By Ivan Chou and Joseph Yau.
Parallel to the Covid-19 pandemic is an education crisis of unprecedented proportions. A research team in the United States has projected that students will learn about 30 per cent less in reading and 50 per cent less in mathematics than in a normal school year.
In Hong Kong, under our learning-from-home policy, 90 per cent of teachers have reported that they are falling behind schedule. The Examination Authority, aware of the disruption, has reduced the assessment load for most subjects in the DSE exam.
The Hong Kong government, to its credit, has implemented measures to tackle the problems arising from home-learning. It has paid particular attention to the hardware problem among disadvantaged students and has helped teachers transition into online teaching through seminars and a digital resource centre.
However, there is a weak link and blind spot in our pandemic education policy that warrants immediate attention.
First, regarding the weak link, government policy has not taken into account the greater discretionary role which parents play in home-learning.
Two US studies demonstrate the heightened importance of parental involvement during the pandemic. The first, by a research team at Boston University, found that parents from affluent regions doubled their search intensity for online learning resources after the lockdown, while parents from poorer areas only marginally increased their searches.
Researchers at Harvard separately tracked the use of Zearn, a digital platform for learning maths, and found that user activity among students from high-income ZIP codes soared by 40 per cent after lockdown, but dropped by 50 per cent among students from low- income areas. Put together, these two studies suggest that proactive parent participation has kept students learning in the pandemic; the lack of it has resulted in catastrophic learning loss.
The greater importance of parental involvement is also mirrored in a study by researchers at the University of Hong Kong. It showed that high-income parents participated more in their children’s education and had higher expectations of achievement for their children after learning-from-home was introduced; but low-income parents maintained a similar level of involvement after the pandemic and began to have lower expectations of achievement for their children.
In the seven months since face-to-face classes were first suspended in February, the Education Bureau has put out a handful of guidelines and infographics about home-learning. It has also hosted a few seminars for parents. But overall, the policy response to an expanded parental role has been anaemic and ineffectual.
Consider the home-learning strategy guide for kindergarten parents. Sent out in May, the six-page guide included homeschooling tips and principles for designing learning activities for young children. It was a step in the right direction but there was no follow-up. Parents in all probability do not know how to design executive function activities for their children after reading a few pages of text. An approach more aligned with realities on the ground would have provided step-by-step instructional videos for a wide variety of learning activities.
A more egregious example is the government website Smart Parent Net. A search for ‘online learning’ and ‘learning-from-home’ in the website’s search bar yields no relevant results, in either Chinese and English. After an exhaustive manual search, one might find a handful of articles on helping ADHD children learning from home, but there seems to be nothing else on home-learning for other parents.
Second, our home-learning policy has been blind to the unique vulnerabilities of second language learning.
The golden period for learning second languages is between birth and 17 years old. After late puberty, our capacity to grasp syntax at an intuitive level drops precipitously. So learning a second language is a race against time. If progress is interrupted during this critical period, strenuous remedial learning is necessary. Otherwise, the interruption will result in a permanent loss.
If a large number of local students lose a year of English learning, the resulting decline in English standards would make Hong Kong less attractive to foreign businesses — a risk that our international city can ill afford to take. For ethnic minorities, losing a year of Chinese learning would be disastrous.
In 2017, only 10 per cent of ethnic minority students registered for the DSE Chinese language examination, among whom only 30 per cent reached the minimum entrance requirement for undergraduate study. Learning-from-home could destroy their career prospects and greatly diminish their ability to integrate.
Given the stakes, the government should at least consider providing schools with one-off grants to recruit remedial tutors for second languages. Other options such as issuing tutoring vouchers to families should also be given serious consideration.
The Hong Kong experiment has been built on educated minds and a respect for differences. The pandemic has put education at risk and the recent political crises have frayed our trust in each other. Investing in our children’s education today – a consensus irrespective of political persuasion – would not only buttress long-term economic growth, but may well also create a beachhead of the cooperation and tolerance that we desperately yearn for.
Ivan Chou, and Joseph Yau are Postgraduate Diploma in Education students at the Education University of Hong Kong.
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