When Hong Kong’s government began to consider liberal studies teaching two decades ago, the lofty aim was to teach students how to critically evaluate information and distinguish fact from opinion.
Similar programmes on social studies or civic education existed in the financial hub, but none were mandatory. The government would spend several years searching for the ideal way – in the words of the No 2 education official at the time – to inspire teenagers to “think more”.
“The purpose is to encourage young people to … analyse and discuss international, national and social issues from different perspectives, so as to gain a better understanding of the world around them,” Fanny Law Fan Chiu-fun said in 2005 when she was permanent secretary for education and manpower.
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But within 11 years of its adoption, liberal studies has become a deeply divisive topic and even labelled a disaster by the same man who initially backed its creation, former leader Tung Chee-hwa.
Pro-establishment figures blame the subject for breeding a generation of students who are fundamentally opposed to the Chinese central government and resent Beijing’s hand in local affairs. In her policy address on Wednesday, Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor announced extensive reforms were on the way after warning months earlier the education sector could not become a “chicken without a coop”.
But how did a plan that began with such soaring intentions come crashing down so quickly?
Liberal studies was a key component of an ambitious plan to overhaul education introduced in 2000 during Tung’s tenure as the first chief executive following the handover from Britain to China in 1997. The secretary for education at the time, Arthur Li Kwok-cheung, viewed liberal studies as a pathway to broaden students’ thinking and increase their awareness of social issues.
“The gist of the liberal curriculum’s design is to focus on the student’s personal development, and getting them to have all-rounded knowledge in various aspects such as social, culture, science and technology,” he said in 2004.
In its curriculum and assessment guide released three years later, the government said the subject would include teaching contemporary issues so students could develop strategies to critically view information they received. Li supported making the subject mandatory, as did his deputy Law. Liberal studies was adopted in 2009 as one of four compulsory subjects for senior secondary students, along with maths, Chinese and English.
Its six modules cover personal development and interpersonal relationships, Hong Kong today, modern China, globalisation, public health, and energy technology and the environment. But schools were given leeway in how they taught the lessons, with no official textbooks required.
Students raised on rote learning struggled at first with the open-ended nature of the subject.
Top performing teens would pass the other subjects with flying colours only to receive worse than expected grades in liberal studies. But the real problems lay just around the corner.
The lines blur
The government was already drawing criticism over its plan to introduce national education courses in schools to strengthen “national identity awareness” and nurture patriotism. In 2012, thousands of students led by activist Johsua Wong Chi-fung staged a protest outside government headquarters against the proposed changes.
Many parents were equally suspicious the programme was aimed at winning unquestioning loyalty to the Communist Party. But the pro-establishment camp failed to pay much attention to the debate.
That soon changed as pent-up anger towards the government crested into a wave of civil disobedience in 2014 in what became known as the Occupy Central movement. Protesters, many of them from the younger generation, brought parts of the city to a standstill for 79 days as they pushed for greater democratic reforms. Pro-Beijing newspapers ran articles claiming the demands were echoing ideas taught in liberal studies and accused teachers of fomenting dissent in the classrooms.
But that argument was undermined by a report the government released the next year.
The Central Policy Unit, the predecessor of the Policy Innovation and Coordination Office, commissioned a study by Chinese University on civic values and engagement among the younger “post-90s” generation. Issued the following year, it found students’ interest in liberal studies had an only limited influence on their civic values and participation in political events.
The type of critical thinking the subject sought to foster had not radicalised them. Instead, it encouraged discussion of public issues from multiple perspectives and awareness of the limits of political identity.
Tin Fong-chak, a veteran liberal studies teacher and vice-chairman of the pro-democracy Professional Teachers’ Union, pointed to the study as “empirical evidence” that disproved the charge teachers were provoking students.
Although the Occupy movement did not achieve political reforms, it did provide a vivid lesson to many young people on the power of directly confronting authorities in the streets.
Students bolstered the ranks of the protest movement that erupted last June over a plan to establish an extradition law that would allow suspects to be transferred to the mainland, among other jurisdictions. It rapidly escalated into a wider campaign of grievances that included calls for political change. That September, a commentary from party mouthpiece People’s Daily lashed out at liberal studies as a “toxic” subject that used biased textbooks espousing politicised content.
Out of the roughly 10,000 people who had been arrested over charges related to the social unrest as of this September, some 4,000 were students.
Tung, currently vice-chairman of China’s top political advisory body, was quick to escalate the debate over liberal studies’ influence on teens when he called the subject a “failure” in July last year.
The think tank he founded, Our Hong Kong Foundation, examined how Singapore and Britain had handled similar subjects. The city state’s General Paper was indeed aimed at nurturing an ability to think critically and encouraging them to explore key local and global issues.
British students, meanwhile, were pushed to learn about democracy, government and law in a citizenship studies subject. But it noted various methods were used to assess pupils’ progress and some countries avoided open exams.
The think tank issued a raft of suggested changes in September, including keeping the subject compulsory, switching the grading system to a simple pass or fail and ensuring all textbooks were scrutinised by authorities.
But a government-appointed task force suggested in its report released the same month that the current seven-point grading system should be kept as it is.
In unveiling details of the reforms, Secretary for Education Kevin Yeung Yun-hung signalled a strong break with the past.
“Over the years, there have been a lot of associations and usually some not-so-good connotations to the name [of liberal studies],” he said. “As we are now going to refine the subject, we are trying to [give] the subject a new start.”
Future students would either pass or fail, half the syllabus would be eliminated and all textbooks subjected to government vetting, expanding on a new voluntary screening scheme. They would also be required to visit the mainland and schools required to strengthen education on national development. In line with the new beginning, the subject would be renamed, but Yeung did not say what the alternatives might be.
Although Lam had made known months ago the overhaul was coming, the scope caught many educators off guard.
Even an ad hoc committee formed under the government’s Curriculum Development Council last year had been kept in the dark, with members only learning of the plan along with the rest of the public, a source close to the group said.
Tai Hay-lap, a member of the government’s education commission in the 2000s, agreed that liberal studies had deviated in certain respects from its original goals, including through how university admission exam questions were decided.
It was never intended for the subject to feature extensive discussion of local politics and current affairs, he said. But questions on those areas have appeared on the tests in seven of the past 10 years.
Teachers would naturally want to prepare students on similar topics.
The lack of a vetting mechanism for the textbooks was also a “loophole” that needed to be fixed, Tai argued.
“[The government] originally wanted to provide flexibility for the textbooks, but it created problems including [some schools] using various teaching materials, which might even include information that is wrong,” he said.
The voluntary vetting scheme was introduced last year and the first batch of books from the city’s dominant six publishers went into use in September. But concerns over censorship were raised after the notion of “separation of powers” in Hong Kong was removed from some textbooks, while criticisms and cartoons centred on the local and central government were watered down or replaced.
But Tai defended the subject from accusations it had radicalised young people, describing some of the claims as “baffling”. Social media played a more important role towards that end, he said.
“How many hours do students take for the liberal studies subject every week? Even when we add up the teaching hours, it might still be less than the time teenagers spend on social media. Therefore, how can it play such an important role [in radicalising them]?” he said.
Tong Chong-sze, who served as secretary general of the Hong Kong Examinations and Assessment Authority between 2011 and 2017, agreed the subject workload was heavy.
For instance, a school-based project that accounted for 20 per cent of the final grade took up a significant amount of time and input from students over the three-year course, he said.
He called for the subject to be turned into an elective so pupils would have greater opportunity to choose what they wanted to study, but warned some principals had reservations that could lead to many opting out.
Pro-establishment lawmaker Priscilla Leung Mei-fun, who has long been critical of the subject, said some of the greatest weaknesses of the programme were the workload and a lack of oversight.
“Teachers are the most important,” she said. “No one is monitoring how they teach with their quality in question. With 250 hours on their hands, they can turn anyone into a really bad shape.”
The danger was clear even during the Occupy movement, Leung maintained. “That was one of the peaks as the Professional Teachers’ Union handed out a guideline called Occupy Central 1.0,” she said. “There is a huge gaping hole but no one was monitoring.”
Opposition lawmaker Ip Kin-yuen, who represents the education sector in the Legislative Council, accused the pro-establishment camp of turning liberal studies into a bogeyman to take the blame for the government’s own mistakes and lack of policy vision for the upcoming generation. Officials, he said, “cannot face the reality”.
Tin of the Professional Teachers’ Union said the reform plan had essentially “killed off the subject”. “The aim to improve students’ critical thinking skills in a comprehensive way is gone,” he said.
He also hit back at claims teachers were adversely influencing students.
“Most of the frontline teachers can tell you that a lot of the students were not actually that interested, with some even dozing off in class,” he said. “At best, those who are more enthusiastic may gain a heightened awareness of social politics but that’s about it.”
A liberal studies teacher with more than 10 years of experience, who asked to remain anonymous, said although some individual teachers might have exhibited bias or shared their personal political views in class, he felt the government was trying to pin the blame for student violence on liberal studies.
“Indeed, students have learned more about society [and politics],” he said. “But is that the reason why more students have gone into the streets to protest or even turned violent? There are various factors leading to such a result … such as government policies and social conflicts.”
Lau Kam-fai, president of Hong Kong Liberal Studies Teachers’ Association, was pessimistic over eliminating the grading system, fearing it would sap pupils’ motivation.
“It is only foreseeable that students will put less effort into the subject because no matter how hard they try, they will only get a pass,” he said, noting almost no subjects in Hong Kong were graded in such a way.
Caught in the middle
Form Six student Carson Tsang Long-hin, who plans to take his university entrance exam next year, said critical thinking skills were the subject’s greatest reward.
“The most important skill [to know] in answering questions is we can’t just lean towards one’s stance only,” the 17-year-old said.
For example, in addressing a topic on whether the effective containment of infectious diseases in Hong Kong was deeply tied to public health policies, he voiced agreement with the statement, citing data provided in a supplied test question before drawing a counterargument using his own knowledge.
Carson said he took part in last year’s protest and admitted he learned about the concept of social movements through the subject.
“But I joined the protests not because of liberal studies,” he said. “I am growing up and learning a lot of information … when some government policies will affect my future, it’s necessary for me to fight for myself and everyone else.”
For parents, the way the government decided to overhaul a subject is not like what we were familiar with in the past
Eiffel Chau, parent
Eiffel Chau King-lun, chairman at the Hong Kong Parents League for Education Renovation, has an 11-year-old son who will enter secondary school next year. He found the news of the reform plan deeply unsettling.
“For parents, the way the government decided to overhaul a subject is not like what we were familiar with in the past,” Chau said. “It can just happen overnight.”
He is concerned the new classes might fail to place as strong a focus on critical thinking skills as before.
“I believe it will still have some training for that, but will it be like the old approach?” he said. “If all students have to use standardised teaching materials, then the examples they learn from are more or less the same,” he said, noting the lesson time would also be reduced.
Parents might have to become more involved in teaching their children about the topic, for example by discussing the daily news from different perspectives, he said.
But David Cua Chiu-fai, chairman of the concern group Help Our Next Generation, approved of the planned overhaul and agreed all textbooks should be vetted. With his son entering Form One next September, Cua was uneasy over the content of class materials and how teachers would guide students in lessons.
He was especially worried some materials had touched on the idea of breaking the law to achieve what he described as “justice”. Students could learn critical thinking through other subjects, as well, he argued.
“It’s just like learning English,” Cua said. “If you study in an English school, you can learn English in many other subjects too.”
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This article The Hong Kong secondary school course that vexes Beijing is headed for a makeover but will it spell the end of critical thinking among students? first appeared on South China Morning Post