Life-planning Education and the Cultivation of Autonomy

These few weeks I have been auditing a course called Modern Educational Thoughts, the central theme of which (so far) is whether autonomy should be the aim of education. Last session we were reading about communitarianism, which is theoretically situated on the other end of the spectrum from autonomy. At the end of the class, the professor asked us to vote: whether we think autonomy or community should be the aim of education. Quite a number of us refused to cast a vote, for a good reason – we do not think this is an appropriate either-or question. In fact, only one person in the class took an unequivocal stance. Ideally speaking, at least from my point of view if this does not represent the view of any others, the aim of education should be a fusion of both, cultivating autonomous thinking while raising students’ awareness about the importance of communities.

The professor still made us vote despite our ‘desire to complicate things’. In fact we do not desire to complicate things, but things such as ‘the aim of education’ are inherently complicated. The professor has my greatest respect, just to clarify, and I think this exercise is useful, whether it is intended to be useful in this specific way that I have perceived. I voted for community. We voted by raising our hands, and here is an interesting observation: the few people who cast the same vote as I were mainly those from a Western background (forgive my generalisation here), while the majority of Asians (many of whom are from Mainland China) voted for autonomy. A brief discussion with a friend who voted for autonomy yielded the conclusion that, perhaps our choices only reflect what is lacking in the education system of our own countries / places. Ultimately, we believe that we need both elements in education and this exercise only compels us to think about what is inadequate with our current way of doing things.

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Anyhow, I maintain that good education is about finding a balance between the two, and I suggest that life-planning education, recently important in Hong Kong secondary education and of particular interest to me as a former careers teacher, exemplifies the importance of fusing autonomous thinking with the sense of community.

I suppose the ‘autonomy’ side of life-planning education is intuitive. The whole objective of life-planning education is to raise students’ awareness that they are responsible for their own life. They will have to make their own decisions regarding their future. What we can do in the programme is to provide information and directions, which are essential as the basis of making autonomous choices. It is about understanding one’s own dispositions and also the world out there, about their careers options, about the reality of doing a certain job. We teachers do not, and cannot, make decisions on their behalf. The future is theirs. The life is theirs. Sometimes there are students who are frustrated after a counselling session because the teacher does not give them an answer, but that is exactly our role: not to give an answer, but prompt them to search for their own answer(s).

In this regard, I have to say that perhaps I did not make a very autonomous choice when I left the secondary school. It is true that my parents and teachers did not force me into a certain path, but looking back, I think I was not well-informed about the choices out there. Both of my parents were teachers, and teaching is something that I am interested in, and among all the subjects I think I am most confident with teaching English (and my mother was an English teacher), so logically I chose English for my university study. However, I did not really consider other options. There was no elaborate life-planning education back then and we were supposed to figure out things ourselves. Honestly I had never thought about what it would be like to study Cultural Studies, or Sociology, or Law – especially since these are not subjects in the secondary school, I either had no idea what they were about, or held some biased views towards them. For example, to the young me, studying Law meant reading a lot of dry books and memorising laws. Being a lawyer meant using all your cunning strategies to help a criminal out of conviction.  Only in years later I realised very little of this was true, and I came to understand the discipline in a whole new light, after reading and learning about what the rule of law means and the functioning of the entire legal system. (In Hong Kong, we have indeed inherited a very well established and reliable legal system from the UK.) I came to perceive it in a very different light and even imagine I might want to be a member of this section to uphold this system that I have trust in. I have become especially intrigued when I was assigned to lead the mock trial team in my last year of teaching, as I had to do legal research together with my students and prepare them for court trials! However, having invested so much time into English literature and education, it seems too late for me to start over and explore whether I might be more interested in Law. And anyway, I like what I am doing now and hence there is not a strong push factor, so the Law path is very much just another road not taken which I can only wonder about.

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Indeed the nature of the legal sector appears intriguing to me now, but I still am not sure if I would like to work with other lawyers (especially solicitors… I guess I identify more with barristers), not sure whether we would share similar values and interests. What I know is that I do not regret doing English and becoming a teacher, as I have met the most wonderful people in the English Department and in the secondary school where I taught. (And wonderful scholars over here in Glasgow who are so proficient and passionate about children’s literature!) As much as I like reading and teaching, I really like working with and talking to my English-major friends and my fellow English teachers.

Hence, besides encouraging students to make autonomous and informed choices for their future, the exercise of life-planning education is also to raise their awareness about the new communities that they are going join after graduating from the secondary school. The important message here is that to choose a career path means to engage in a certain community. No man is an island. Obviously, if you want to become a teacher, you will enter a teaching community populated by teachers (would you like that?). Entering the business circle means mingling with other business people (are you enthusiastic about that?). Even if you opt to be a freelance writer, you are still inevitably caught in the literary circle. Many students do not realise what their interests really are, but to think about who they want and do not want to work with is usually a worthy exercise. When talking about life-planning or careeres education, most of the time we only ask ‘what do YOU want to do?’, emphasising selfhood a lot, without realising that after all, a great part of your work life will be about the people around you. If you do not feel comfortable to be a member of that community, if you do not really share the same visions and interests as the people in that community, if you do not speak the same language as those people, perhaps that job might not really suit you. In contrast, if you truly identify with a community, you will be a lot more committed.

I am aware that I am oversimplifying things a lot here, but I cannot afford to go into much greater details of how life-planning education can be carried out in order to promote both autonomy and communtarianism. My point should be clear, though: we need BOTH. Also, the mentioning of life-planning education is for illustrative purpose only, and we should go beyond it and consider how the many other elements of school education can come together and develop both valuable traits in our students.

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