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334 - Reshaping Education for a New Era

On September 13, 2010, Deputy Secretary for Education Dr K K Chan met with Chairman of Curriculum Development Council Prof Edmond Ko and HKUST’s Dean of Undergraduate Education Prof Kar Yan Tam to discuss Hong Kong's new academic structure (334) and curriculum.

Education Bureau (EDB)’s spacious conference room on 16/F, Wu Chung House is an exemplary of minimalism - a conference table with a dozen chairs, the only decoration is a Chinese calligraphic plaque on the wall. Four calligraphic characters (樂善勇敢) summarize the objectives stated in EDB’s "Review of Education System Reform Proposals" Consultation Paper (2000) - "Enabling our students to enjoy learning, enhancing their effectiveness in communication and developing their creativity and sense of commitment”.
Dr Chan’s office 20 feet down the corridor is fully packed - shelves full of books, stacks of documents here and there. Gleaming through the stacks and piles is a calligraphic scroll with the same four characters hanging quietly on the wall.

A 25-Year Journey
Dr K K Chan gave us a vivid account of Hong Kong’s education reform by taking a stroll down memory lane.

Discussion about a 334 academic structure (three-year junior high, three-year senior high and a four-year degree program); using both Chinese and English as media of instruction and teaching Liberal Studies in secondary schools dated way back to the early 90s. Hong Kong was then a British colony with an education system following that of the English - a five-year secondary education, two-year matriculation and a three-year undergraduate degree program (the 523 structure) while most other countries follow a "334” structure.

Changing the academic structure could be controversial before the handover of Hong Kong from the UK to China. It remained as a discussion topic before 1997. The 90s also saw Liberal Studies became an optional Advanced Supplementary Level (AS-Level) subject and the adoption of mother-tongue teaching which paved way for SAR’s biliteracy & trilingual policy.

Ten years flew by in the blink of an eye amidst discussions, consultations and preparations. Hong Kong became a Special Administrative Region of the People’s Republic of China. Education reform became possible.

The Education Commission’s "Education System Reform Proposals” published in 2000 set out the basic premise of education - "to enable every individual to have an all-round development through life-long learning”. There kicked start Hong Kong’s education reform that turned out to be a mega-sized social engineering project. Reforming the academic structure is a massive undertaking demanding continuous policy improvement efforts and firm commitment. The first decade of the 21st Century witnessed substantial progress in reform through ongoing consultations as well as curriculum and assessment developments.

Last year (2009) saw the first cohort of Hong Kong’s new senior secondary (NSS) students. They will be the first batch of students to sit for the Hong Kong Diploma of Secondary Education in 2012 and complete the 4-year undergraduate curriculum in the summer of 2016.

By then it will have been almost a quarter of century since the first discussion of any kind of education reform initiatives.

What was, what is and what needs to be

At a time when a global wealth of information is at our finger tips and anyone could become a knowledge guru the instant he/she presses a button, we need to transcend beyond specialized knowledge just to stay competitive. Global citizens today have to acquire a much broader knowledge base, get equipped with advanced generic skills and critical thinking abilities so as to surf through various information platforms, select relevant materials and know how to use them.
This is a time for individuals with a wide range of transferable competencies that are applicable in different job settings.

Hong Kong’s old education system has long been criticized as exam-oriented in which the curriculum was designed such that students would do well in public examinations. Teaching and learning emphasized rote memorization of "model answers”. There was no fertile soil for nurturing independent thinking.

Students’ development was confined, their learning initiatives deterred, their needs and interests inadequately addressed and their career aspirations ignored. "Spoon-fed education” lagged behind the times.

Prof Edmond Ko said, "Traditional teaching and learning focuses on professional training and academic development without properly nurturing students’ capabilities of self-reflection and self-adjustment.

"Education is not only knowledge transfer. Education should instil into young people a sense of social responsibility. Equipped with critical thinking, problem solving abilities and other skills essential for life-long learning, they will then be encouraged to constantly strive for self-improvement,” he reiterated.

Hong Kong may claim to be "Asia’s world city” and move towards a knowledge-based economy. Yet, the city’s education system does not nourish this aspiration and falls short of addressing the learning needs of students.

In this ever-changing world where we live, there is an urgent need to cultivate the young generation in the new education soil.

Breadth and Depth

The education reform involves significant changes of Hong Kong’s examination system, academic structure and curriculum. Hong Kong Diploma of Secondary Education (HKDSE) will replace Hong Kong Certificate of Education Examination (HKCEE) sat at the end of Form Five and the Hong Kong Advanced-Levels Examination (HKALE) at the end of matriculation or Form Seven starting 2012 - this is the new senior secondary structure (NSS).

"Senior secondary takes one year less and undergraduate studies one year more. It’s just a matter of reallocating educational resources,” said Dr Chan.

The new curriculum is a hybrid model extracting the best elements of education systems around the world while maintaining Hong Kong’s high subject teaching quality.

Currently one of the core subjects of the NSS curriculum, Liberal Studies (LS) covers a wide scope of knowledge. By engaging students in thematic analysis and taking part in discussion and group projects, LS increases the breadth and depth of students’ knowledge, widens their perspectives, develops their logical and critical thinking abilities and helps them to become lifelong learners.

Dr Chan participated in the secondary sixth curriculum reform in the 90’s, taught the University of Hong Kong Certificate of Education Program, including learning and teaching of Liberal Studies. These experiences made her more convinced of the value of Liberal Studies in today’s world.

"We started offering Liberal Studies at AS-Level in 1992. Teachers and employers discovered that students who studied Liberal Studies demonstrated better communication, analytical and information integration skills,” she said.

University faculties have similar comments. Among Year One students, those who took LS in secondary schools would be more willing to ask questions and were more active problem-solvers.
LS enables them to colligate fragmented knowledge across different fields into a wider panorama.

At the dawn of the new millennium, there was stronger support for having Liberal Studies as a core subject in secondary curriculum. Almost two decades since the initial discussion and consultation, LS has finally become one of the core subjects of NSS curriculum. Dr Chan beamed, "It has been a continuous pursuit."

There is now consensus on the rationale and curriculum objectives of Liberal Studies. Being a core subject of the NSS curriculum, local universities have begun expanding the General Education or Liberal Education courses in recent years. Students will be studying a wide range of issues and engaging in various activities to enrich their learning experiences from secondary to tertiary education.

HKUST’s Dean of Undergraduate Education, Prof Kar Yan Tam said UST’s new undergraduate curriculum designed for the 4-year undergraduate program to be implemented in 2012 will provide undergraduate students with more than 200 humanities, social sciences and liberal-arts courses, adding considerable breadth and depth to students’ knowledge.

Tertiary education becomes a true continuation of secondary education.

Equality and Diversity

In a fair society, everyone should have the chance to realize their dreams. A fair education system should provide equal opportunities for all students to succeed.

Traditional education put great emphasis on academic achievement and examination performance and relatively less on catering for individual diversities. Under the reformed structure, public examinations are reduced from two to one and all students will receive a 12-year general education (under the old structure most would have to leave school after Form Five and ended up receiving an 11-year education). Extended education allows more time and space for all students to enrich learning experiences and internalise knowledge into skilful application effectively.

Unlike the arts-science streaming at Form Four previously, the new structure allows students to choose two or three from twenty available elective subjects according to individual interests, abilities and aptitudes.

NSS Elective Subjects

Key Learning Areas
Chinese Language Education
Chinese Literature
English Language Education
English Literature
Personal, Social and
Humanities Education
Chinese Hiistory
Ethics and Religious Studies
Tourism and Hospitality Studies
Science Education
Integrated Science, Combined Science
Technology Education
Business, Accounting and Financial Studies
Design and Applied Technology
Health Management and Social Care
Technology and Living
Information and Communication Technology
Arts Education
Visual Arts
Physical Education
Physical Education
 Source: EDB New Academic Structure Web Bulletin

Dr Chan said, "This is a balanced curriculum and increase students’ depth of understanding of subjects that suit their abilities and interests. Unlike traditional arts versus science streaming at Form Four, the NSS curriculum gives students greater freedom of choice."

Most of the schools will provide students with 13 to 14 out of the twenty electives. Each school is entitled to a Diversity Learning Grant provided by the Government to promote inter-school collaborations and offer more elective subjects like Music and Visual Arts. "Teachers from different schools teach together will enhance inter-school collaborations and has a positive impact on teaching and learning," said Prof Edmond Ko. He encouraged that tertiary institutions should also strengthen professional communications and improve teaching and learning.

By introducing a school-based assessment, students’ actual abilities and academic strengths will be better reflected and the dependence on public examination results will be reduced. Dr Chan described school-based assessment as fairer and more reliable, "A three-hour written examination is a necessary but simply insufficient evaluation of students’ abilities in subjects like Design, Applied Technology or Visual Arts." A new evaluation system that provides more than merely taking the scores of the students is inevitable.

One of the many other reasons to promote school-based assessment is that students will have to demonstrate investigative skills for all humanities subjects. "It will evaluate students’ creativity, knowledge gathering and expressive abilities better," Dr Chan added.

In addition to core and elective subjects, one of the key components under the NSS is "Other Learning Experiences" (OLE). Covering areas like Moral and Civic Education, Community Service and Career-related activities, OLE further enriches and extends students’ learning experiences.

Students are also encouraged to prepare a Student Learning Profile (SLP) with supplementary information about outside classroom learning activities - an integral part of learning which help students to achieve the educational goal of whole person development.

Prof Edmond Ko said, "Liberal Studies as core subject, OLE and SLP at the secondary level, continued with an expanded general education at the tertiary level all aim at  arousing students’ interest to learn, changing the exam-oriented mentality and moving towards a learning-oriented mentality."

NSS curriculum encourages self- reflection and continuous improvement - the essence of "learning to learn" and "lifelong learning".

Realizing a vision

Dr Chan, Prof Ko and Prof Tam are all experienced educators who believe that Hong Kong’s education reform presents a golden opportunity to depart from traditional teaching and learning approaches. They are confident that a successful liberal arts education will change Hong Kong fundamentally.

A multi-faceted undertaking of this size rarely gets unanimous support but support, so to speak, is crucial for its smooth implementation. Dr Chan admitted there were different opinions but implementation of the new senior secondary curriculum has been smooth amid criticisms. "The encouraging news is that restrictions of streaming and subject choices are now loosened,” she said.

"The society has reached a consensus for an education reform and there are numerous dedicated individuals who are working on its successful implementation,” she remarked.

One of the more important tasks is helping teachers teach more effectively. Prof Edmond Ko said, "NSS brings challenges to teachers but it is also a good opportunity for them to improve and grow."

Dr Chan applauded the professionalism and dedication of teachers for their tremendous efforts in continuously improving the standard of teaching. Describing the encouraging results of substantially changed teaching approaches, "Students today enjoy totally different class activities compared to 10 years ago with school life more diversified, students more involved and teaching and learning more flexible," proclaimed a proud Dr Chan.

Success often lies on the strength of initiative and perseverance. Hong Kong’s education reform is the hard work of many dedicated educators’ restless pursuit of a common vision and a strong will to see to its realization.

Dr Chan simply said, "You just have to be patient."