27 October 2016
Too many quizzes, tests and examinations make learning more painful than fun for Hong Kong students. Photo: HKEJ
Too many quizzes, tests and examinations make learning more painful than fun for Hong Kong students. Photo: HKEJ

What is wrong with our education system?

In the latest Global Competitive Report published by the World Economic Forum, Hong Kong ranked No. 7 among the 140 economies assessed.

You may say Hong Kong has done a good job in the highly competitive global marketplace.

Yet, there is a lot to learn from the top-ranked countries, such as Switzerland and Singapore.

It is also critical for us to perform a self-assessment and identify key problem areas.

Among them, our education system is one of the key areas that deserve a deeper examination.

Despite the fact that Hong Kong has a high secondary school enrollment rate (99.3 percent), its enrollment rate for tertiary education only ranked 30th.

The city scored 4.8 for the quality of its education system, 20th out of the 140 economies.

The outcomes of our education system were reflected in the scores for several other aspects.

Innovativeness, for instance, is an area where Hong Kong is not performing.

Ethical behavior of firms and technological readiness were also areas of concern.

What is wrong with our education system?

Too much testing, not enough practical experience

The design of our education system lacks a solid philosophical foundation.

In fact, strategies and tactics seem to have built upon technical aspects.

The concern seems to be what has to be included in the curriculum rather than why it is being considered for inclusion in the first place.

There is no clear indication of the expected learning outcomes for each grade in school, and content is not aligned.

Readers may wish to refer to the Subject Key Learning Area Curriculum Guide published by the Education Bureau.

When I map the content against the indicated learning outcomes, I have problems synchronizing the two.

In practice, too, much effort is invested in assessment.

There are too many quizzes, tests and examinations that make learning more painful than fun.

Besides, they are not designed to be developmental.

They are more judgmental in nature, with the purpose of differentiating the “good” from the “poor”.

Schools then allocate their resources to groom the “good” rather than support those “not as good”.

This obviously results in a marginalization of late bloomers.

Why not make other approaches more widely available?

It is interesting that there is a sincere market demand from parents for International Baccalaureate programs or international schools, which place a greater emphasis on active learning through practical experience rather than testing and spoon feeding.

These are not the mainstream, for sure, and the supply of spaces for pupils is limited.

And thus, tuition fees have been driven up to a level that families in general cannot afford.

I cannot help wondering why the education authorities have resisted adopting the IB or other, less demanding, approaches.

Are Hong Kong school kids by nature so much different from their international counterpart?

Or, is it really a golden rule that there is no gain without pain?

The current model of education emphasizes homework, memorizing without comprehending and examinations to stratify “classes of students”.

Students are given too much pressure, which prevents the enjoyment of learning.

So, while the government is trying to promote lifelong learning, the system is undermining students’ interest and desire to learn.

I dare say that the majority of primary school kids have to do more homework than they need to.

After all, it is not something new or unusual for kids to work until very late at night before they can finish their homework.

The forgotten role of play in learning

So, forget about play.

Children are deprived of their right and privilege to play and to socialize with other kids.

Play is often regarded as evil and an unnecessary luxury.

It is not rare for parents to have the impression that playing and having fun will affect children’s concentration and in turn affect their ability to learn.

In reality, play, although it may seem purposeless, is an important part of children’s growth.

Stacy Barrows of Century City Physical Therapy says neuroscience research has shown that play is an introduction to exploratory learning.

Our adaptive behavior stems from problem solving in play and in our imaginary world.

Taking away the time properly devoted to play implies the reduction of opportunities to develop the skills critical for problem solving.

A recent report by the American Academy of Pediatrics advises making play a significant part of a child’s life — to nurture happiness, development, education and parent-child bonding.

Play is so important in child development that it’s been recognized by the United Nations High Commission for Human Rights as a right of every child.

We, as parents, are obligated to deal with this seriously.

How to encourage innovative and critical thinking?

Kids are also discouraged from being innovative.

They are expected to deliver model answers, any deviation from which will be regarded as “incorrect” and penalized by the subtraction of marks.

Kids, therefore, are left with very little choice but to memorize those model answers.

Critical thinking, learning beyond textbook materials and innovativeness are unnecessary or even discouraged.

Any other reasonable responses will not be accepted.

No wonder reasoning and cross-dimensional thinking cannot be nurtured in our schools.

Educational progressivism, as a school of thought in education, contends that education must be based on the principle that humans are social animals who learn best in real-life activities with other people, following a process similar to John Dewey’s model of learning.

That model has five steps:

(1) Become aware of the problem.

(2) Define the problem.

(3) Propose hypotheses to solve it.

(4) Evaluate the consequences of the hypotheses from one’s past experience.

(5) Test the likeliest solution.

Our standard protocol of receiving, memorizing and reproducing model answers negates this process.

How parents can avoid depriving their kids of the gift of childhood

An even more outrageous and absurd practice among our primary schools is that some are selected to teach materials of more senior grade as demonstration of their superiority or excellence.

For example, Primary 1 classes will use materials and texts from Primary 2 or even Primary 3.

If we believe that the Education Bureau had a rationale and philosophy when it designed the curriculum, how can we allow schools to alter the path of learning simply for the sake of ego and elitism?

Parents have to share the blame.

After all, it is the parents’ choices of school and pedagogy that drive the supply.

Parents are sending their kids to private tutors even when there is no remedial need.

The children are enrolled in classes to brush up their memorizing skills and language and to learn absurd mathematical tricks and techniques.

They have to attend activities in which they might not be interested but are good for school entrance interviews.

Even in their play groups or hobbies, there will be high targets for the kids to achieve.

For example, many are assigned the goal of learning at least two musical instruments and passing their Grade 8 piano exams within 4 years, because all this is essential when applying for a place in a desirable secondary school.

Would you call that fun?

What kind of childhood are we forcing on our beloved children?

Fellow parents, for the welfare and future of your children and the well-being of our society, we need to seriously reconsider what is needed to groom and develop our kids.

Grades and scores have barely any importance than telling you if they have learnt what they should. 

– Contact us at [email protected]


Vice Chairman, Holistic Community Association

EJI Weekly Newsletter