Ancient inspires modern approach

16th May 2003 at 01:00

It is an occasion steeped in tradition. At the Chinese Market Day at Wan Chai school in Hong Kong, children make bean bags and dumplings; play pick-up-sticks (a traditional game), model clothes from past dynasties; recite poems, practise calligraphy and perform sword dances, Beijing Opera and dragon dancing But this educational event is so highly innovative, in a school system struggling to free itself from tests and textbooks, that other principals have come to watch and learn.

The day is the outcome of a rare partnership. Wan Chai primary, a state school, has joined forces with private, international Hong Kong Academy, which is implementing the International Baccalaureate's Primary Years Programme.

It is designed to put children in touch with their history and culture and provide a setting for practising Putonghua (Mandarin), the language of China, to which Cantonese-speaking Hong Kong now belongs.

"We tried to integrate different subjects into the project," says Betty Hau Shun-wah, the principal of Wan Chai.

"Besides Putonghua, children have to work on calculating skills, using an abacus. They liaise with the academy in English. Decorating the stalls involves art."

Such cultural and creative experiences are rare in Hong Kong, where last week the Cultural and Heritage Commission released a damning report on arts education in schools, saying it is trivial, is treated merely as a pastime, is often taught by untrained teachers, and favours Western images.

It is a set-back to Hong Kong's attempts to address concerns that good performances in international science and maths tests have masked a weakness in problem solving and creativity.

Last year Hong Kong launched a native English-speaking teaching scheme for primaries as part of its efforts to boost English proficiency and import more creative teaching approaches. But it did not attract enough foreign applicants and the outlook since the outbreak of the Sars illness in the former colony is bleak.

Ms Hau says it is difficult for teachers to be creative when most were taught in old, formal ways.

Lack of training for teachers, and high parental expectations for academic achievement, also restrict creative learning.

But teaming up with the academy has given Wan Chai access to modern books and new assessment methods based on classroom observation rather than tests. Ms Hau's school will clearly be in the vanguard of the drive to be creative. "People like us see many things that should be improved," she said.

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