Why our kids don’t read

Today is the World Book Day. For book lovers, for avid readers, it is common sense how wide a world reading is able to open us to. I suspect this is not a common sense to the general Hong Kong population. Perhaps we do know, as a matter of fact, that reading does a lot of good, but we just don’t read.

Hong Kong Public Libraries have recently released the ranking of books lent in 2016. For Chinese non-fiction, the top 10 are all tour guide books, with the exception of one – HKDSE Chinese Langauge past paper. This certainly reflects how much Hong Kong people love travelling, especially to Japan. Well yes, I love travelling to Japan too. But it definitely is a worrying indicator when 9 out of 10 books on the top borrowing list are tour guide books, with the remaining one a set of public exam past paper. Where are all the other kinds of books? Is it a problem of our library collection? Is it really because Hong Kong people are too busy?

Perhaps busy life is an important factor. It is not news that Hong Kong people are always overworked. We don’t have time. We are busy people. We are too tired after work and we just don’t want to use our brain any further on days of rest. However, growing up in the Hong Kong education system and having been a secondary school English teacher for three years, I have to say that schools in Hong Kong have not been doing a great job in cultivating an atmosphere of reading.

All schools say they promote reading. Yes, that’s probably on the agenda of every Chinese and English department. How do we do that? We organise book fairs. Fine. We hold author talks. Fine. We ask students to do book reports. Go borrow a book and write me a 200-word reflection after the Easter holiday. What happens then? We teachers have to act as human plagiarism detectors, and every time we are bound to find some Wikipedia entries or online sources copied verbatim (or, for some more ‘skilful’ kids, an adapted or abridged version of those sources) in some of the book reports. And then we yell at them for copying online materials. Then we force them to re-do it.

Are we cultivating an atmosphere of reading? Or are we actually increasing their hatred towards reading?

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Children’s literature as an academic discipline began as a branch of educational research, the aim of which was to find good books for children, also for teachers to use in classrooms. This idea is actually rather alien to me. We’ve never really used books – except textbooks – in Hong Kong classrooms. Perhaps very occasionally we have a ‘reader lesson’, which more often than not is sacrificed when the teacher decides that they need to spend more time on grammar. Even when we do have a reader lesson, a lot of the English teachers just use it as another material for teaching vocabulary or sentence patterns.

When I told my supervisor about this situation, she was utterly surprised. This obviously is not the way things work in the English-speaking countries.

So when we ask why our kids don’t read, perhaps we should start by asking ‘why don’t we teach them to read?’ Just as we don’t expect students to be able to learn grammar on their own, and hence we devote a lot of time explaining the rules and giving them practices, why would we expect the kids to know how to write a wonderful reflection on a book just by assigning a book report assignment to them? They are already overwhelmed by school work, why would we think they could enjoy reading by giving them one more assignment? Over the three years I taught, I was guilty of this. I was also one of teachers who simply assigned book report assignments without devoting time to teaching them how to read. I simply couldn’t spare the time, because we had a lot of other things on the teaching scheme: grammar, writing, reading comprehension (which must be distinguished from the kind of reading I am talking about), listening… Our priority was to teach all these that will appear in their exam.

I didn’t learn to read in schools. I don’t remember my teachers telling me what to read for. Character analysis, plot development, themes of a book… were all alien concepts to me. They are still alien to students today and most of them don’t know what to read for even when they read. No wonder the most typical thing we can expect to see in a book report is ‘the book teach me never give up’ (grammatical inaccuracy intended).

If we teachers do believe in the importance of reading, we should teach students how to read and also spare time for that. We should take the kids into the wonderful world of books, rather than forcing them to do something that they don’t even see their teachers do. Institutional arrangement has to be made: for example, there should be one lesson per week/cycle devoted to reading activities, when teachers can take the kids to the library, or do activities like storytelling and reading circles. It is also crucial to change the mindset of teachers and make them aware that this is something we need to spend time on, just like other components of langauge learning. Only when the teachers and the schools actually recognise the importance of reading by dedicating time and effort to it could our kids actually start to appreciate books and the act of reading.

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.

Introverts and Classroom Participation

[This post is inspired by and written in response to an article entitled Teachers, Quit Telling Introverts They Should Participate More’ I read on Introvert, Dear.]

The author of the post is a school teacher, and so was I. She identifies herself as an introvert, and so do I. Perhaps I was too much of a goody-two-shoes in primary and secondary schools, but I do share a lot of her anxiety as a student in the university classroom myself, and agree with much of her advice for teachers.

During my undergraduate studies, as English majors, we often had to discuss in tutorials, but it usually took me minutes to formulate my opinion in my mind, carefully rehearsing it, and waiting for the right timing, perhaps waiting for that girl sitting opposite me to finish her point first, before I could anxiously make my comment. After making the comment, please gosh don’t stare at me. Don’t come back to me – I’ve made my contribution. Not that I’m not interested in the topic. I’d love to hear different people’s opinions in tutorial discussion, but please don’t pick on me and ask me to say something when I’m not ready.

Then I did my MPhil. All research students in my university have to be teaching assistants. I actually like teaching and I enjoyed being a TA. I was then the one holding tutorial discussions, having to ask my students to express their thoughts. Perhaps I should have been more compassionate about those who was anxious as I was as an undergraduate, but I seemed to have internalised the notion that verbal communication and participation are essential for students to make the most out of their literary studies. The most important (and inconvenient) reason was that, since I was not the assessed but the assessor, I did not feel the same anxiety.

But then we also had research student polemics where we got together and discussed scholarly articles with a professor, and I shrank back into the nervous anxious student. We actually had a debate in one of the polemics over whether polemics are constructive in academic training. I tend to stand on the negative side with a few of my peers, believing that carefully constructed and researched arguments are probably more valuable than on-the-spot debates, though we all have to acknowledge that verbal exchanges are a necessary part in scholarly activities in reality… conferences and viva!!!

After that I became a secondary school English teacher. The PGDE training tells us to increase classroom interaction and encourage student participation. Of course I’d agree that if it’s all chalk-and-talk, quite a lot of students will just drift off and not learn much in class, but we must also acknowledge that there are introverts in the classroom who would just be discouraged from learning if constantly required to speak in front of the class, or even just have their work displayed. It doesn’t mean they aren’t attentive or interested in the lesson, but the mode of learning doesn’t suit them.

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The boy is well liked by teachers because he is actively participating in class, but look at the anxious face of the girl… She probably isn’t disinterested in learning, but just feels uncomfotable about the way teachers recognise students’ effort in class.

The author of the article has given some good suggestions for teachers: trying to get them talk in small groups where they feel a bit more at ease, and allowing writing as an alternative way to share their ideas. I’d add that multi-modal assessments should be encouraged especially in the secondary school classroom, where the diversity in learning needs can be large. A mix of written assessments, oral presentations, creative assignments, or even video production, if the students are tech-savvy enough (with tablets and apps this shouldn’t be difficult), would probably make learning more stimulating and at the same time help develop the different skills which will be really useful in the future too. This is also fairer because I supppose no one is good at everything, and where they aren’t good at, they should be given the opportunities to hone those skills.

It might actually be the teachers who aren’t very comfortable initiating such changes due to their unfamiliarity with the various modes of teaching and learning. This is understandable. Schools should allow more room – not only the freedom, but actually releasing their workload (instead of asking teachers to add new things to the plate while keeping up with everything already there – for experimentation. At the end of the day, we just want our students to love, instead of fear or hate, learning, and schools should help teachers achieve this mission.

Educational Managerialism

These days I’ve been reading a book entitled Educational Leadership: Ambiguity, Professionals and Managerialism, by Eric Hoyle and Mike Wallace. (Warn you, not a leisure read – I read it for research purpose.) It seems to have summarised some of the problems we teachers face in the workplace under the climate of increasing educational managerialism.

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The following excerpt will probably generate some resonance if you are a teacher:

Meetings are particularly rich in opportunities for finding problems. Meetings have now become a major leadership and management tool. In many schools, attending meetings has become almost a way of life. They occupy time during the school day and also after school hours, contributing to the high number of hours worked each week by teachers. … Such meetings exist to enable staff to solve problems and make decisions. But they also fulfil many other functions, including reporting, mobilizing, motivating, reinforcing group identity, impressing colleagues, or parading grievances. …

But meetings have increasingly become opportunities for generating problems. Constructing an agenda often entails a search for problems … Some committees and working parties are dumping grounds for ‘problems’ that are not resolvable at a particular point. Managerialism thrives on meetings. To reduce the number of meetings may be to reduce the number of ‘problems’ that unproductively absorb staff time. But to do so would be heretical to the managerialist mind. (98-99)

To simplify, there are two types of meetings – meetings that solve problems and those that generate problems. The former is necessary and purposeful, while the latter is exhausting and demoralising.

No one really likes meetings, I suppose, not even the school administrators. Yet, why are we teachers still pestered by all the meetings big and small, eating up time for lesson preparation and generating problems and work that do not always relate to the benefit our students?

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If the school administrators aren’t sadistic, then there must be reasons for them to believe that such meetings are necessary or meaningful for the school (not necessarily the students). Such is the force of the governmental management which wants to tighten its grip over schools.

Yet, Holye and Wallace also point out that ‘there is room to manoeuvre over how far to enter into the spirit of these tasks, as opposed to doing the minimum required’ (91). Administrators ought to exercise their professionalism and decide what is in the best interest of their students, and this should vary from one school to another.

Another point worth noting is that while many activities or programmes could be beneficial to students, a question to ask is ‘whether these improvements have been of a magnitude that justifies their heavy costs, financially and in terms of sapping the energy and lowering the job satisfaction of teachers’ (95). And of course, to view the issue on a macroscopic scale, the same logic applies to governmental directives at the cost of school administrators’ burnout.

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Schools should always put the interest of students at the first priority, but in order to be effective, the working conditions and job satisfaction of teachers must not be overlooked. At the end of the day, who are there to teach the students? Would passionate and enthusiastic teachers inspire students better, or would overworked and unhappy ones do a better job?