Monotonous exam cramming may soon be history
Yvonne Chan Chin Mo-chun and Betty Hau Shun-wah talk to each other frequently. They are both into their second years as school principals and have plenty of notes to swap.
Chan tells how she has reduced the number of days devoted to exams in her school and Hau talks of replacing tests with formative assessment in Mandarin. They also exchange ideas about the innovative projects they are planning to extend learning beyond the classroom, such as a comparative study of wet (fresh-produce) markets and modern supermarkets.
Chan and Hau are the harbingers of change. It will be through them and their like that Hong Kong's ambitious education reforms will rise or fall.
Research at the Chinese University of Hong Kong shows that when principals are not ready for change, a school stands still; when they are, the result is a "culture of collective learning".
For decades, education had been driven by textbooks and exams, making lessons monotonous and giving students "little room to think, explore and create", the Education Commission reported in 2000. Today, the territory is three years into reforms to make school more engaging and enhance critical and creative thinking.
Principals have to respond to government demands affecting almost every aspect of school life. Lilian Chan Lui Ling-yee, who helped devise the new framework for principals' professional development, said schools used to be tightly controlled by central government.
"Principals are now responsible for their own strategic planning and must be more flexible in the deployment of staff, funding and curriculum planning," she says. "There is also greater accountability."
Principals must learn to lead rather than manage their schools, she says.
From 2004-05, they must be up-to-date with their training to be licensed for the job.
New principals are trained by the Hong Kong Institute of Education in a two-year programme that includes mentoring, action research and overseas study visits.
"Traditionally, leadership used to be about getting things done," says Ip Kin-yuen, who runs the programme. "Now we count on principals to set the direction for a school. They must also understand the outside world, locally and internationally, because schools are under intense external pressures."
Trainees travel - to Sydney or neighbouring Guangdong province in mainland China - which has enabled them to compare their own practices with others and has led to more intense communication among the group, something which has not been strong in Hong Kong.
Yvonne Chan's mentor, a principal with a strong track-record in nurturing teaching talent, has been on hand to advise her in day-to-day problems as well as her research on "self-regulated learning", or as she describes it, how to instil a zest for learning. "Everything I do is geared towards this big goal," she says.