics.

At least three teachers have been deregistered for life over complaints related to the 2019 protests. One was punished for drafting teaching materials that touched on Hong Kong independence, another for giving students incorrect information about the first opium war between Britain and China, and a third was accused of using “biased” materials.

Out of 315 teachers who responded to a recent survey by the pro-establishment Hong Kong Federation of Education Workers, more than 80 per cent reported struggling with national security education and more than half said they lacked the necessary resources. Nearly 80 per cent wanted the government to provide “interactive teaching materials”.

80 per cent of Hong Kong teachers struggling with national security education

Teacher Maria Chan* told the Post the limited materials provided by the Education Bureau and online resource platforms run by Edcity, a company wholly-owned by the government, were difficult to adapt to the classroom.

“We find the resources hard to digest, as they are basically copied and pasted from the law. There would be no difference if I just read aloud from the Basic Law,” she said, referring to the city’s mini constitution.

“How can a secondary four student comprehend such difficult information? Even an adult would not be able to.”

Chan said she and her colleagues had begun using material from a webpage of the Academy of Chinese Studies, whose council is made up of pro-establishment heavyweights such as former Hong Kong exchange chairman Charles Lee Yeh-kwong and Beijing loyalist Maria Tam Wai-chu.

“Their materials are surely the safest and politically correct,” Chan said.

With no official textbook available for the new class, teachers have been wary of devising their own supplemental materials. Photo: Xiaomei Chen

Another seasoned liberal studies teacher, Anthony Tang*, said he and some other educators he knew were adopting a passive approach for now.

“I know some teachers who regurgitate the official materials as they are worried that they will break the law. I just read the slides provided by the bureau and let the students do some simple worksheets,” he said.

He added that students were not as attentive because the new citizenship and social development examination will be marked on a pass-or-fail basis, whereas those who sat the liberal studies exam could score one of eight grades.

A bureau spokesman said the reviewed textbooks would be available for the academic year starting next September.

In the meantime, he said, teachers concerned about the three topics could use online resources such as slides, teaching examples and worksheets. There were 12 sets of slides on the main points to be covered by Secondary Four students, for instance.

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Teachers who found the subject hard to teach could also sign up for training sessions provided by the bureau, he added.

The bureau added there were also support services for school-based curriculum, and 13 schools had signed up for the revamped subject.

The services included coaching for teachers to design “neutral” materials and arrange for officials to observe some of the classes.

Dr Wong Ching-yung, principal of Scientia Secondary School, agreed with teachers who said the textbook review process was too slow and that the available materials contained a lot of jargon and were “not friendly”.

But he also agreed with the bureau that it was easy for teachers to find other reference materials if they tried.

To speed things along, he suggested that the bureau release the reviewed textbooks chapter by chapter.

“That way, we don’t need to wait for a whole book to get passed and can save some time,” he said.

*Names changed at the interviewees’ request

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: teachers on edge over Liberal studies update