21 September 2019
Our education system has focused on nurturing a small group of elites. Photo: HKSYU
Our education system has focused on nurturing a small group of elites. Photo: HKSYU

Is school education all about competition and grades?

The results of the Diploma of Secondary Education (DSE) examination, a prerequisite for university admission, were published last week, with the majority of the students unable to make the grade.

That’s hardly surprising: Our education system has long been characterized by a unique phonemenon, i.e., in our effort to nurture a small group of elites, we have created a lot of losers.

Back in 1999, in a consultation document on education reform, the Education Commission pointed out the main problem with our education system — we were cultivating the minority by eliminating the majority, thereby creating a lot of losers.

It’s been 15 years since our education reform began. How far have we gone in achieving a truly equitable learning ecosystem?

Our education system has long stressed the importance of nurturing elites.

It has also been a commonly held belief in our society that as long as an education system is based on the principle of meritocracy and can inspire the best talent in our society to work harder and achieve more, then it is a good system that is worth defending.

To most people, those who get good grades in open examinations are part of the elite, and as such, open examinations are a tool to facilitate upward mobility in our society.

While the majority of the public remain obsessed with elitism, there are a few people who have raised concerns over the demerits of such a system and the price our society may have to pay in the long term as a result.

Should our education system be designed to serve just a handful of elites instead of the majority of the public?

In fact, during the early days of the education reform, there were heated debates over a system in which grades take priority over basically everything else.

Among those who questioned the grade-oriented approach to education was Professor Tsang Wing-kwong, who said the current system virtually segregates Hong Kong students according to their learning ability.

Unfortunately, the general public have got used to this kind of segregation that most of them never bother question the rationale behind this policy.

To most people, it is only natural that a student who is smart and has got good grades is admitted to a Band 1 school, while a student who is mediocre can only get a place in a Band 3 school.

In other words, people have accepted the “truth” that students are not born equal, that some are smarter while others are dumber.

In order to make sure the progress of smarter students is not hampered by those who are dumber, they have to be segregated.

This has become the guiding principle of our education policymakers.

The question is, how do you define smartness? How do you measure smartness?

According to American psychologist Robert J. Sternberg, neither IQ tests nor the average school tests can accurately measure a person’s intelligence because they are too narrow in scope and fail to take into account some of the special qualities of an individual such as creativity and innovation.

More importantly, in order to become a successful person who can truly fulfill his or her potential, it takes not only IQ but also a lot of other qualities like sophistication, conscientiousness, resilience, innovation, integrity, good socializing skills, teamwork spirit, ability to manage one’s emotions and charisma. These qualities are mostly overlooked under our rigid examination system.

That leads to another question: Why does our society so eagerly embrace elitism?

To put it bluntly, we generally support elitism because most of us are so obsessed with being intelligent, and we simply worship the ground that smart people walk on.

In a society like Hong Kong where most people are after short-term gains and material comforts, smartness has practically become a kind of virtue that most of us admire, and to many people, how smart a person is has become the most common, if not the only, criteria to measure his or her value as a human being.

People are basically put into different classes according to their intelligence, just like people are put into different classes according to their wealth.

According to the consultation document I cited earlier, “many students tend to stop learning after they have graduated, and some even get fed up with learning before they graduate”.

This begs the question: Is our education policy heading towards the right direction? What is the original goal of education? How can we explain to our children that school education is all about competition and getting high grades and nothing more?

In face of the existing learning ecosystem in schools, how many educators have the courage and innovation to explore other possibilities apart from a competitive education system in which only the smartest can survive?

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on July 13.

Translation by Alan Lee

[Chinese version 中文版]

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Social researcher