Gove spurned as HK looks the other way

28th January 2011 at 00:00
Former UK colony has rejected content-based curriculum, its education secretary tells The TES

A top-performing education system identified by the Government as an example to follow has introduced curriculum reforms sharply at odds with Michael Gove's strict focus on "essential" subject knowledge.

The education secretary highlighted Hong Kong several times last week, saying a curriculum overhaul was needed to bring England "back to the road travelled by the most successful education systems around the world".

But a TES interview with a Hong Kong education minister reveals that a key element of the curriculum reforms behind the territory's success has been the kind of explicit teaching of learning and thinking skills already rejected by Mr Gove.

Hong Kong has also created more curriculum space by moving away from the English model and abolishing exams at 16. The reform contradicts Mr Gove's claim that in "high-performing nations there is an expectation that children will be tested in a wide range of subjects at 16".

The former British colony finished third in science and maths, and fourth in reading out of 65 education systems in the most recent 2009 Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa) survey results - seen by the Coalition as an essential guide to the "best" education policy.

Kenneth Chen, Hong Kong under-secretary for education, said much of the success was due to a curriculum introduced over the past decade which emphasised "21st-century skills" such as "learning how to learn".

"Obviously, you need content and subject knowledge," he told The TES. "But more importantly, we feel that kids need to have that attitude that they need to learn continuously."

Mr Chen highlighted "liberal studies" - one of four core subjects in Hong Kong's senior secondary curriculum - which is designed to teach pupils how to learn and think critically and creatively.

"It is not a content-based curriculum. We are not asking students to memorise a whole set of facts and be able to regurgitate them in a test," he said. "Instead, the subject uses an issue-based enquiry method to teach students how to think and analyse."

Mr Gove has described Hong Kong as a "top performer" and "restless self- improver". In a speech last week, he highlighted topics that were covered by the territory's primaries but omitted from England's primary curriculum, such as calculations with fractions.

But afterwards he said he did not want England to follow Hong Kong by including thinking skills and "learning to learn".

"Not in the national curriculum, no," Mr Gove said. "I think that the purpose of the national curriculum is to lay down the bodies of knowledge and essential content in those subject areas."

Mr Gove denied that he was compromising his evidence-based approach to curriculum review by cherry-picking the international ideas he already agreed with.

"There is a debate within Asian nations about the greater degree of creativity and scope for creativity in their curricula," he said.

"But that is because they start at different positions from us. If we had the same level of performance in those core areas then we would be having a similar debate. But the pendulum is in a different place."

Mick Waters, who led the last secondary curriculum review - criticised by Mr Gove as a "backward step" - said it would be "unfortunate" to marginalise the skills at "the heart of the curriculum" in successful systems.

Writing in this week's TES, Mr Waters, president of the Curriculum Foundation, said: "The pattern, in Singapore, Scandinavia, Hong Kong, Scotland and countless others is to move away from a previous emphasis on facts and knowledge and entwine knowledge, skills and the development of personal qualities."

Tim Oates, the Cambridge Assessment head of research leading the new review, said research showed it was "not appropriate" to specify the discrete teaching of critical thinking.

John Dunford, chair of the Whole Education campaign, said the review should recognise that employers sought "essential skills such as teamworking and communication" and creativity alongside numeracy and literacy.

  • Original headline: Gove's admiring glances spurned as Hong Kong looks the other way

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