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How Hong Kong Reformed Schools

By Heather Singmaster — May 31, 2012 6 min read
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At the inaugural meeting of the Global Cities Education Network in Hong Kong school leaders from throughout North America and Asia had the opportunity to learn about Hong Kong’s education reforms of the past 12 years. Heather Singmaster, Senior Program Associate, reports.

Hong Kong has undergone extensive education reforms over the last twelve years. It has made access to education and 21st century skills a priority for all students.

In the past, the Hong Kong education system was highly selective and screened many students out of the system. Now, reformers are challenging this notion and giving all students access to twelve years of free education.

Higher education is also changing. Undergraduate programs previously had a very limited number of seats and only lasted for three years. Now, students will attend for four years and an expansion of seats means that 30% of students will be able to attend a Hong Kong university by 2015 compared to only 19% today.

Resource Allocation
One major goal is to provide flexibility in the system and allow for different student learning styles and levels. New flexibility in resource allocation allows for many of these reforms to take place—for instance there are now gifted programs and support programs for students with special needs. While most class sizes are still larger than what you see in America, the government has been investing resources to incrementally improve the student-to-teacher ratio. Teacher training programs and the development of leadership capabilities is another area of focus. In fact, principals are considered partners in reform work and have a key voice in policy reforms.

Another area of heavy investment is in the use of technology: “blackboards are now whiteboards,” according to Kenneth Chen, Undersecretary for Education. Technology is interactive, creative, and encourages student to synthesize and share. Schools are being encouraged to take ownership of new opportunities rather than have them mandated as in the past. For example, the government provided competitive funding for an e-learning pilot program. Out of 61 schools that submitted proposals, 21 were given funding. We visited one of the schools, Shak Chung Shan Memorial Catholic Primary School. The main focus of the school is technology: not only is it one of only six schools in Hong Kong to be invited to participate as a Microsoft Learning Partner, but it was named by the Hong Kong Education Bureau as a Center for Excellence in ICT. The use of technology is visible everywhere—the school is particularly proud of their visual arts program where students use tablet computers to learn to draw and paint. Each week these students are in their own TV studio—writing scripts, conducting interviews, and producing programs. The elementary school reporters were quite impressive interviewing our GCEN delegates from around the world—watch out CNN!

Curriculum Reform
Curriculum takes center stage in the reform efforts. The government realized that the former focus on science and math taught by rote memorization of facts was not enough to help students succeed in an increasingly complex world. It was also not stimulating and students complained of being bored. Professor Kai-ming Cheng at the University of Hong Kong explained that in the beginning of implementation, every government document related to the reforms began the same way: “Society has changed.” The new curriculum, which is a central curriculum approved by the government, but with flexibility in the way it is taught by individual teachers, focuses on applied learning and the development of the whole child. It also focuses on the learning of 21st century skills. Teachers are encouraged to change the way they teach and focus on making the classroom more interactive. While not all teachers are quick to adopt this style, the government is slowly seeing change occur. Assessment, of course must be taken into account and it is also being changed to be more open ended and inquiry based.

One concrete way Hong Kong has worked to ensure this change in the classroom is through the introduction of a Liberal Studies class. While this class has been around for more than 20 years, it was previously reserved for the top third of students. Now all students must take it in their last three years. Because there is no prescribed curriculum, there are no answers to memorize. In a society where education is highly valued and very traditional, this change has been controversial.

Another controversial change was to allow for more instruction to be done in English. This was formerly reserved for high-performing students—in fact, in the early 2000’s, only 110 schools were allowed to teach in English, and those schools had to have a high ratio of students who fell in the top 40% of all students in Hong Kong. Some people wanted more students taught in English, others wanted students taught only in Cantonese. The government tackled the issue by engaging with parents and employers to see what was wanted and needed. Since 2010, about half of all schools in Hong Kong teach some classes in English.

While we were in Hong Kong we had the opportunity to visit the Tsuen Wan Government Secondary School, one of the only schools to have used English as the medium of instruction since its inception in 1961. Today it is one Hong Kong’s highest performing schools academically. As a government school, the majority of students are assigned to it; only 30% are accepted via a competitive interview process. As such, the school aims to provide an excellent education for all of its students and succeeds with a 100% passing rate. Demonstrating some of the reform policies the government has put into place, there are three teachers assigned to just helping remedial students catch-up and gifted students have opportunities to participate in special programs, but all classes contain a mixed ability levels. The Liberal Studies class is fully integrated and is part of the school assessments. Teachers are part of an integrated, collaborative team and work across departments to provide an interdisciplinary curriculum. Public speaking to instill confidence in students is a school wide focus and is encouraged through a variety of programs including talent competitions, drama clubs, debates, and English competitions as well as a focus on individual presentations in classes. Reading of current events and encouragement to write opinion pieces, have resulted in many students being published in The Standard and The South China Morning Post newspapers. And each year, an anthology of these pieces is published and used as the curriculum for students the next year. A website features extensions of this work including students reading their pieces aloud to help other students learn proper pronunciation, and videos of students role playing various scenarios from the book. Creativity is encouraged through video production in many classes and TV commercial and dubbing competitions. Competition is alive and well in the school system, but is being used to encourage students to cultivate their 21st century skills.

Hong Kong has traditionally been one of the highest-performing jurisdictions on the PISA exam, yet they were not content to rest on their laurels. Looking to the future for global trends as well as workforce needs, they have systematically improved their education system. And while they feel they are not finished and more work needs to be done, there are still many lessons to be shared with the world.

The opinions expressed in Global Learning are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.


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