Monday, 24 October 2011

questions, questions

Michael is a 16-year-old Form 5 student in Hong Kong. His parents, neither of whom is a graduate, have high expectations, but he is already disadvantaged by not studying in a school where English is used as the medium for instruction. The number of such schools was drastically reduced after the handover of sovereignty to China in 1997, mainly as a result of pressure from academics who maintained that instruction in students’ mother tongue (Cantonese) is more beneficial. It is hard to disagree with such a sentiment, but for one crucial fact: entry to any of the local universities requires equal proficiency in both languages.

Michael has another problem: his teachers don’t like him. Why? Because he asks questions. He is often slapped down in class for daring, as his teachers see it, to challenge their authority. Hong Kong is a society in which respect for teachers has become entrenched, ossified into a sterile convention that stifles creativity and individuality. The influence of Confucianism, combined with a feeling among most students that by asking questions they may appear to their classmates to be stupid and thus will lose face, means that students like Michael, whose style of learning does not conform to local classroom norms, struggle to make headway.

Yet Michael is of above average intelligence. He recently passed the Grade 8 exam of the UK’s Royal College of Music in violin. However, his interest in and talent for music have also landed him in trouble: his mother frequently scolds him for listening to music while studying, even though he finds it useful because it helps him to remember key pieces of information by association with the music he is listening to.

What Michael needs is a sympathetic teacher or, since this is most unlikely in his present circumstances, an experienced mentor. This is where Paula entered the picture. His parents were worried about his academic progress, and a friend of Paula referred them to her. Her initial meeting with Michael was scheduled to last an hour but lasted three. Michael described, in quaintly unidiomatic English, the weekly ‘brain-draining’ that he received at the hands of his parents. They wanted to know what he’d learned in school that week, thus unwittingly piling even more pressure on him. However, most of the discussion was in Cantonese, and it is clear that Michael needs more practice if his command of English is to be raised to the required standard for entry to university.

When Michael recounted how his mother disapproved of his listening to music while studying, he was surprised (and delighted) to learn that Paula had always listened to rock music while studying at university, and that I frequently do the same when writing, although in my case I do have to be selective. I will have no problems if Led Zeppelin’s Rock and Roll or Deep Purple’s Highway Star is thumping away in the background, but something like Dylan’s Subterranean Homesick Blues would be disastrous. Too many words.

Anyway, Michael went away happy, and his parents were also delighted when Paula told them that he already thinks like a university student. This remains a work in progress at the moment, however, and Paula will be successful only if she can educate Michael’s parents in the best way to encourage their son. As for all those questions, no one has said it better than Jacob Bronowski, in his landmark BBC television series on the history of science, The Ascent of Man:
It is important that students bring a certain ragamuffin, barefoot irreverence to their studies; they are not here to worship what is known, but to question it.


  1. I totally agree with you Dennis!
    We have five adult kids. They all did well in school, but I was really not happy with the way one of them did so. She had fantastic retention and merely memorized everything she had to. To this day she knows dates events, but has no idea about why things happened. To me, her education was a waste of time. My youngest, who is brilliant always got in trouble because he questioned things and many times the teachers either didn't want to spend the time, or didn't know the answers.
    I hope you are doing well!

  2. Pat, your daughter sounds a lot like me at school. I have an exceptional memory, but I used it to do as little work as possible. On the other hand, I’ve always been curious and have never been prepared to accept what I’m told unless I can verify it myself. It is important to understand rather than merely to know.

    I was fortunate enough to have a couple of sympathetic teachers, and I might well have become a university professor were it not for my enthusiasm for rock climbing and a small tactical error in my final exam (as described in Autobiography #1: Memory). Do I regret anything? No! I've had a fantastic life, and at 65 I'm as happy as I’ve ever been.

    Good to hear from you again Pat.

  3. It really troubled me to read this post. It reminded me of an instance in high school where a student in my class was taking a government course from a college (University of Iowa) because she was told that it would count for her state required government class. To make a long story short it 'did not' and about ten of the teachers believed that she should not be able to graduate because she did not complete the state requirement, even though she took a college level government class. They went as far as signing a petition and presenting it to the school board during the hearing about whether they would count the course or not. Fortunately, they did and she graduated. This was an extremely eye opening experience for that time I had no idea adults could be so closed minded about learning - the purpose of education. Great post!


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