25 October 2016
By emphasizing mock exams and other ways of learning exam techniques, schools neglect their key role in helping students learn about life. Photo: HKEJ
By emphasizing mock exams and other ways of learning exam techniques, schools neglect their key role in helping students learn about life. Photo: HKEJ

How exam-oriented curriculum kills students’ interest

Education primarily serves the purpose of promoting children’s well-being and equipping them with knowledge and skills for coping with difficulties in future.

However, is Hong Kong education working toward these goals at all?

Nine schoolchildren committed suicide in the first five months of the 2015/16 school year.

There was another tragic case right after the Lunar New Year holiday.

It’s alarming. However, the suicides unveil only the tip of the iceberg of the problems in the local education system.

About three in five secondary school students show a tendency toward depression in various degrees, research released in March last year by the Christian Family Service Centre and the School of Nursing at Hong Kong Polytechnic University found. 

The study covered more than 10,000 students from 16 secondary schools in Hong Kong.

Those who signaled anxiety were also reported as upset or even depressed as they regarded themselves as academic losers who had disappointed their families.

A separate report by Youth Online Association found that examinations and the curriculum contribute more than half of the learning pressure endured by students.

Since the launch of the Hong Kong Diploma of Secondary Education (HKDSE) examination, it has become the sole exit exam, dominating the future of secondary school students.

The exam’s scope becomes the curriculum.

Schoolchildren, regardless of their level, are busily spoon-fed by teachers on how to decode questions and adopt different answering techniques through doing endless practices or mock paper sets.

How valid and reliable is the public exam?

Can it truly measure students’ abilities?

Have they become independent and confident learners who remain curious about pursuing knowledge of the world for the rest of their lives?

Why students find Chinese hard to master

Take education in the Chinese language as an example.

The ability of an individual to read text, process it and understand its meaning is surely one of the most important skills that affect their capability for lifelong learning.

Nevertheless, it is not easy to assess learners’ comprehension.

Competent readers are often those who have developed a habit of reading widely and massively.

They have broad background knowledge and rich life experiences and stay hungry for knowledge of everything happening around them.

A large quantity of long, contextualized reading materials is needed to build up students’ vocabulary, memories and ability to switch between spoken Cantonese and written Chinese and to analyze arguments.

These sophisticated skills and abilities are not going to be acquired through reading exercises of some random choppy materials focusing on isolated skills and tactics.

The best assessment method would be to see how students write and speak, which gives away their reading habits and interests, as well as the ability to critique what they have read.

However, for the sake of measurement and achieving high reliability on a test, the current formative assessment prefers standard questions that come with model answers for easy marking.

Under the influence of education reforms in which stakeholders are constantly monitored for progress using performance indicators as the yardstick, quantifiable assessments are favored, and schools are adopting result-oriented teaching strategies.

Language ought to be the carrier of thought, and the means to express one’s emotions.

The artistic values of language are being put aside, since they are not within the scope of the exam.

Primary and secondary school students are overwhelmed with the grammatical features of the Chinese language, as they are considered more objective and reliable aspects of language learning and teaching.

Students are told to distinguish nouns, verbs, prepositions, adverbials and punctuation marks; or to analyze if a sentence is expressing a statement, command or exclamation; or to mechanically rewrite sentences into active or passive voice, and so on.

This metalingual knowledge is in the realm of linguists’ expertise.

How could it possibly serve as the mainstream learning content in Chinese language classes in primary and secondary schools?

No wonder our children are complaining that Chinese is hard to master, because they are drowned in completing fragmented language practice exercises but do not have the time to appreciate a story or to read a novel.

We need to take into account learners’ physiological and psychological needs, and to evaluate whether what they are learning is necessary and worthwhile.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Feb. 27.

Translation by Darlie Yiu

[Chinese version 中文版]

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Guest Lecturer at Centre for Excellence in Learning and Teaching (CELT), The Hong Kong Institute of Education (HKIEd)

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