My recent encounter with a number of education officials
in Guangzhou has stimulated my thinking about ELT in Hong Kong. In my last
blogpost, I made a strong (and therefore somewhat simplistic) comment: (In
China they value good teaching …) In Hong Kong, we care about good exam
results, and to achieve that, we resort to large doses of exam drilling.
On every Thursday evening in this semester, I have
a class with a group of 23 inservice teachers of English. Since September, we
have been covering a series of ELT methodology topics. But this Wednesday, a
sentiment suddenly popped up in my mind: Are we wasting our time if at the end
of the day, all we can do, or will do, in the classroom is simply to assign
mechanical exercises and exam practice papers for students to do, and check the
answers with them afterwards.
I still remember this lesson which I observed four
years ago at a secondary school. (For ethical reasons, I will not divulge
anything more about the background to this lesson observation.) It was a
Secondary 4 class. At the start of the lesson, the teacher assigned a section
of an HKCE exam practice paper for the students to try. There was no input from
him. He did not draw the students’ attention to anything in the paper. Anyway,
reluctantly and passively, the students got started, probably because now there
was a visitor sitting at the back of the classroom. During the next 20 minutes,
he did not walk around to see if any student needed any help; in any case, no
student bothered to ask him for help. After 20 minutes when the students had
finished that section, he started to check the answers with the students.
Because he did it orally with the class, asking an answer from a student and
saying whether it was correct or not, instead of asking the students to turn to
the Answer Key at the back of the book and quickly checked their answers
themselves, so as to leave time for any questions that they might want to ask the
teacher later, this answer checking dragged on and easily occupied the
remaining 20 minutes. Everyone, the teacher, and the students, and including
me, was waiting for the end-of-lesson bell to ring.
I admit that this might be an exceptional scenario.
But I’m still wondering how common it is in the classrooms of Hong Kong that
the bulk of learning time is simply spent on ploughing through mechanical exercise
after mechanical exercise, or exam practice paper after exam practice paper.
But don’t get me wrong; This is not a reprimand on
teachers. There are teachers who genuinely believe that all that repetitive
grammar practice and exam drilling is good for their students. There may be
teachers who are under pressure to deliver good exam results overnight. There
might be teachers who really equate teaching with exam drilling. And there are
students who will turn their back on the teacher if he switches from exam
drilling to genuine teaching. …. (And in any case, there are teachers who don’t
give in, and who will grab every opportunity to provide their students with meaningful
and interesting learning experiences. I had a long chat with two such teachers
yesterday afternoon.) What I want to say is that all of us stakeholders in
education, and also everyone in society, should reflect on what we have been
doing and thinking in the last twenty years in handling teaching and learning. Should
we be happy with the status quo? In the field of education, are there certain
principles and values that we should uphold? Do we still have vision and