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Tuesday, December 15, 2020, 10:14
Suggestions for reform of Liberal Studies curriculum
By Ho Lok-sang
Tuesday, December 15, 2020, 10:14 By Ho Lok-sang

When the DSE Liberal Studies (LS) curriculum was first introduced in 2009, I held high hopes. I was pleased to see that Personal Development and Interpersonal Relationships was included and listed as Module 1, along with five other modules. I thought Hong Kong students would, for the first time, be given a good introduction to life education, so that they will learn how to deal with adversity, the need to respect life and the rights of others in the community of humanity, and acquire a sense of direction in their lives. But alas, even though the structure of the curriculum looked well designed, the execution was poor.  

A recent article by Mr John K Tan, a former chairperson of the Liberal Studies Committee under the Curriculum Development Council, confirmed that the Chief Executive was right: There was indeed a deviation of the LS curriculum from what was intended. Mr Tan wrote that he had pointed out the problem in a 2014 article in Ming Pao, complaining that the examination questions showed an over-representation of political issues, which carried a weight ranging from 20.5 percent to 37 percent of the marks, even though the time allotted to such issues in school was supposed to be no more than 14 percent. The Education Bureau, however, never responded to Mr Tan’s warning, and the problem continued to worsen. He also questioned why over a span of 10 years the Education Bureau still was not able to train sufficient inspectors to assure the quality of the delivery of the course in class.  

One of the problems that has surfaced from the recent social unrest is that many youngsters have been misled by misinformation and ideological persuasion. To nurture an open mind, students should be encouraged to examine discourses, reports, and information from different sources without a predisposition about who is right and what is true, and be reminded that any conclusions should always be tentative

I have also noticed, to my dismay, that while Personal Development & Interpersonal Relationships was listed as the first module, there have been hardly any questions in the examinations on the module. To my dismay, even LS teachers misbehaved, setting a bad example to students. One veteran and very senior LS teacher even posted on his Facebook page a picture with a message cursing: “Black police and all their families meet their death.” Moreover, Liberal Studies is supposed to nurture critical thinking, which must be predicated on humility and a scientific attitude. But we have seen teachers and students who are self-righteous and who would not explore peacefully with others who hold a different view.  

All this shows that the main problem with Liberal Studies is more with execution and less with the curriculum itself. Since its launch in 2009, there has been no effective quality assurance mechanism in place, and the Education Bureau has not done its job.

Given the nature of the problem, even If we change the curriculum, as long as we continue to fail in quality assurance, the reform will not bear fruit.  

Personally, I have no problem with the existing curriculum. My main problem with the LS subject is that it is poorly executed. However, in view of the fact that the curriculum is preempting students’ class time in key skills, it probably makes sense to cut the class hours. Prof. Tsui Lap Chee, former President of the University of Hong Kong, has been complaining for years that our high school students have been less and less inclined to take advanced mathematics and science subjects in the DSE examination in recent years. As a result, many students are not well prepared to tackle hardcore STEM subjects in university. This will undermine Hong Kong’s future development as technological innovations are crucial to improving productivity and competitiveness. This is not to say that LS is unimportant. The spirit of LS in nurturing critical thinking and personal development is VERY IMPORTANT. Impressing this spirit in the minds of our students requires not so much hours of classroom teaching but well-prepared, enlightened teachers who have not only the maturity and the humility to exercise critical thinking but also a sense of mission. The fact that the performance of Hong Kong students in science has dropped in recent years, as shown in the 2019 Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study, is a warning that we should take heed.

Given the importance of personal development and critical thinking, I would propose the new subject to be renamed “Personal Development and Critical Thinking”. Highlighting Personal Development in the title will, I hope, encourage teachers and students to give this subject the attention that it deserves. I also hope that more questions on personal development will appear in the examination, and that will help drive a virtuous circle.  

As I have maintained, humility is fundamental to critical thinking and personal development. Without humility, there cannot be an open mind, and there cannot be personal development.  Teachers must learn and help their students learn to be self-critical. One of the problems that has surfaced from the recent social unrest is that many youngsters have been misled by misinformation and ideological persuasion. To nurture an open mind, students should be encouraged to examine discourses, reports, and information from different sources without a predisposition about who is right and what is true, and be reminded that any conclusions should always be tentative. Like scientists, they must be ready to revise their prior thinking if new evidence justifies such revisions. Above all, they need to learn that no one should infringe on the rights of others in society. Social progress requires patience, hard work, and particularly good analysis.

The author is a senior research fellow at the Pan Sutong Shanghai-Hong Kong Economic Policy Research Institute, Lingnan University.

The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.


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