Here is the third instalment of my reflections journal that we are required to do during our time here. There are questions posed to us that she wants us to take time to ponder. I took a little EXTRA time this week. I just handed it in now even though she wanted it last night… Oops!
Early Childhood Education in Canada is approached quite differently from Hong Kong. In the west, children spend the day learning through play and the ECE’s observe them, note their interests, and set up activities based on those interests (ideally… it doesn’t always happen that way, of course). The basic idea is for children to become independent individuals who are able to problem solve to find the answers for whatever situations will arise. In Hong Kong, children are taught from a very young age how to conduct themselves in a large group and learn vast amounts of scholarly type knowledge.
Explaining it this way is difficult. Anyone reading that will probably immediately think that Canada is much better, but I don’t believe that is true. Both ways have their merits and downfalls. In Canada, over the past decades, we have moved away from rote learning and valuing academic skills in favour of teaching children how to think for themselves. It is great for children to be able to do that but I see a lot of people graduating from high school with less than basic knowledge of core subjects (especially grammar) and with a lack of respect for others in general. It seems like the move to reach one goal has gone too far and things have been ignored that need attention.
There are a lot of people in Hong Kong. It’s just a city, but there are over 7 million people. The population density is estimated at 116 people per square kilometer. In order to create a cohesive society, children must be taught early to live and work in close proximity to others. The strictness of the rules and the height of the expectations reflects this reality. It might seem almost militaristic (the children walk along yellow tape lines on the floor from their classrooms to and from the toilets), but it’s all for a purpose.
I was speaking to the director of LHK this afternoon and he asked if I could imagine what would happen in a small classroom such as I was in and swapped out the students for the same amount of students from back home. I could imagine. Absolute pandemonium (not to mention the multitude of accident reports that would have to be filled out). There are 28 students in my classroom at one time. The classroom is about half the size of a classroom in Canada which would have only 18. The self-regulation of the Hong Kong children amazes me. The still quite still for long stretches of time. They fidget of course, and they need reminders to cross their legs, keep their hands to themselves, etc. but as I was watching all 28 children today listen to a story being read, actually looking at the teacher and paying attention, I couldn’t help wishing kids back home could do that too. Not that I totally mind being a human jungle gym, but to feel like you aren’t reading a story to yourself while 10 children climb the walls (and you) is a nice change.
The idea that children are future citizens in regards to Early Childhood Education is the same in both places, but the approach is different.
Another difference is how teachers are viewed. As ECE students, how many times were we prepped to answer the question, “So, you’re just a babysitter”? We, as ECE’s and people in the field, know what we do is important… fostering young minds and all that. In Hong Kong, it’s a highly respected position. The whole of society seems to know and understand the contributions you make. Although no one explained the reasoning for this beyond that it’s how it is here, I know from my previous cultural studies that teachers have always been highly respected in Chinese culture. It’s ingrained in the collective mindset.
Another manifestation of the importance of children and their education is how extremely competitive entry into schools is. Parents do not want their children to go to public school. There, they will still receive education, but the rank and prestige belongs to the private schools. At every single level, children are interviewed and tested for acceptance. My cooperating teacher was telling me how our PN’s are interviewed practically when they are infants for entry to LHK. She told me there were 800 applicants for the 60 spaces available. That is mind boggling. She was also explaining how the K3’s were under a severe amount of pressure to perform. They need to be top notch is all areas – academics, behaviour, deportment, etc. – to be accepted into a “good” primary school. (*NOTE: LHK has 4 “grades” – PN (pre-nursery) and Kindergarten 1, 2 & 3.) She told me that she was glad she had the PN classes because, although there is the responsibility to mold them into children who can sit still and pay attention and follow direction (the main directive of PN’s since hard-core academics come later), she didn’t have to deal with the stress of her students AND that of their parents. Apparently, K3 teachers are practically harassed by parents worried about their children’s futures and their upcoming primary school entrance assessment interviews. And if the child is not performing at a high enough level, it is the teacher’s fault. (Parents here do not want to accept their child might have any kind of exceptionality. That’s ANOTHER difference.) K2’s have mock interviews that they prepare for so the teachers can assess their abilities and see exactly where work needs to be done. PN’s and perhaps K1’s still get to be “just kids”… at least for a while.
When I think of my own views of educating young children, I can see the merits of both ways. I think children do need to be taught to be independent thinkers but also to learn how to work as a cohesive group, acting with respect for others rather than to always look out for personal interests. Children’s education needs to be approached with the idea that you are influencing future members of society and the values and ideals of the particular culture they are raised in need to be taken into account. But I also think there needs to be a balance. There is a place for “free play” and fun, silly behaviour, and also for following direction, regulated behaviour, and academic study.
I think being here in Hong Kong and witnessing firsthand the differences in methods and values has strengthened that idea. I often thought in the past that time should be divided between focused attention with concrete learning involved and creative, free flowing activity. I can see for myself the value of what we are missing in Canada.
It’s hard to pinpoint exactly what I have learned during my time here in Hong Kong. Due to my laid-back nature, I think I absorb information without really realizing that’s what I’m doing. Maybe I tend to think I always knew it and it’s not a new way of looking at things. But I think what I will take away from this experience isn’t necessarily views on education of children in Hong Kong vs. the west but more a self-discovery type of thing. You never know how you are going to react in certain situations until you are in them. Many things about this trip have been… eye-widening (maybe they weren’t “closed” previously, but I can see it more clearly now). I know I am a shy person. I do not assert myself or my opinions and ideas easily. That is definitely true when teaching here too. I feel as though if I am put in a classroom with children by myself, I can be quite energetic and engaging (at least I hope!) but when there are other teachers, I take a backseat and do what they want me to do. I ask what I can do to help out and that sort of thing, but I don’t really ever say, “Hey, I think we should try…” This makes me feel inadequate and like I don’t really deserve to be here. All my classmates seem to be doing this.
But I also realize that I do put ideas out there and do what I do well, just in a different way. I have a reserved approach and I HOPE it’s still effective and purposeful. I’ll just assume I’m doing an okay job until someone tells me otherwise. 🙂 It’s difficult because my cooperating teacher (the PN teacher in the classroom I work in who supervises me, in case you forgot) is a Chinese woman raised in the UK and fits every stereotype that just popped into your head just now. She is also quiet and reserved. Stoic, I’d say. And not much for undue praise. So, it can be very difficult for me to gauge exactly what she thinks of me and my performance. And I am already an emotionally needy, unsure, praise junkie. Haha. Unless she tells me, how can I know if I am doing something wrong – or right, for that matter? I do ask for feedback on activities I’ve performed. She gives suggestions for possible improvement but so far, the general remark I get is that they were “okay” or “good”. I’m a little jealous of my classmates who get comments like, “Wow, that was really great. The kids loved it.” Then of course, I immediately think that it wasn’t good enough to warrant any sort of praise. It can be a stressful position to be in.
There is only one week and two days left teaching. I wonder how many things I could actually change about my approach in that short amount of time. I’m not going to let myself worry about it too much. If I see an opportunity where I can assert myself more, or if I get a brilliant idea I want to try out, I will. But I’m just going to continue to keep my eyes open and soak up as much as I can about this fascinating way of life as I can. (Maybe I should have become an anthropologist instead…)
(originally posted to ngohheuiheunggong)