In her years as the First Lady of the United States, Hillary Rodham-Clinton wrote a book entitled It Takes a Village. Implied in the title is a caution and a reminder: that education is something that goes far beyond the curriculum of formal schooling. As the Americans are trying to find new ways to educate their young in the new millennium, across the Pacific here in Hong Kong, we are trying to achieve a similar feat. We have finally begun to ask ourselves what form of education is really suitable for us. Perhaps this is a proper question to ask in these post-colonial times where universal references of everything seem to have dissipated. May be no one likes to admit it, but we are all left in the dark, governments and private institutions alike; and we are now on our own, to look for our own solutions in life, and education not being an exception. However, there is one thing that we all know for sure: we cannot simply repeat what we have done in the past, despite our success in the business world, for that is not the sure path to the future.
These are exciting times. Stressful? Yes, but also hopeful because never before in the history of Hong Kong’s education have individual schools been given more freedom and power of implementation, as far as their curricula are concerned. It is now up to the schools themselves to decide as to what to take on in the future, and what to leave behind. The task ahead of us as educators is formidable, we think; not because the future has become so unpredictable but because we are all struggling against the shadows of the past which somehow have taken root in our minds. It is also formidable because of the administration-related constraints that have been handed down to us from the past: the extremely low teacher-student ratio, the rigid curriculum, the study-for-exams approach, the quality of the teaching materials. These are not things that can be dramatically changed overnight.
But as all conscientious educators should know, this is just the surface; the problem of education in Hong Kong extends itself into other cultural and social domains. We are referring to the poverty of the popular media, those time-consuming computer games, and whatever that is hosted on the Internet, not to mention the often-reported short attention spans in students, and the lost habit of reading. The list of problems is so long that we have almost forgotten to mention misguided parental attitudes towards education, and the over-loaded teachers. All these combine to make local education reform a daunting task.
A most amazing but sad fact is that Hong Kong’s public education spending is among the highest in the world, not to count the amount of money that has been poured into private education in its various forms, from home tuition to exam-drilling to tuition centres. Despite all these effort and investment, the results of education have been, to most of us, disappointing. There are few who have worked with school leavers of various levels who are satisfied. Business communities have repeatedly expressed concern over the intellectual quality and language capability of our students. Some even have gone to lengths to warn that if the level of English in the work force stays as it is, our city will eventually lose its competitive edge to its neighbouring cities, with the greatest competition coming from those on the Mainland.
An Uneasy Partnership
Good education does take a village, we have to concur with Mrs. Clinton. Parents have to play a role, so do the media, the churches, or other like-purposed communities, and the society at large. However, Hong Kong is not the United States, nor is it Western Europe where parents and the community have the time and the intellectual preparedness to fulfil their unique roles in education. As a result, students spend a considerable amount of time outside their school hours with home tutors or in tuition centres. This is nothing bad in itself, for the usefulness of these activities all depends on what students actually do in them. However, more often than not, they consist of revision exercises or repetitive drilling for what is taught or examined in the school curriculum. What is sad is that while this type of private education is denounced by the schools and the authorities on nobler grounds, it effectively patches up whatever is not properly done in the schools. In a way, private and public education in Hong Kong are competitors and collaborators, each being a reminder of the other’s weakness and, at the same time, cripplingly dependent on the other. This is an uneasy and unacknowledged partnership that characterizes Hong Kong’s education scene.
There is a saying from a forgotten source that the difference between heaven and hell is that hell repeats itself. For in a situation like this, resources are wasted with no prospect of improvement. But we believe this: private education, even in the form of after-school education or para-education, if conducted with insight and concern, could bring educational benefits to a society to a level that has never been seen before, given the amount of monetary and human resources that have been dedicated to such a cause. We believe the problem of education has to do with material and human resources, but more to do with how they are managed and how our curricula are designed.
At the same time, we think that day schools should begin to learn about their own strengths and weaknesses: what they are good at teaching and what is best left in the hands of the more specialized, so that certain types of work can be “out contracted”―an adaptive move that many other government organizations have already made. In this way, private education of the after-school type can form partnership with schools according to their individual needs and visions.
What is being proposed is a long-term, transparent, acknowledged partnership between day schools and specialized para-educational institutions which serve to complement, rather than to reinforce, the pedagogical weaknesses of normal schooling. This form of partnership may or may not be covered by the purposes of the Quality Education Fund and the Language Fund. The problem with relying on these funds is that they are only offered on a project basis, therefore obfuscating long-term developments. Further, these funds in principle do not support projects which are selective in nature, and are not likely to accept programmes for training specially designated groups of students. However, other modes of co-operation between day schools and specialized educational services are possible. Students can be directed to such services through recommendations or formal referrals by the school on a user-pay basis. Schools or corporations can also provide scholarships or sponsorships for a designated group of students. Para-education does have a constructive role to play in Hong Kong; it is a matter of what and how.
Some Theoretical Perspectives We have been arguing for the relevance of, and perhaps even the need for, dedicated forms of private education in Hong Kong to compensate for the effects of a host of deleterious cultural factors that may impede healthy pedagogical development. The next question would be: what kind of programme is suited to this form of education? Historically, curriculum studies advocate two major approaches: that which is related to skills and functions required by the society, and, to the development of the person. To side exclusively with any of these approaches is totally inadequate because it is clear that both are of value to our society today. This balanced need is perhaps best exemplified by the 1996 English Education Act (Section 351) concerning curriculum development, which states that schools in England are required to provide a curriculum which is ‘broadly based and balanced’ and which ‘promotes the spiritual, moral, cultural, mental and physical development of pupils at the school and of society;’ and ‘prepares pupils at the school for the opportunities, responsibilities and experiences of adult life.’
The problem is that these two sides of the same coin of education are more intricately linked than have been previously supposed; that the detriment of one tends to weaken the other, as can be seen in recent researches on the role of emotional intelligence in both academic and work performance. Any serious attempts, therefore, to reform curricula should not take these directives at face value; that the nobler of human concerns are not just lip service, but real education with real long term effect. We believe that the economic problems Hong Kong faces today can in part be attributed to our failure on the human and cultural side of education.
Education ideals are often sensible and nice to read. But as they trickle down to the education work-floor, they start to lose sense and become encumbering regulations instead of enlightening dicta. A way to overcome this perennial problem is to approach the problem from a more practical angle: rather than asking ourselves how to implement these nebulous curricular ideals in an average school structure, we should perhaps be asking in what way can the existing education system, private or public, best support these ideals. What we are advocating here is a ‘goodness of fit’ approach that maximizes the use of existing education resources, both private and public, rather than seeking a once-and-for-all solution in a predetermined, existing structure such as a government school. The attractiveness of this approach is its economy a la Ricardo because it minimizes alterations and maximizes the functionality of existing structures. Moreover, this approach will permit a proper blending of learning situations, what is learnt, and how students learn.
For the sake of illustration, we will use the curricular ideals of the 1996 English Education Act as an example. Intuitively, development pertaining to human spirituality, morality, culture, and mind, are best sustained and nurtured in an environment where very diverse types of interactions between the teacher and the students are possible, something that is not sustainable in a conventional classroom. One of the reasons is that knowledge of these areas interacts more personally with a student’s background and make-up, and more closely than, say, scientific or mathematical knowledge which is more universally defined. For example, teaching a student with a certain cultural-religious background the value of another religion will invite suspicion and challenge. An experienced teacher will take this as an opportunity to engage students in thinking about, or further exploring into, the subject matter. And in the process, a very rich repertoire of cognitive functions emerges such as questioning and answering, commenting and criticizing, exploring, analyzing, and reflecting on a problem or issue. Activities of this type are unlikely to be sustainable in a class with 40 or more students. Genuine development of these curricular ideals does not only involve the learning of an issue or a set of facts or values, it also requires students to involve themselves intelligently and personally with the issue, and to come to a position that is uniquely their own. This is one area in which para-education can contribute to Hong Kong’s education. If marketability or funding permits, para-education institutions can create a learning environment whereby there is an acceptable teacher-student ratio to fulfil the needs of the above described curricular ideals.
In addition to creating an environment that is conducive to personal growth, para-education can contribute in another way. The problem with implementing these ideals in normal school settings is the tendency to centralize. For example, teaching materials are virtually drawn from a small group of publishers who guarantees all will conform to the formally-defined curriculum. Consequently, uniformity is brought in. This is good for standardized testing but detrimental to pluralistic thinking which, if underdeveloped, will take a toll on any evolving, civilized community because it will be less resistant to selection. As private education organizations, however, they have no need to conform to a commonly-accepted curriculum, thereby introducing pluralism without having to sacrifice quality.
A final contribution that para-education can make to our society is the teaching of the English language―an area that needs as much improvement as personal development and diversity of thought. But why should English learning in these institutions be better? The answer is simple. Why would students be motivated to learn a second language if they have no opportunity to speak and interact with fellow students in that medium, to read with purpose and challenge, and to write with individual feedback? After all, to our knowledge, language is as much a social function as a cognitive one. Again, compared to schools or even language institutions, this is another area in which para-education may lead.
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The above description of education roughly coincides with a tradition known as liberal education, a tradition which has long been established as a paradigm in many high schools and colleges in the United States, especially the more prestigious ones. While the theorizing behind liberal education is multifarious and constantly changing, it is generally believed that this style of education helps students to develop some general intellectual competency that cuts across disciplines, and provides them with pragmatic reasoning skills to cope with the fuzziness of the problems of the real world. Many educators even argue that intimate learning of this kind is an indispensable step to the proper formation of personhood and democratic citizenship.
And for all practical purposes, just consider how many of our school leavers are planning to go to North America for higher education. Liberal arts training will not only help them to deal with standardized tests such as the SAT and SSAT, in which English vocabulary is a significant component, and for which the vocabulary acquired at most of our high schools is totally inadequate. We dare to suggest that this form of training may even indirectly help students to perform better in the conventional subject-based tests in Hong Kong such as the HKCEE and the A-Level examinations, simply because, we believe, liberal arts training will extend their knowledge scope and sharpen their language and thinking skills.
It is apparent that this form of education, though important, is usually very weakly represented in our system - high schools and universities alike. Its successful implementation requires a small class size, suitable teachers, and a curriculum with a broad and changing knowledge base, something that seems beyond reach of most of our schools due to existing structural constraints. A few of our high schools have set up, in their senior forms, a subject called Liberal Studies. With due respect, we might add that liberal arts education is not and cannot be the study of a subject; to do so will be self-defeating. This, we are inclined to think, is an important aspect of an education system that can be out-contracted to more specialized, privately-operated education institutions. On the other hand, curricular ideals pertaining to life opportunities, or career skills, or traditionally-defined disciplines that have long constituted a recognized body of knowledge or methods, can be taught in the traditional classroom situation without sacrificing efficiency.
It is our goal at MEA to create quality learning opportunities for all learners in Hong Kong based on the Liberal Arts tradition, through a form of para-education or complementary education that would seamlessly integrate with the existing local school structures by employing existing human, social, and cultural resources.
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The proposed Liberal Arts programme is about 9 months in duration. To attend our programme, students come to MEA once a week and spend about two hours in tutorials (of not more than five in a group) in which we
• focus on students’ ability to understand, articulate, and communicate concepts,
• encourage students to think independently, in depth, and to formulate personal
• use teaching materials drawn from the arts and the sciences to widen students’
• provide weekly reading assignments based on a selection of topics (see below) to
be discussed and shared in tutorials,
• expect weekly in-class essays from students and we provide detailed comments
on content, grammar, and style.
Since this is an English programme, all are expected to do their part in enhancing important skills in presentations, debates, and writing. Students will also participate in culturally-related events such as concerts and film appreciation. Occasionally, we will also invite foreign guests and visitors to give lectures on selected topics.
Mode of Instruction The mode of instruction at MEA is enquiry- and research-orientated. By doing this, we hope to foster in students a passion for knowledge, an enquiring and critical mind, attributes of learning which are extremely important but largely undervalued in most local schools.
Students are also expected to use English in the tutorials as the means of communication and eventually learn to use it as a tool to think, write, and for self-expression.
Person-Centred Learning MEA focuses on the potential of each student and teacher without being biased by any school curriculum standard. We value both students’ and teachers’ individuality the expression of which is a precursor to valuable personal qualities such as creativity and independent thinking.
Staff and students at MEA work together as a community of learners who can actively contribute to learning by reasoning through problems together. When needed, we provide counselling to students with emotional and motivational problems which are nowadays quite often the key impediments to learning. This is essential for the development of emotional intelligence, leadership, and team work― the ingredients of success in a knowledge-based society.
Teachers What kinds of teachers are suited to para-education as we have described it? If our goal is to pursue academic diversity, the criteria for teacher selection would be different from those of normal day-schools. It is our belief that good teachers in the para-education setting must be those who show an intense interest in the arts or in the sciences, in the broadest definition of these terms, and have also achievements in the form of publications or involvement in community projects. These are people who are attuned to the idea of community education and who are also excellent representatives of the different sectors of our society.
Good teachers tend to possess certain personality attributes. A good teacher in Liberal Arts education can be any of the following: a good listener, someone with sound E.Q., a good story teller, a good facilitator, a good debater, a good orator, someone who can look at old problems from fresh angles. The list can go on. Ideally, teachers in liberal education are also mentors who would follow through student cases for a good period of time, not only to provide academic help but also provide support for personal growth.
Teachers in para-education participate at various levels in curriculum design by sharing their expertise and life experience. In this way, what is taught is not something that is alienating to them. This is quite essential because this is something that has been keeping many good teachers, both foreign and local, from staying in the system. How often have we heard complaints from the native English teachers that they are told to teach in a manner that does not befit their education principles! In our society, many talents are lost because of this grave mistake in human resource management.
At MEA, teachers are drawn from very diverse academic and professional pools with highly varied life experiences. There is only one formal requirement for our teachers, and that is academic training completed at the baccalaureate level. What has been proposed is nothing short of Mrs. Clinton’s ‘village’: knowledgeable people of different backgrounds, using personal time, out of their own interests and concerns, participate in educating our young.
Students What sorts of students are suitable for this kind of education? Is it something for anyone who can afford it? Or is it something reserved for the talented few? It is easy to view this form of education as a kind of elitist training, serving only those who are either highly gifted or rich enough to pay. But this need not be the case. We would like to view this form of education as something that complements the existing education practices and adds to the diversity of education in Hong Kong.
In our experience, not all students will benefit from this form of training, especially those who are on the passive and conforming side. Other than this, it seems to have benefited most students regardless of their academic standing in school. The effect is more pronounced for those who are of mediocre academic standing. For these students, our programme seems to have served a bootstrapping function that helped them to tie everything together. But there is one real hurdle and it is language related; unless the student has a basic grasp of the English language as well as an earnest learning attitude, she would find the lessons and assignments difficult.
In years past, some of our senior students managed to get into some of the most respected high schools in the world such as Rodean School in England; Phillips Exeter Academy, Choate Rosemary Hall, and Rhode Island School of Design in the United States; and the L.P.C. United World College in Hong Kong. One of our seniors was chosen as school representative to the Model United Nations. A number of them also won awards in various open English essay contests in Hong Kong. For us, this is an honour. We feel honoured not because we believe that had it not been for our training, they would not have made it into these institutions. We feel honoured simply because in the course of our association with our students, we had developed a mutuality in learning that goes beyond an examination ‘trick’ or ‘method’, and that the education ideal that we are embracing has actually come to fruition.
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We have earlier come to the conclusion that para-education is apt to help students to develop in certain curricular ideals. However, it is highly debatable as to exactly what kind of intellectual content should be included to help them attain these ideals. But, whatever we do, it should in part be linked to the needs, problems, and characteristics of the students, and the culture of education that surrounds them. What then are these needs, problems, and characteristics? This is, again, a critical question that is likely to invite different viewpoints and consequently, debates. The following are some bold diagnostics based on, in part, our experience as we interact with the students and the system, and, in part, philosophical considerations as to what are the pedagogical elements required to realize the curricular ideals. Our curriculum will base in part on these diagnostics although they are in no way exhaustive.
Intimate KnowledgeOur first diagnostic element has a certain psychological and spiritual bent to it. This is the age of knowledge, we have been told. But what else is more alienating to students than knowledge itself, at least as it is commonly presented and taught in the textbooks and lessons? Knowledge, for our students, has only one experiential attribute: whether it is easy or difficult; and a functional one: whether it will be easy to score a good mark on. If for the student there is not a book worth reading and, if teachers have to learn to stand on their heads to make lessons interesting enough to get through a term, it may well indicate that the age of knowledge is over, at least for us.
Reforming the textbooks and how lessons are conducted are certainly important, but a more worrying question still lurks in the background: has anything happened to our desire for knowledge, something that has brought different human cultures to the present day? If something has happened, what is it? In the past, knowledge had two meanings. One is related to skills and reasoning, normally transmitted by the school and trade institutions. The other is existential and human, transmitted by story-tellers, philosophers, and religious organizations. In the best minds, these two strains of knowledge tend to coexist, in balanced ways, with the latter consistently supplying problems and meaning to the former. But for some historico-cultural reasons, the latter has been weakened to a point where the only commonly accepted form of knowledge is technical knowledge. However technical knowledge cannot stand on its own, because it is not created to satisfy the human need to relate meaningfully and purposefully to his own existence, and to the universe. Under these circumstances, technical knowledge will still be acquired, but in a weak and extrinsic manner, and will dissipate quickly if external motivators are gone.
We think what the human strain of knowledge can provide is a means by which young people can use: to find their identity as they are being uniquely situated in the world, as they pass through that particular stage of life which Erik Erikson calls ‘identity formation’. Knowing who we are as a people, who one is as a person, and how we are related to the world around us, may be a good place to start the search for knowledge. Unless we know who we are - our identity, desires, and fears, knowledge will remain something extrinsic and its acquisition an alienating experience. Knowledge that will put us in existential perspective, as a unique community and as individuals, will constitute one of our criteria for text and material selection.