'Father of Liberal Studies' scores poor DSE exam mark twice; says it fails to encourage originality


Educator John Tan Kang says the assessment is too mechanical and doesn't require critical thinking, the initial aim of the subject

Joanne Ma |

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John Tan Kang (with tie), principal of Kowloon Wah Yan College, only got Level Four in his Liberal Studies DSE although he was the one who drafted the syllabus.

The man who helped design liberal studies as a compulsory subject for the HKDSE has said he is unhappy with the way the exam is being set and marked.

John Tan Kang, dubbed the “father of liberal studies” because of his role in developing the subject, said the exams had become more rigid and were being marked in a mechanical fashion which deviated from the original aim of rewarding students who produced original, non-mainstream answers.

How to prepare for the HKDSE Liberal Studies paper

He came to this conclusion after sitting the exam twice himself, and not faring as well as might be expected for someone who was the chief curriculum development officer for the subject from 2006 to 2009.

Introduced as a core subject to senior secondary students in 2009, liberal studies aims to strengthen critical thinking skills, expand knowledge and raise awareness of contemporary issues.

The subject has been criticised by pro-Beijing politicians, including former Hong Kong leader Tung Chee-hwa who, in July, called it “a complete failure” and said it was partly to blame for young people getting involved in anti-government protests that were now in their fifth month.

Liberal studies is not to blame for current political unrest

But Tan, who has more than 25 years of teaching experience and is now a primary school headmaster, disagreed that the subject radicalised students.

“Violence, whether from protesters, police or anybody, is against the subject’s stated curriculum aim of encouraging positive values and a positive attitude to life,” he said.

“Respecting diversity in cultures and views does not mean we respect all values, including violence, because there’s a baseline that this respect cannot go beyond.”

He is in favour of keeping the subject, but sees room to improve the exam as well as the way it is marked.

Talking points: What's wrong with Liberal Studies?

Charmaine Leung, a 17-year-old student at Pooi To Middle School, agreed that the liberal studies exam has become mechanical. “It seems that there is a proper answer to each question. Students need to answer the questions in a fixed manner, or else they can’t score.”

However, she pointed out that liberal studies lessons helped stimulate her critical thinking. “In class, we learn about different opinions. Through discussing various cases, we get to understand views of different stakeholders, [that we might not have thought of before].”

Shawn Wu, a 13-year-old student at Diocesan Boys’ School, disagreed. Shawn said his school exams normally allowed a variety of answers.

He told Young Post he thought liberal studies could help students to develop their critical thinking because it pushed them to learn, think and reflect more on what happens in their daily lives.