The results of the 2003 Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa) provided some encouraging news for educators in Hong Kong. The major international survey of abilities in maths, science, reading and problem solving showed that local students were ahead of their peers in the US and Germany.
But while the scores recorded were generally well above average, the study also indicated there was much room for improvement in other areas. Most alarming was that local students came bottom in terms of "self-concept" and schools got low marks for the fact that only 53 per cent of students said they had been well prepared for adult life.
It appears that many parents may have already been aware of this. That would explain the demand for classes in "life skills" offered by Kumon Hong Kong Co Ltd, which are seen as offering something more than the traditional education system.
The company's basic philosophy is to give young people the ability to live life happily and to the fullest, with dreams and goals and a willingness to face challenges. They also believe it is important to try new things proactively and enthusiastically, while teaching students about self-awareness and how to learn.
The methods were developed in Japan in 1958 by Toru Kumon, a high school teacher, and are currently being taught to over four million students in more than 40 countries. The Hong Kong branch was established in 1988 and has gone from strength to strength.
"The work is very meaningful for me and the approach helps to motivate students by stimulating their interest in learning," says Shirley Poon, team leader for instructional information. "We want them to have the proper goals and we put the emphasis on each individual's needs and abilities."
Plato Shum, who is leader of the centre development team, says it is vital for instructors to be passionate about teaching and to have essentially the same mindset as their colleagues.
"The general requirements are to have a degree and to pass oral tests in English and Mandarin, as well as written tests in mathematics, English and Chinese," adds Thomas Lee sub-team leader of the centre development team. "After the interview, the training introduces our values, way of operating, teaching style and case studies. There are also follow-up sessions." Instructors are expected to take part in the core subject training and can select other courses from the corporate training menu.
"Instructors should understand and agree with our philosophy, which advocates the importance of each student and helping them achieve their potential," says Ms Poon.
Among the most rewarding aspects of the job are being able to see students change and grow. If they are not doing too well academically, Kumon's teachers will hope to develop their self-awareness and motivate them to focus more on their studies.
Each year, there is a theme for the organisation and this year it is to communicate the common vision and to develop students individually. This is reinforced in a series of sessions in which instructors learn the appropriate hands-on skills to promote the theme and develop related projects.
There is also a voluntary study group which initiates research into teaching improvements. These projects, which last from nine months to two years, and the findings are presented and discussed at conferences which bring together over 1000 instructors from around the region.
"There are also overseas study trips, and the recent ones were held in Indonesia and the Philippines," Ms Poon says. "They give instructors in the Asian region an opportunity to share their experiences and improve their instruction techniques by learning from each other."
Lessons for life
- Kumon Hong Kong equips students with "life skills" which help to improve their academic performance
- Instructors should share the company's general teaching philosophy and basic values
- Training courses and follow-up sessions prepare teachers for their role
- Study trips provide the chance to share experience and exchange ideas with instructors from around the region
- A voluntary study group conducts research on student development in order to improve teaching methods