Education as salvation?

I was chatting with one of my colleagues the other day about schools in Hong Kong. He’d recently watched a documentary about one of Hong Kong’s most reputable secondary schools. He found the students’ – and staff’s – academic single-mindedness and general fervor impressive, but not in an entirely favorable way. He wondered if some of this intensity might be the product of transference – that is, the pious zeal of the some of the school’s staff and supporters who were members of religious orders seemed to spill over into their educational thought and work, shaping the school’s whole culture.

I think he’s on to something, but I think it goes far beyond the cultures of individual schools or their staffs. I believe Hong Kong culture in general imbues academic education with almost salvific power. As I mentioned in an article on choosing a kindergarten (forgive me for quoting myself):

To many Hong Kong parents, getting their children into the right kindergarten is simply essential. Why? Well, most obviously, the right kindergarten leads to the right primary school, which leads to the right secondary school, which leads to Harvard, Yale or Oxbridge (or maybe Hong Kong U or HKUST), which leads to . . . Nirvana, I guess, as once you push the argument this far forward, Hong Kong people's visions of their children's futures dissolve into soft-core money-and-status porn.

Education is a secular faith in Hong Kong. I don’t think that’s putting it too strongly.

The evidence is everywhere, from the parents driving their kindergarten-aged children like packhorses in order to build up their chances of getting into ‘name’ primary schools, to the deference shown to people who have attended – or, maybe better yet, whose children are attending – famous universities in the UK or USA.

But how did this belief develop? Part of it no doubt is attributable to the general historical/cultural valuation of education common to all Confucian societies. But in Hong Kong I think this broader value has been distilled and intensified due to peculiar historical circumstances.

Recent arrivals to Hong Kong may not realize how much the city and its culture have changed over the past 20-30 years, at least in educational terms. The Hong Kong of the 1970s and 1980s was still an immigrant-dominated, industrial society. Few people in Hong Kong had the chance to attend university, especially those who’d escaped the mainland.

Even in the early 1990s, Hong Kong had just two universities, Hong Kong University and Chinese University, and there were places for just 5% of graduating secondary school students each year. This meant a university degree had a disproportionately high value, especially as Hong Kong’s economy was growing non-stop, and making a rapid transition into a post-industrial, service-oriented model. The upcoming handover also triggered a period of ‘brain drain’, as many educated/professional people left Hong Kong for what they believed would be more secure futures overseas.

But things changed very fast in the 1990s. The Hong Kong Government panicked a bit, and decided to meet the perceived need for more educated brains by rapidly expanding the number of university places. New universities (e.g. UST and the Open University) were founded, and colleges and polytechnics were hastily upgraded into universities -- e.g. CityU, PolyU, Lingnan, and Baptist. In just a few years, the number of young university degree holders in Hong Kong exploded.

These eager university graduates were unlucky enough to emerge into the Hong Kong workforce just as the Asian financial crisis hit. And to make things even worse, many of the ‘brain drainers’ starting coming back to Hong Kong. Starting salaries for fresh graduates plummeted, and have not really recovered since.

So even as Hong Kong people pushed harder and harder to ‘succeed’ in education, especially to get hold of a university degree certificate, that very certificate is in some ways worth less than ever. This seems ironic, but of course it’s not. For the moment, higher education is still a necessary step on the road to financial/social success for most Hong Kong people, but since so many more can now realistically play the education success game, the stakes have been raised. It’s more important than ever to own the best ‘brand names’ you can.

But how long will even this last? First, the law of diminishing returns must be setting in for some people, especially those who are getting degrees from less desirable institutions. Will the parents of not-particularly-academically-inclined children continue to expend the enormous energy needed to push them on into university if the returns are so low?

And on a broader level, will the faith that ‘education means a good life’ ultimately erode, too? Will even those who have attended the right schools, achieved the high results, graduated from the excellent universities, and gotten the promising jobs be satisfied with their accomplishments?

It’s interesting to note that the number of Christians in Hong Kong is growing rapidly (and this is the case in other Confucian societies, too; see this article, for example), and that this growth has been particularly prominent amongst the better-educated, seemingly ‘successful’ people. Are they finding that education doesn’t quite equal salvation?

Perhaps the misplaced zeal of the religious schools ends up coming full circle after all. As they say in Christian circles, God works in mysterious ways, His wonders to perform . . . .


But is that not new? Chinese

But is that not new?

Chinese parents have always been like that in my personal experience, and as a 25 year old British born Chinese male, it was also subjected to the same misplaced zeal. First a prep school, then a top 5 private school and then a top 5 university, where will it end? Fortunately my parents seemed to have 'mellowed' during there years in the UK and did not care so much to where I went and what I did as long as I had a goal to attain to but I still see plenty of other Chinese parents who love to say at social gatherings: "my son is going to..." and "my daughter is a top lawyer..." or "my daughter is dating a brain surgeon..." (that I kid you not, the kid (boyfriend) was barely out of med-school at the time!).

I'm glad my parents do not partake in the "my kid is better than your kid" arguments anymore, all they need to know is i'm happy.

I should've added, for some,

I should've added, for some, it's not about salvation, but about status.

For some, that matters.

Not new at all . . .

Thanks for the comments, Raymond. I agree with you: I'm sure the race for educational/status success is not at all new in Hong Kong or in Chinese culture. What I do think is new is the rapid switch from there being so few university places, and so little chance for many in Hong Kong to get a degree, to the situation now in which the bottleneck on university places has been greatly eased, but the drive to compete in education seems to be stronger than ever.

Love the brain surgeon story, by the way!!

Academic inflation

I saw this video a couple of days before reading your piece. It's of a 20-minute talk by Sir Ken Robinson. I'd not heard of him before, but it seems he's well known in the education world. He's also a very entertaining speaker, so it's worth a watch.

He mentions 'academic inflation', where the huge increase in output from universities worldwide means the value of a degree is downgraded, and now a Masters or Doctorate are needed instead. So the problems you mention caused by the rapid expansion in local university places are being experienced in many places, not just here in Hong Kong.

His main theme though is that this drive to churn out more and more academically qualifies people is missing the point, that we really need more creativity. I think that will be a hard sell here. Learning music or ballet is seen as important in Hong Kong, but I think mainly as a tool to help get in the right school, not as a way to let people enjoy learning what they find fun. Here's the video:


That is a great link mrb,

That is a great link mrb, Thanks.

Creativity and education

Thanks much for that link, MrB!

I finally got enough time set aside to sit down and watch it over the weekend. Sir Ken is certainly a smoothie, isn’t he?

I have to say, though, that I wasn’t much impressed by the actual content of his talk, at least until he reached about the 12-minute mark. His long introductory sequence seemed to be a highly polished reiteration of the standard liberal/progressive schtick on education that’s been around since Rosseau. It’s based on the assumption that human nature is essentially great stuff, and that the main purpose of education, especially early childhood education, is simply to get out of kids’ way so that their inherent creativity can flourish.

I just am not sure this is right. As I’ve written elsewhere, I have a pretty low view of human nature, and I get cynical when I hear talks like this one – as someone works in the field of education, I hear variations on this theme constantly, at conferences, in papers, etc. I’ve gotten to the point that when I hear a talk like this one, it’s almost drowned out by a mental soundtrack of Whitney Houston screeching ‘I believe that children are our fuuuutuuure . . .’.

Having said that, though, I’m very glad I kept listening to the end, because once Sir K is done establishing his caring progressive bona fides, his tone changes rather sharply, and he does make some solid points. You’ve picked out the best one, MrB, i.e. about the glut of university degree holders. Given the tenor of the rest of the talk, I think it was a fairly brave point to make in that setting.

But then I thought he undermined it again with that story about the ballerina. Yes, the whole finding-her-bliss-and-following-it thing worked out great for her, but Sir Ken glossed over the uncomfortable fact that ‘creative’ fields such as the fine arts are often so competitive and ruthless they make life on the Serengeti look soft. They always have been, and there's no indication they won't continue to be for the foreseeable future. For every multi-millionaire choreographer, how many less-talented (or just less lucky) wanna-bes end up eating beans in grimy studio flats waiting for the phone to ring?

So is encouraging students to just ‘be creative’ and trust that things will work out really the best advice? This cuts right to the heart of the education debate here in HK, and of course everywhere people are blessed with enough money and leisure even to entertain it . . . .

And I think you're right on the mark with the general HK take on the arts/creativity. They are valued mostly for utilitarian/competitive advantage.

Several of the other talks

Several of the other talks are interesting too:


Here's a book on education I'll be reading . . .

I came across this review of a new book on education by Prof. Alison Wolf from King's College, London. It appears to be aimed right at the heart of the discussion we've been having here.

Here's one interesting titbit: guess which European country's citizens attend university at a rate just a third of that in other developed countries? Try Switzerland.

I encourage you to read the review, and I'll be on the lookout for the book itself, too.

Chinese Christians

I know some of these so called new Chinese Christians and to these converts, Christianity is just another set of rituals to learn, another set of mantras to memorise without the need for understanding.A good excuse to be able to wear a cross and to get married in a church.

Ask them about living a Christian life, of the difference of calling yourself a Christian and being a Christian, of anything about the history and development of Christianity and all you get is a bewildered and puzzled look.(A good one to try them on is the difference between Anglicism and Catholicism.)

Then again this is true of quite a few so called Christians.

To become a Christian is not

To become a Christian is not merely by studying all the historical development and the bible. It is not the matter of how much knowledge you obtain. It is the matter of experiencing it and knowing that it is really true.

Just how worthwhile is a degree?

Have a quick look at a rather astonishing graph from a recent article in BusinessWeek magazine. What's depicted is the earnings, in constant dollars, of recent university graduates in the USA.

The upshot? Earnings for recent university grads in the USA are down 8% since 2001, in an otherwise growing economy. Ouch.

More on degree deflation

This article from an in-house magazine from the University of Pennsylvania recounts interviews with two sociologists who have been arguing, pretty effectively, I think, against the increasing spiral of higher education and credentialism.

It got me thinking about the recent functional constituency 'elect-your-electors election'. I'm entitled to a vote in the education constituency, so I received huge piles of advertisements from the various candidates. Their campaign promises differed in some respects, but one theme was constant: more government money for education, especially higher education.

But does this really do any good? Economically? Socially?

Bracing series on education and degree inflation

Charles Murray, who's well-known as one of the co-authors of the infamous The Bell Curve, has written a series of articles for the Wall Street Journal about IQ, education, and the role of the intellectual elite in human society. You can agree or disagree with Murray's methodolgy and conclusions in The Bell Curve, but his message in this series seems quite sensible: that is, some people have better cognitive talent than others, but that simply doesn't make them better people or more worthy of approbation. If anything, they need to learn humility and stop thinking they're entitled to priviliges because they've been lucky in the genetic lottery. He also has much to say, especially in part II, about the overselling of higher education.

You can read the series here:

Part I

Part II

Part III

Joanne Jacobs, an educational blogger I like, provides a dissenting view.

In the Hong Kong & Asian context....

It's interesting how much in the USA people focus on "innate ability" and "talent".

Several years ago I read a fascinating book called "The Chinese learner : cultural, psychological, and contextual influences / edited by David A. Watkins and John B. Biggs.

In this book they argue that in Hong Kong & other Chinese cultures, there is less belief in "innate ability". Instead, students and their parents believed that good results were achieved by *effort*, and that students tended to attribute their success to "I worked hard" rather than "I'm a bright kid".

Another book that had some interesting observations about how different societies view learning & achievement was "Preschool in three cultures : Japan, China, and the United States" by Joseph J. Tobin, David Y.H. Wu, Dana H. Davidson

These books are a bit old (the Tobin book from the late 1980s and the Watkins book from 1996) but I think they are great to highlight the differences in how cultures approach learning and intelligence.

There was one great section on the Japanese school where one boy was very disruptive, energetic, and talkative. The researchers asked the teacher if maybe he might be unusually intelligent (in a No. American context, "gifted child") but the teacher did not understand what they meant, because to her a sign of intelligence would be knowing how to listen and behave.

I might have recommended these books before. If so, sorry for the repetition.

HELP! 6 months into the

HELP! 6 months into the primary education system here and I'm seriously worried about the amount of tutoring very young children are receiving. My daughter is 5, at one of the purported top international schools academically, she's bright, she's happy. But it appears what is taught in the school during the school hours is not enough since almost all her peers are doing kumon maths, this phonics program, that english program, another drama program, a third creative writing program.
Am I weird or lazy to think that kids should have time to play? I'm I naive to think that the school should be supporting most of their educational needs?

I'm wondering if the number

I'm wondering if the number of "christians" in HK is increasing like the number of "catholics" in London. If you're member of a faith community your kids are more likely to get into a faith school which has a better reputation, teachers etc. etc....

No time for play?

A packed schedule of after-school activities is very common for chidren in Hong Kong. I have childhood memories of running home from school to bolt down some food then head out to play, so I'm all for the 'keep free time for play' approach too.

At the moment our oldest daughter is 3 1/2, and already leads a very different and much more structured life than mine at that age. She goes to kindergarten each weekday morning, stays for lunch each day, and stays a little longer for gym class on Tuesdays. On Monday afternoons she goes along to an art class at one of the private firms. When she gets home she has playtime and some TV-time. Then in the late afternoon each day she goes downstairs for to play with the similar-aged children that live in our building.

Our idea is that she can manage one or max two classes a week if they are something that she enjoys, or they are something that can really help her. (eg a friend in the UK had one son that really struggled with maths, but that has been doing well with maths at school since they started Kumon maths).

Will she be able to keep this up at age 5? I hope so, but I can think of some reasons it might not turn out that way:

- No-one to play with! During the summer vacation the downstairs area is packed with children, but come the start of a new term and they disappear, off to extra classes or home for homework.

- Peer-group pressure (child). If all MissB's friends are going to these classes, I can forsee she'll want to go along too, either to be with her friends, or just because 'everyone else does'.

- Peer-group pressure (parents). If I hear enough parents ask what classes my child attends, suffer their raised eyebrows when I say 'none', then listen to how we're ruining our child's future, will some self-doubt creep in?

- The school demands it. I can't remember the name, but some time back MrsB was telling me about one of the prestigious local schools that has a very relaxed teaching style, on the assumption that the child would receive a lot of teaching outside school. She explained that sending a child to this school meant the mum would expect to dedicate a lot of time to teaching, supplemented with paid tuition classes.

Our current plan is definitely to have time for play, and keep that in mind as we're choosing schools. Then we'll be guided by how MissB gets on - if she's bright & happy like your daughter, we'll feel we're on the right track.

Regards, MrB

Play isn't weird, but . . . .

Interesting comment, and I know just what you mean.

Daughter Tall is in K2 this year, and there's been a big change from K1 in terms of what's expected from her in terms of homework. She now needs to practice writing a new Chinese character every night, along with some English/arithmetic homework. She spends more time on homework at 4 than I did in my teens in the USA.

She's also taking a couple types of lessons -- piano and swimming. She also has a weekly drawing class, but that's pretty much for fun only; she just likes it. Actually, she likes the other lessons too, especially the swimming, so I guess the piano is the only thing we're committing her to where additional time and effort are required, i.e. practicing.

Is it too much, especially when you factor in all the homework? I have mixed feelings, as I've expressed many times on this site. The 'carefree childhood' model so deeply entrenched in western sensibilities is certainly attractive, and I had a lot of fun as a kid having lots of play time, but there's a downside, too. I think about how pathetic my training in certain areas was -- foreign languages (none until two years of high school Spanish); mathematics (lame, even having taken the highest-level classes on offer all through school); music (none until choir, again in high school). Do I wish now I had spent more of my time in childhood learning something I would enjoy now? Yes, sometimes.

The dilemma I think we face is this: the learning young children accomplish is so lasting. It's generally accepted that if a 4 or 5-year-old learns a new language, it's going to be with a nearly-perfect accent, and the phonemes and linguistic structures are going to lodge deep in the kid's brain. It's better learning than you'll get from a 13-year-old, or certainly from an adult. And isn't it logical to assume that this applies to some degree in other areas as well, e.g. music?

And yes, there's the competition as well. To get back to your actual question, anonymous, I doubt that your child will be deeply compromised by doing less of the outside-school learning so long as you're on the international school track. My impression is that the international schools assume that parents will be supportive, but not required to fill in explicit educational gaps. Please correct me if I'm wrong, readers!

But for students in local schools, as MrB says, I think it's different. The assumptions of parental support are pretty serious! For example, there's simply no way Daughter Tall could ever finish her current type of homework without pretty close adult oversight.

Readers, other experiences/thoughts that might help?

thoughts on the question...

Hi all,

Mr. B, about the "no one to play with" - are you sure that you're trying at the right time? Where I live, there is "no one to play with" after school, because all the kids are at their lessons or doing their homework. Instead, "boys and girls come out to play..." is usually between 5pm and 7 or 7:30 pm. I think in May - October it's also because it's just too hot for the kids to want to run around until the sun is getting lower and there's more shade.

Mr. B, I think you may be right to an extent. I have an acquaintance who's daughters went to a Famous Name School and she said that she thought the school basically assigned the work and that it was up to the parents and outside tutors to make sure it happened.

Our kids do:
* Kumon Mandarin (to supplement the Mandarin at school)
* Music practice (~20-30 minutes per day) + 1 lesson per week
* 1 page of SK-Baba assigned math workbook

SK-son also had Kung Fu as an extra
SK-daughter has drawing class
SK-daughter has also joined a P6 girl's basketball group at her school

The high expectations of parental support are very high at many local schools. That is one of the reasons we switched. I wanted my kids to have time to goof off and read for pleasure and to play make-believe and get bored and build forts out of pillows and blankets and also have time for household chores and learn to cook, etc.

It's all a matter of balance and trade-offs and what your hopes and goals are. One of my friends is really hot on GSIS, but it seems very academic & gets amazing GSCE and A-level results and I don't want my kids to spend most of the adolescence cramming for 2 exams that will really have no bearing on their lives because if they go to university, they will most likely go to No. American ones that don't care about those 2 exams.

I had a mixed sort of education - in public (govt.) schools in Massachusetts. I started French at age 11 (7th grade) and added Latin in 9th grade and continued both until I finished high school.

I was stubborn and refused piano (I regret it now, sorry mom, you were right!!!), but sang in choirs from age 10 all through high school. I still love to sing, although I am not with any group. I had ballet lessons for 10 years between 10 and 12 (loved it, but then moved to a small town without a ballet school). I started working part-time jobs from the time I was 12, which was also very educational.

I was also a total "book worm" and read widely from the time I was about 9 until this very day. My parents also had lots of "cultural capital" so I was able to enjoy their music collection and was taken to art and history and science museums for fun.

I am very glad that I had the foreign language training.

I hope my kids will have some real-life work experiences before they head to college (clerk in a store or market stall, waiting on tables, etc. - none of this "internship" stuff) because I think that it really helps to mature young people: gives them a sense of accomplishment and power to earn money and choose how to spend it; teaches them how important it is to show up and put in an effort, even if you don't feel like it, and so forth.

Things I wish I saw more of in the ESF schools? Things like shop class: wood working and metal working. When I was in junior high (7th & 8th grade) we had a "quarter" ((4 term) year. All the kids - boys and girls, had to take one quarter of cooking, one quarter of sewing; one quarter of wood shop, and one quarter of metal shop.

Nowadays, that same school has eliminated what they call "industrial arts".
This article Shop Class as Soulcraft by Matthew B. Crawford discusses some of the history of "shop class" in the USA and the decline in manual competency and the change in the relationship w/ technology.

After that, I started letting both my kids tray to take apart our broken appliances and try to fix them. It actually worked w/ a cheap crank operated torch (flash light) that I got in Mong Kok that broke after a month or so.

on tutoring etc

I read your comments with interest. About the boys and girls coming out to play, you're quite right, and I think that kids in HK are kept up quite late also in part so that they get to see their very hard working mamas and babas who are slaving long hours to pay for all these private schools and very expensive extra activities!
Poor kids can tend to be exhausted the next day though.
FYI I am pulling my daughter from GSIS. Despite the fact that she is very happy there and has a nice class and teachers I just am not happy with the direction the school is going. I find their attitude on Mandarin (they're not interested) extremely short-sighted, and I've heard personal problem stories from parents with children further up in the system about the tutoring and academic expectations. The facilities and the reputation is great and you can't dispute their A level results, but in the world of today I think the IB is going to be more valuable especially since its not about the IB exam, but the IB system that teaches children to be enquirers. They're currently having an A-levels vs IB debate but I can put my money on the conclusion of that debate now. We're moving across to HK Academy for the very small class sizes, the PYP IB program and the attitude of where certain VALUES rather than achievements are central to the philosophy. And they're serious about their manadrin program and their part in an Asian community.
I am aware by the way that these are "luxury" choices and that not everyone can switch school due to the economic issues around schooling here.

On the extra activities, I would say "yay and amen" to any activities that encourage learning a language (both my kids, the 3 and 5 year old are doing extra Mandarin) or fostering the mastery and love of something that could turn to be a life long hobby or passion. Lets face it, not all of them will be Yo Yo Ma, but I learnt piano and cello as a child and to this day I still keep up the cello since it is a hobby I can take with me everywhere in the world and it gives me solace from the commercial and business world. My husband never learnt an instrument, but is quite sporty, and that can also give him the break. He does however regret not having an instrument, since it's a different type of relaxation.
I'm a bit old fashioned on the 'academic' extra activities though, I really do expect the school + some homework with parental help to take care of that.
It's also hard to say when to stop (the cost does help!). My daughter does swimming, tennis, ballet and singing besides mandarin, and wants to do rock-climbing, gymnastics and trampolining as well. But I drew the line (yes it is peer pressure that lures her there). The point is she has 2 free (absolutely free) afternoons per week for play dates, but WHERE are all the dates? At classes. And classes are not playing, no matter how much 'fun' you make them. My favourite kiddie author, Dr. Brazelton always says in his books "the business of children in play"

what time is playtime?

Hi Skmama,

Yes, we're downstairs at about the times you said. There are still plenty of children around MissB's age then (and younger ones too), but the older ones aren't to be seen. We're usually home around 6:15 to start bathtimes though, so maybe the older children come down later?

That's a good idea to set children on taking things apart. One thing I miss about living in an apartment is not having a shed / garage / workshop area. I loved taking stuff to pieces when I was a kid, and sometimes even managing to put it back together again. I'll have to keep an eye out for suitable opportunities to get MissB involved with that at home.

Thuimbs up for some sort of work-experience too. I did a couple of years part-time in supermarkets while in high-school. I wonder what the options are for that type of work in HK? I guess working at one of the fast-food places like McDonalds? Though not something we'll be thinking about seriously for quite a few years yet.


Home tutoring

Thanks to SKMama and Gweipo for those excellent comments!

It's so helpful hearing how you are dealing with the inevitable pressures of raising HK kids.

Gweipo, I'm pretty old-fashioned too when it comes to how I think it's best for kids to learn. And I've been hardened in my 'reactionary' stance by living in HK, I think -- I value efficiency in learning more than I used to. By that I mean equipping kids as rapidly as possible with a set of skills and tools that will help them get through their inevitable Mt Everest of homework with as little fuss as possible. May not be educationally progressive -- e.g. kids should 'explore' and 'discover' what 8 + 8 is, rather than just memorize it -- but then I've got my issues with that whole world, too! (This is ironic, perhaps, in that I'm supposed to be an instructional specialist.)

Amazingly, it looks as if for once I'm agreeing with the French (!) on this very topic. They're implementing a much more rote-and-recall based approach to mathemetics in their national curriculum, for many of these same reasons. See this article for the lowdown.

One other educational tidbit: in doing some home tutoring with Daughter Tall (especially in terms of getting her reading in English, which I recognize isn't going to happen at the normal native speakers' pace if she's attending local schools) I've found a couple of books by an pretty obscure educational guru named, improbably, Sigfried Engelmann, to be very helpful.

Engelmann is the founder of a quite strict and structured approach to teaching he calls Direct Instruction. He had a moment in the limelight in the 1970s when his approach to teaching reading was the runaway winner in Project Follow Through, the largest social sciences experiment that's ever been carried out. Sponsored by the US government, PFT was a longitudinal study involving tens of thousands of kids, many from disadvantaged backgrounds. Direct Instruction proved to be far better at actually teaching kids to read than any other approach tested. But -- not surprisingly to those of us familiar with educational bureaucracies -- this unexpected result was deeply resented, and Direct Instruction has lingered on the edges of the American educational landscape, being occasionally and usually successfully adopted, often by charter schools, but never gaining widespread acceptance.

Anyway, Engelmann has started writing up his memoirs, and he's put the first chapter up on his website as a .pdf file for free download if anyone's interested.

Other ways of doing "shop"

Right on that kids love to create and take apart. In the HK environment my solution to this has been to do more in the arts and crafts realm (and NOT with an external supplier). My 5 year old has free access to glue (easy squeeze not messy tube) a pile of craft paper of different textures, sizes and shapes, the cellotape, scissors, stapler and piles of advertising leaflets (the florest and supermarket ones are the best), she is free to cut and stick and staple and the creations she's come up with are fantastic! The ELC also has these great no-spill pencil type paints . The other day she got some of those drinking cup/cones, cellotaped them to colored paper, cut out a head and arms from paper and stuck it on to make dancing princesses.
My son is 3 and less responsible (and interested) in the crafts thing, but loves playing with playdough that I make (I'll put the recipe on my blog)
I've taken them to these 'creative' places, but the HK version of creative is to have everything pre-packaged, cut out ready for painting and assembly. And then even they make sure that they add the finishing touches so that the product to take home is nearly perfect.

Yes I get the point on rote. There are definitely things that you just have to learn by heart (like times tables and scales). HOWEVER I think the problem here is that we have age deflation here, everything here has to happen at a lower and lower age.
Developmentally I think kids should do a lot of play and peer interaction until about 7 (when the brain is ready) and then get into the academic thing.
Any development precociously is at the cost of social and emotional development. I'll scan in a thing on this, since I think its really interesting.

I was also thinking, I only started piano at 7 and cello at about 14, which is maybe why I've stuck it out so long - I was ready for it when I started and could have more self discipline on the practising. sure I never became a professional, but then again my sister did (she started at 4), and guess who is starving in a garrett??

British degree value coming under increasing fire

This article from The Times is caustic in its criticism of degree inflation in the UK. It seems like the rhetoric on this topic is rapidly heating up. I wonder how much longer before this broad-based, direct questioning of 'education as salvation' reaches HK?

More from Engelmann

Sigfried Engelmann's second chapter is now online; this is the one that really gets into Project Follow Through.

brain gym

here's a podcast I really like to improve adults memories: enjoy!

Engelmann carries on . . . .

I’ve been following the progression of Sigfried Engelmann’s posting of chapters from his memoirs. He’s up to Chapter 5 at the moment, and it’s a good one – it tells the story of how his Direct Instruction model of teaching reading, arithmetic and other basic skills easily outdistanced all of its competitors in Project Follow Through, in spite of the difficulties in implementing it he recounts in Chapter 3 and Chapter 4. He does blow his own horn a bit, but it’s hard to argue with the bottom line:

Not only were we first in adjusted scores and first in percentile scores for basic skills, cognitive skills, and perceptions children had of themselves, we were first in spelling, first with sites that had a Headstart preschool, first in sites that started in K[indergarten], and first in sites that started in grade one. Our third-graders who went through only three years (grades 1-3) were, on average, over a year ahead of children in other models who went through four years—grades K-3. We were first with Native Americans, first with non-English speakers, first in rural areas, first in urban areas, first with whites, first with blacks, first with the lowest disadvantaged children and first with high performers.

If you don't believe Engelmann's own words, see this this concise rundown of the results.

But most of this chapter is about the ways in which these clear-cut results were systematically undermined, misrepresented, and ultimately buried by the US educational establishment. In essence, what happened was a bait-and-switch. The educational bureaucrats who set up Project Follow Through conceived and advertised it as a 'horse race' between different models of instruction (you can see descriptions of them here), of which Direct Instruction was just one. They expected a range of winners, i.e. that models like DI might be best at teaching basic skills, but that other, more progressive, child-centered approaches would be better at raising students' self-esteem, and so on. But DI students topped the charts on each and every measure. This was so unexpected that the ed establishment simply couldn't digest it. The project sponsors then changed the rules post hoc: they declared there really had been no competition between the models, and that only the aggregate of all the models' results, when compared to a control group, was what counted. Since several of the models had 'achieved' truly dismal results, their combined inability to get even close to the control group standard more than offset the DI model's far surpassing it. In the end, the entire project was declared a failure, full stop. Students of education in the USA, including prospective teachers, almost never even hear of the project's existence, much less its outcome.

The following quotation from Chapter 5 is brutal, but I guess essentially true. There are few ideologues like education ideologues:

Functionally, this decision showed the priorities of the educational system. It was more palatable for educators to accept that their favored approach failed than it was to admit that an approach in disfavor succeeded. The educators’ feelings and prejudices were functionally more important to them than evidence that there was a successful method for teaching at-risk children. Stated differently, these people showed that their beliefs were more important than the millions of failed children who could benefit from effective instruction. Make no mistake, they would not have gone through the various machinations they created if they believed their own rhetoric about how important it is to serve at-risk children.

You can get the gist of this part of the story by reading just up through page 15. The remainder of the chapter gets into the filthy details of the politicking that went on in the wake of Project Follow through, and it’s just depressing.

Music, ages, etc


My best friend has a friend who is a music teacher. She says the optimal age for beginning a musical instrument is age 12. My boys (7 and 9) started piano lessons this year, but it's through a private tutor who is also one of my former students, and she is very thorough but gentle and does not push them. They love learning, and since they both want to play trumpet or trombone, they know that they need to learn piano first and that they can't learn the other instruments until they're bigger, anyway (gotta have long enough arms!).

I totally agree with you about age development. I am not as familiar with Brazleton, but I have read Better Late Than Early by Dr. Moore, and he says basically the same things from an educators point of view.

I am really out of the "school" loop here, as I do homeschool my kids. A large part of this is the age issue. My oldest son has some developmental issues which would not be dealt with well in a local school (can't afford an international school). The ESF school wants to start kids in P1 at age 5. To me, this is way too young. My oldest was not ready for "formal" learning until he was 7. I did not want societal pressure or a school telling me that since he was 5 he must be in school, no questions asked.

We do have to consider the future, and are considering many options. We do have a Mandarin tutor, but perhaps I need to consider Kumon mandarin (I thought they only did math!). This is the biggest drawback. I do know rudimentary mandarin from having lived in northeast China years ago, but it is very basic! I'm re-learning my mandarin along with the boys (as well as teaching them and teaching writing!).

Very interesting discussion.


Betraying the educational dream

I was reading an interesting article in the Wall Street Journal, about children who are more devout/pious than their parents, and the tensions this can cause. An eye-catching quotation, which follows right along the lines of the 'education as salvation' theme:

Tom Lin's parents, immigrants from Taiwan, sent him to Harvard University with the expectation he would become a corporate attorney. When he instead opted for a much lower-paying career in a Christian ministry, his mother threatened to kill herself, says Mr. Lin . . . Mr. Lin says his choices were "shaming" to the values held within many immigrant cultures. His parents "moved to America for material prosperity," says Mr. Lin. "When [immigrants'] children forsake the very reason they came to this country, it's particularly devastating."

parental expectations

Perhaps part of the problem is that children of immigrants realise that they are entities separate to their parents, and as such can make up their own minds about career, education and even marital issues ...
I've not been in Asia very long, but I do mix with a lot of parents from various nationalities and it strikes me that many Asian (including Indian) parents do not see a clear or sometimes any distinction between themselves, their aspirations and ideals for their children and what those children may want ...