MusingsSchoolsTheoretical Framework

Towards a Bioecological Approach to Education in Hong Kong

Child and adolescent development, particularly social and emotional development, does not exist in a vacuum but is rooted within the social, economic, cultural and political framework and across the passage of time. Developmental psychologist, Urie Bronfenbrenner, argued that established models of human development, overlooked the vital influence of biological factors on psychological growth. He proposed that rather than considering the developing child as a “tabula rasa on which the environment makes its impact”, development is a dynamic, reciprocal interaction between the individual and the environment; an environment that is not limited to the immediate surroundings, but encompassing the interconnections between different settings as well as the external influences from the broader realms.

Unlike most developmental theories of that time, where the focus was on a specific domain such as cognition, social or biological factors, Bronfenbrenner (1979) emphasised the interrelationships of different domains, their progression and their contextual variations. Following on from this premise, schools, governments, communities, families, and other social actors who constitute the ecological systems around youth must come to understand the developmental complexity of these intersecting systems.

At a time when globalisation and technological advances are dramatically changing our world, we need to question whether Hong Kong’s educational reforms are on the right track? Are our schools promoting the skills and knowledge required for this global society? Or are our schools overemphasising high-stakes testing and in so doing, actually undermining the students’ strengths and intrinsic motivation? Against the backdrop of the educational reforms that have taken place in Hong Kong since 1997, this paper will assess how well the new aims of education (see below), reflect the educational aims outlined by Morris & Adamson (2000), particularly the child-centered holistic approach. This approach resonates with me as it underpins my personal teaching philosophy. I will discuss the feasibility of these reforms for Hong Kong, with its unique geopolitical history and diverse sociocultural population. Education clearly does not exist in a vacuum and thus, adopting Bronfenbrenner’s (1979) ecological model, I will consider education as rooted not only within the social, economic, cultural and political framework but also within the passage of time.

New Aim of Education in Hong Kong

“To enable every person to attain all round development in the domains of ethics, intellect, physique, social skills and aesthetics according to his/her own attributes so that he/she is capable of life-long learning, critical and exploratory thinking, innovating and adapting to change; filled with self-confidence and a team spirit; willing to put forward continuing effort for the prosperity, progress, freedom and democracy of their society, and contribute to the future and well-being of the nation and the world at large.”  (Curriculum Development Council, 2000:5)

Despite an appeal for decades, centuries even, by philosophers and educators for a more holistic child-centered approach to education, Hong Kong schools tend to focus primarily on the cognitive ability of students. Dewey (1916) maintained that formal education, rather than prepare the child for a fixed goal, should encourage children to grow and to groom them to continue this growth and development as adults in the changeable future they would surely encounter. Rapid advances in technology, globalisation and the uncertainty of where this will eventually lead, indicates that this is particularly apt for today’s students.

A recent UNESCO manifestation proposed “the physical, intellectual, emotional and ethical integration of the individual into a complete man/woman is the fundamental aim of education.” (UNESCO, 2008). The New Aims of Education suggest that Hong Kong is striving to develop internationally minded people whom, acknowledging their shared humanity and collective responsibility of the earth, will help to generate a better and more peaceful world – a better and more peaceful Hong Kong. This is reflected in the philosophy of many international schools, but is it true for all Hong Kong schools? Bronfenbrenner’s ecological model demonstrates that individuals are influenced by a number of overlapping ecosystems i.e. macrosystem (social conditions), exosystem (community), microsystem (individual family or curriculum) and chronosystem (time in history).

Morrison & Adamson’s (2010) aims of education can be viewed within this framework: the personal development reflecting the microsystem; academic rationalism and orthodoxy/ideological transfer, the exosystem; with social reconstruction and socialisation and economic efficiency reflecting the marcosystem – all of which take place within a specific chronosystem.

Personal Development: Child centred – Focuses on the needs and growth of individual children
Orthodoxy/Ideological Transfer: Value Centred – To reflect and pass onto children the existing values and beliefs of cultures
Academic Rationalism: Subject centred – Focuses of the development of pupils’ intellect and rationality and the transmission of knowledge
Socialization and Economic Efficiency: Society centred – For preparing future citizens who fit into society and who are economically productive
Social reconstruction: Future centred – To improve society in the future…develop knowledge, skills and attitudes

Likewise, (superficially at least), the New Aims of Education in Hong Kong correspond well to the Educational Aims set out by Morris & Adamson’s (2010). The Personal Development (Student/Child Centered) approach is not only holistic, but also considers ethical, physical, social and aesthetical aspects e.g. “according to his/her own attributes” and “filled with self-confidence” implies a child-centered attitude to education. These aims also encompasses the Socialisation and Economic Efficiency and Ideological Transfer (“continuing effort for the prosperity, progress, freedom and democracy of their society, and contribute to the future and well-being of the nation and the world at large”) as well as Academic Rationalism and Social Reconstruction reflected in the clause “life-long learning, critical and exploratory thinking, innovating and adapting to change”. Hong Kong’s New Aim of education may well correspond to Morris & Adamson’s (2010) Education Aim but many educators are frustrated with the disconnection and implementation of the reforms, which we will attempt to address under the macrosystem.

Macrosystem (social reconstruction and socialisation and economic efficiency):
Following 150 years of British rule and colonisation, Hong Kong was handed back to China in 1997, and adopted the ‘one country, two system’ approach. This geopolitical history, as well as the diverse sociocultural mix, makes Hong Kong a unique and complex environment in which to educate students. As well global, national and local pressures, the shifting political, cultural and economic dynamics have resulted a number of conflicting priorities which have influenced the educational reforms e.g. liberalism/authoritarianism, innovation/conservatism, competition/cohesion. The introduction of the national curriculum – whilst the sentiment is to be applauded in its attempt to foster deeper understanding and appreciation of the Chinese culture – has caused discontent with many educators (Chou, 2012). My feeling is that Hong Kong needs to proceed cautiously in this global world, ensuring that national identity be something of choice rather than mandatory or obligatory. Furthermore, care needs to be taken that in enforcing a national curriculum that one’s culture does not become exclusive.

Changes in legislation with regard to Medium of Instruction (MOI) and restricting English Medium Instruction (EMI) schools could be argued both ways. One point of view is that using one’s mother tongue promotes higher-order thinking, but on the other hand, so as to compete in this global world, one needs to be able to communicate in other international languages. It is a fine balance indeed but in order to prosper in this global world, we need to ensure that we develop a world perspective as succinctly stated by Martin Luther King: “Our loyalties must transcend our race, our tribe, our class, and our nation; and this means we must develop a world perspective”. Walker (2006) further highlights the frustrations of the educators and public alike at the disconnection of the educational reforms and suggests that the challenge of education reform is to find ways to address these disconnections and take steps towards a more effective implementation. As is evident, this macrosystem influences the educational system and thus the students within this system.

Exosystem (academic rationalism and orthodoxy/ideological transfer):
One of my colleagues shared a Chinese maxim (修身、齊家、治國、平天下) which translates as “when one’s personal life is cultivated, one’s family will be regulated and then one’s state will be well governed; and when all the states are well governed, there will be peace and harmony throughout the world”. This reflects the Confucian cultural heritage of Hong Kong i.e. emphasis on the role of the family, respect for authority and established knowledge, the merits of perseverance, diligence, morality and social harmony.

While this maxim does not mention education per se, one could determine the order of Morris & Adamson’s (2010) Education Aims in the following order:
1. Personal development
2. Ideological development
3. Socialisation and economic efficiency
4. Social reconstruction

But where to place academic rationalism? According to a poll taken based upon our ranking of these aims, most of our colleagues would select academic rationalism as second to personal development. This strong belief in academic rationalism became even more apparent when our cohort of students was asked to comment on an ‘idealistic’ country’s educational characteristics (which transpired to be the Finland Phenomenon). What became apparent was that the societies in which our educators were raised have a vast impact on their own ideas of education. This in turn affects not only the formal/informal, planned and implemented curricular but also the hidden curriculum, which Smith (2003) defines as ‘outcome from teaching/ learning activities that are not part of the explicit intentions of those responsible for the planning of those activities.’ This hidden curriculum is also apparent within the microsystem.

Microsystem (personal development):

The school, peers and family all form part of this microsystem and personal development of the student. ‘Globalisation’ in education means that we need to prepare our students with global awareness, international language ability and a range of intercultural skills. The Aspirational Values in Educational Programs of IB suggest that education should “… develop inquiring, knowledgeable, and caring young people who help to create a better and more peaceful world through intercultural understanding and respect. However, whilst the philosophy in some schools is one of “holistic education”, the actuality is that cognitive learning is emphasised over social and emotional learning. Furthermore, while the underlying philosophy is of being ‘risk takers’ and ‘leaders’ suits some children, not every child so inclined, and so perhaps the highlighting of these skills could have a negative effect on some students. Additionally, without self-confidence and a positive sense of self-worth and happiness, the child, (and later adult), will not be able to fully contribute to society in a meaningful and worthwhile manner. This can only develop if the child learns in a holistic way, according to their own strengths. This positive sense of self will be reflected by what is valued in that prevailing culture and ideology i.e. the hidden curriculum.

This is echoed in Ryan & Deci’s (2000) self-determination theory which, when applied to education, is fundamentally concerned with promoting in students a desire to learn, a value of education and having the confidence in their own capacities and abilities. These result from intrinsic motivation, resilience and internalising values and regulatory processes. Research proposes that this in turn will have the outcome of producing not only high-quality learning and conceptual understanding but also enhanced personal growth and adjustment, just as Dewey proposed.

While a school philosophy and curriculum may well augment a students’ learning, this can only be realised in the context of the wider community. Hong Kong school leaders are increasingly recognising the powerful influence of parents on many aspects of the students’ development. Go (2013) suggests that the challenges that educators face today are often linked to their upbringing. On reflecting social factors affecting schooling, many colleagues cited family background, education level of parents, socioeconomic factors, peer influence and social aspiration as fundamental influences. What is obvious is that parents, teachers and students need to work together to ensure that the new aims of educational reform are implemented.

Overall, we can see that in their New Aims, the Hong Kong Educational reforms show great promise for the future if these aims are connectively implemented. My experience is unfortunately limited to an international school that adopts the IB philosophy and programme, which is closely aligned with the new aim of education in Hong Kong and as such I am unable to comment beyond my own experience. However, I do believe that adopting such an approach would promote overall excellence, justice and equality in education. Whether Hong Kong is ready to adopt this whole approach and has the resources to do so, is a question that I am not qualified to answer. What does concern me is the prevailing culture of high-stakes testing in the Hong Kong educational system. According to many researchers, this aspect of formal education not only undermines creativity and intrinsic motivation, but also does not adequately prepare children for the changeable future that they are bound to encounter.

As the 2000 Nobel Laureate in Economics, Dr. Heckman states: “Our best long term investment is human capital investment in the form of emotional, social and cognitive education. To date, we are failing the first areas of development in our educational systems”. Surely it is now time to act upon of all these appeals by placing equal value on social and emotional learning in all our schools’ curricular? In so doing we will not only fulfil the new aims of educational reform and deliver a holistic, child-centred education for our students, but also provide them with the skills required for this fast changing globalised world.

(credit for pictures from Unsplash by Aaron Burden, Tam Wai and Ben Wicks)