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Why don’t we incorporate elements from the Western education system into our Hong Kong education system?

(Stanley Yeung, 10/2/2017)

When people speak of the Hong Kong education system nowadays, it is usually considered as being inferior to the Western education system to the point where Chinese parents would prefer sending their children overseas or to an international school for education if they can afford it. So is the Western education system far superior that we should learn from it by all means? As someone born in Hong Kong and grew up in the Hong Kong education system until moving to Canada at the age of 7 to continue studying in a Canadian primary school, I would like to highlight a few personal experiences that illustrate the differences between how a person is educated in the Western classroom versus the Asian classroom, in order to derive at a logical answer to the title of this article.

Attending a different primary school on the other side of the planet at such a young age was without a doubt an adventure. Every morning, our teacher ordered us to sit in a circle and asked us one by one questions such as “How has your weekend been?” and “What did you do this weekend?”. When it was my turn to speak, I always felt rather intimidated and said “Pass”.

For most of you reading this article right now, you would probably think that the feeling of being intimidated that crept over me sprung from the fact that I did not know how to speak English. However, the fact is that I was born into a culture where people do not even ask these questions much! Therefore, I felt rather intimidated because I was never used to expressing myself in that way. In fact, it may be the same way that the local Hong Kong people nowadays are intimidated when they are asked to speak in English, due to the cultural difference.

Recently, a similar incident happened when my Canadian Cantonese friend came to Hong Kong for work after finishing university in Canada. When he started working in his company, he asked his colleagues “你今個週末做左咩?” (English: What did you do this weekend?), his colleagues rolled their eyes and did not know how to answer, due to the question being too personal in the Cantonese culture. As native Cantonese speakers, we are more used to saying phrases such as “你食左飯未?” and “近排點呀?”, meaning “How are you?” and “How have you been?”

But of course, we can still try incorporating the Western classroom activity of sitting in a circle into the Hong Kong classroom and ask the students questions such as “你食左飯未?”, “近排點呀?” every morning. What would that look like? For the Cantonese people reading this right now, my guess is that you are probably laughing because it would just be very awkward. How can you turn an Asian classroom that has always trained their students to keep silent and work like military, into a classroom full of chatter and relaxation? That would be complete chaos. Perhaps, this is still a good idea because it allows students to express themselves more and trains them to speak in front of an audience, but is it really something that is practicable in the Hong Kong culture?

To find out whether this would work in the Hong Kong education system, I would like to share with you another experience studying in a primary school in Canada, but this time, I would like to try incorporating Asian elements into the Western classroom to see whether it works the other way around. In theory, if it works one way, then it should also work the other way around. So the story goes on with me studying in a Western classroom at the age of 7. As I was a student who was accustomed to following rules in a Hong Kong classroom, I always asked the teacher during classwork time in a lesson, “May I go to the washroom?” whenever I needed to, and the teacher would reply “Yes, you may.” After several times of not realizing that the teacher was frowning at me whenever I asked the same question, the teacher finally said to me, “You do not have to ask.”

For the Cantonese audience reading this article right now, my guess is that you are also probably frowning right now, just like the Canadian teacher, but surprised at the fact that this question seemed awkward and unnecessary in the Western classroom setting. After all, asking such a question as “May I go to the washroom?” is just out of respect for our seniors. So why didn’t my Canadian teacher just smile and appreciate it instead of frowning every time? This again shows that something good in one culture isn’t necessarily practicable in another culture. Moreover, even though this experience also does not illustrate any of ‘what’ the Western education system has to offer compared to the Hong Kong education system in terms of curriculum content, it does illustrate ‘how’ a person is educated by a teacher who creates the learning environment, which is what makes all the difference. In essence, the habits that we develop on a daily basis plays a very important role in our education and ultimately shapes us into the kind of person we become in the future.

So what exactly is the world looking for nowadays? Employees who are better at expressing themselves or ones that have discipline and will always ask the seniors before they take any actions? We certainly want to nurture people to become the best of both worlds, but does it mean we should incorporate elements from the Western education system into our own Hong Kong education system? For one thing, due to certain cultural habits that are firmly embedded within a language, it will be very difficult to implement such elements from one education system into another of a different culture. However, it is not impossible to do such a thing, but we will risk losing our own identity trying to make vast changes in the Hong Kong education system. What we need to do right now may be to make up for what is lackluster in the Hong Kong education system, such as raising an awareness in Chinese parents that letting their children take humanities subjects will help them become more expressive, well-rounded and socially attractive workforce in the future.

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