Extension of group presentation titled “怎樣讓自己講英文 而不感焦慮?”
Frances CHENG Man Chong

     Hong Kong was ruled by British for over a hundred years. The colonization was always unique. It was not because of the natural or economic resources Hong Kong possessed, rather was the specific geographic location of this tiny city which was attaching to the southern part of mainland China that enticed the invasion of the British. Hong Kong is an inseparable limb of China, serving as the intermediate station, it has been very clear from the beginning that British occupied this island with the agenda of commencing and facilitating trades with China by entering the market through the southern port. According to Wai-Yin LO,

教師教育在中、英互動的政經脈絡中發展,政策源於回應中國社會變遷的權衡之計。教師教育政策響應社會需求,有效保持香港社會穩定,長久以來是個失落的教育議程。 (Wai-Yin LO, 2014, p.51)

     In the early stage of British occupancy, providing education to local inhabitants was to train a class of selected elites to propagate British sovereignty by teaching their language  which is English in public schools and the main purpose was to establish the “colonial hierarchy“ (Carnoy, 1974) and at the same time strengthen colonist’s culture and core social value. During mid 19th century, no systematic education was founded at that time in Hong Kong or even in Britain. In Hong Kong, the local tutoring scheme was transformed from the Qing Dynasty in which teaching was mainly focused on vocabularies and Confucian traditional values and thinking. Classrooms or more accurately teaching venues were scattered in different locations and villages. In parallel with it, there were missionaries going to the East. Their sole mission was to promulgate religious belief, recruiting followers by building schools and offering education with other services like social and medical services. As the British-Hong Kong government, they were a small group of foreigners ruling a place of which the population was mainly made up of Chinese. They had a definite need to conduct effective communication with the locals. Therefore, they demanded an education policy to provide the government with well-trained translators, intermediaries and mediators to serve their political as well as economical goals. They began to unify public and missionary schools in the city and formed the earliest prototype of Hong Kong schooling system. On one hand, they implemented common teaching standards and curriculum, and on the other hand, they subsidized Confucians schools in suburbs as a friendly gesture to the suburban. Hong Kong’s current schooling system has been evolved among all these rare elements under a complex environment.

在教育系統而言,香港的教師教育是維持社會上政治穩定的有效機制,是面向中國複雜多邊關係的重要政策之一,有助鞏固殖民管治。 (Wai-Yin LO, 2014, p.52).

     Education system is one of the by-products of the Industrial Revolution: the order is maintained through arrangement of seats in classrooms and queuing of pupils in hall. Time management is ensured by arranging classes with fixed-duration and sessions. These are all efficient and productive ways to indoctrinate a large number of students to fulfill the target result simultaneously.

Mass education was the ingenious machine constructed by industrialism to produce the kind of adults it needed. The problem was inordinately complex. How to pre-adapt children for a new world – a world of repetitive indoor toil, smoke, noise, machines, crowded living conditions, collective discipline, a world in which time was to be regulated not by the cycle of sun and moon, but by the factory whistle and the clock.

The solution was an educational system that, in its very structure, simulated this new world. This system did not emerge instantly. Even today it retains throw-back elements from pre-industrial society. Yet the whole idea of assembling masses of students (raw material) to be processed by teachers (workers) in a centrally located school (factory) was a stroke of industrial genius. The whole administrative hierarchy of education, as it grew up, followed the model of industrial bureaucracy. The very organization of knowledge into permanent disciplines was grounded on industrial assumptions. Children marched from place to place and sat in assigned stations. Bells rang to announce changes of time. (Toffler, 1970, p. 354)

     Apparently, the education policy constituted by the Hong Kong-British Government and industrialism had both contributed to the elitism of the local education system. The superiority of the upper class with perfect English language skills created deliberately by colonist’s ambition. In addition, the industrial formula implanted into pupil’s mind had indoctrinated the concept of upward movement over the years. Elitism and upward movement consequently had been entwined to being successful and became the ultimate goal of Hong Kongers ever since.

     Another British colony, Singapore, also ruled by British for more than hundreds of years, has been very successful in terms of education in the recent decades. Almost all Singaporeans are bilingual, and a large percentage of them are very fluent in English. However, unlike Hong Kong, Singapore has gone through a broad decolonization process, “it gained independence from the UK in 1963 by federating with other former British territories to form Malaysia, but separated two years later over ideological differences, becoming a sovereign nation in 1965” (Singapore, Wikipedia). Despite the fact that Singapore’s population comprises of four major nationalities: Chinese, Malaysian, Indian and British, in their education system, “English is the language of instruction in all public schools, and all subjects are taught and examined in English except for the ‘mother tongue’ language paper. While the term ‘mother tongue’ generally refers to the first language internationally, in Singapore's education system, it is used to refer to the second language, as English is the first language” (Singapore, Wikipedia). “English is the native tongue for only one-third of all Singaporeans, with roughly a quarter of all Singaporean Malays, a third of all Singaporean Chinese, and half of all Singaporean Indians speaking it as their native tongue. Twenty percent of Singaporeans cannot read or write in English” (Singapore, Wikipedia). As a result, under this schooling scheme, “Singaporeans are mostly bilingual, with English as their common language and usually the mother-tongue as a second language taught in schools, in order to preserve each individual's ethnic identity and values. The official languages amongst Singaporeans are English (80% literacy), Mandarin (65% literacy), Malay (17% literacy), and Tamil (4% literacy)” (Singapore, Wikipedia). As we can see from results above, the Singaporean government has formulated the appropriate education policy and executed it with determination and persistence. The effectiveness will be revealed eventually over time.

     Perhaps one could argue that Singapore has an urge to promote English as the official language due to the multi-cultural society as opposed to the mono-cultural society in Hong Kong. Among other factors, the most significant one being Singapore is an independent nation, she is able to formulate and execute the suitable education policy under an autonomic environment with less political and economic interferences, which lead to the effective transformation of the education scheme.

     From another point of view, schooling system was evolved from military training practice in the industrial age more than two hundred years ago.  The purpose of the training system at that time was to raise a batch of disciplined pupils with the same set of skills, standards, habits and act in accordance with rules within a predictably short period of time. In order to reach management goals of controlling a large number of workers and at the same time maintaining production schedule, it was extremely important for mass production factories to hatch workers with the same traits in a limited timeframe.

     Over the course of 200 years, our education system has continued to run in the approach inherited from industrial military training. It might work on certain technical subjects and basic skills training, yet it doesn’t seem to be as effective as anticipated when it comes to languages such as English learning. Language comes with a natural needs for communication through dialogues and writings, while the schooling system is acting otherwise - discouraging communication. The “narrative character” (Freire, 1997, p.52) inside the system which is designed in a way that has taken the emotions away from the teaching process, “the teacher-student relationship at any level… involves a narrating Subject (the teacher) and patient, listening objects (the students)… Education is suffering from narration sickness. The teacher talks about reality as if it were motionless, static, compartmentalized, and predictable. Or else he expounds on a topic completely alien to the existential experience of the students” (Freire, 1997, p.52). Nowadays, we are surrounded by ever-changing technologies and environments, it creates the out-of-context issue for students in Hong Kong when the English-subject textbooks are all about grammars, vocabularies and sentence composition which they don’t actually have the chance to practice in their living. Most of the time, knowledge learnt unilaterally stayed on the shallow level of memory which will be forgotten right after the tests or examinations. Freire further explains with his “’banking’ concept of education”:

Education thus becomes an act of depositing, in which the students are the depositories and the teacher is the depositor. Instead of communicating, the teacher issues communiqués and makes deposits which the students patiently receive, memorize, and repeat… in which scope of the action allowed to the students extends only as far as receiving, filing, and storing the deposits… But in the last analysis, it is the people themselves who are filed away through the lack of creativity, transformation, and knowledge in this (at best) misguided system. (1997, p. 53)

The banking concept illustrated two major complications of our current schooling system, first of all, lack of autonomy of students under the system. As mentioned earlier, teacher as depositor “turns them (students) into ‘containers’, into ‘receptacles’ to be ‘filled’ by the teacher. The more completely she fills the receptacles, the better a teacher she is. The more meekly the receptacles permit themselves to be filled, the better students they are” (Freire, 1997, p.53). The teacher in order to fulfill their job requirement and attain good performance, they will bank in as much information to students as they could; likewise, in addition to the elitism endorsed by Hong Kong-British Government, students in order to achieve high scores in examinations (which are widely defined as the measurement of learning outcomes), they will receive as much short-lived data into their heads even though the data is meaningless, and the process is entirely aimless to them. Students who are able to silently follow instructions will be rewarded with high test scores which is exactly the type of students the schooling system trying to produce.

     Some of my classmates at primary school even find learning English is such a painful process, as stated by Freire, “when their (the oppressed’s) efforts to act responsibly are frustrated, when they find themselves unable to use their faculties, people suffer. ‘This suffering due to impotence is rooted in the very fact that the human equilibrium has been disturbed’” (Freire, 1997, p.59). Because of the design and intent of the activity flow of the daily classroom schooling, it is almost impossible for students to grow and foster any out-of-classroom interest, let alone becoming the faculty and being contented through practicing it. As a consequence, boredom and dejection always linger in students’ mind.

     Secondly, oppression. It seems very cruel and dehumanizing to students yet that is nature of military training practice by instinct, which is all about domination:

Banking education maintains and even stimulates the contradiction through the following attitudes and practices (omitted here), which mirror oppressive society as a whole… The more students work at storing the deposits entrusted to them, the less they develop the critical consciousness which would result from their intervention in the world as transformers of that world. The more completely they accept the passive role imposed on them, the more they tend simply to adapt to the world as it is and to the fragmented view of reality deposited to them…Indeed, the interests of the oppressors lie in “changing the consciousness of the oppressed, not the situation which oppresses them”, for the more the oppressed can be led to adapt to that situation, the more easily they can be dominated. (Freire, 1997, p.54-55).

As a British colony, Hong Kong has never had its own independent sovereignty, it has been the dependent territory of the British Empire for more than 100 years, and afterwards was handed over to China. HongKongers are historically being lack of autonomy, leading to passive learning and lack of confidence. We are used to do what we are told. Both underlying problems have direct impact on schooling.

     During my primary school ages, due to the historic background of Hong Kong, it is an inescapable fact that English became a learning subject and constantly as the main teaching language. I totally agreed with Freire’s banking education concept, in Hong Kong, students are confined to the classrooms everyday with rigid seating arrangements, dressing in tidy uniforms, following strictly to school rules and teachers taught according to textbook curriculum, which are oppressive, demotivating and many students will get bored by school. There are no outdoor (except two P.E. classes weekly) or extra-curriculum sessions during ordinary class time, and thus insufficient room for students to develop interests and passion. I believe not many students are actually interested in English language at that time, yet it is out of their control as it is a compulsory subject and teachers provide training by direct memorizing vocabularies, followed by the worst part – forced to remember the grammar structure, which is extremely difficult without the context. As a six year old child, we never had the chance to conduct conversation in English with anyone in the day-to-day surrounding, and we are overwhelmed by the content of the textbooks and consecutive classes. There are also no teaching-related activities intended to stimulate or promote our interests in learning English, and it could not be entirely the students’ fault when they are unconfident with speaking English. Despite that, we tried our best to “learn” and attain good results because that is what we were instructed. This is what Mitchell described as “learning by submitting to the authority of a teacher” (2006, p.64), “Polanyi, on the other hand, understood that practical knowledge precedes the knowledge of rules, for one must possess a degree of practical knowledge in order properly to apply rules” (2006, p.63). After spending three years in Hong Kong secondary school, I have the opportunity to move abroad and study in public high school of Canada. It was an eye-opener experience in terms of English learning, as I can dwell into the learning process: make English speaking new friends, attend classes conducted in English everyday, as these are the inseparable parts of my daily life. Moreover, this is the first time in my life to have liberty on choosing subjects that I study at school and are based on my interests rather than being mandatorily pre-selected.

     As a matter of fact, learning English as a language is a multi-dimensional process rather than memorizing grammar and spellings. According to Michael Polanyi, English teaching in Hong Kong has disintegrated knowledge from “indwelling” (1966, p.17).

…so that instead of observing them in themselves, we may be aware of them in their bearing on the comprehensive entity which they constitute. It brings home to us that it is not by looking at things, but by dwelling in them, that we understand their joint meaning. We can see now how unbridled lucidity can destroy our understanding of complex matters. Scrutinize closely the particulars of a comprehensive entity and their meaning is effaced, our conception of the entity is destroyed. Such cases are well known. Repeat a word several times, attending carefully to the motion of your tongue and lips, and to the sound you make, and soon the word will sound hollow and eventually lose its meaning. (Polanyi, 1966, p.18)

The teaching focus has been too narrowed and therefore diverted to individual particulars such as single vocabularies or writing exercise, but omitting the collective learning environment like verbal practices. It is further supported by Mitchell, “a child… does not begin by learning rules of grammar and syntax, for the rules themselves require language in order to be formulated… The skill itself exists primarily in its practice and only secondarily in rules, which are necessarily formulated subsequent to the practice” (2006, p.65).

     Nevertheless, as indicated by Polanyi, “the destruction can be made good by interiorizing the particulars once more” (1966, p.18), “the integration of particulars as an interiorization, it takes on a more positive character. It now becomes a means of making certain things function as the proximal terms of tacit knowing” (1966, p.18) and “to interiorize is to identify ourselves with the teachings in question, by making them function as the proximal term of a tacit moral knowledge, as applied in practice” (1966, p.17). Polanyi’s concept also coincided with the process of my English learning. I always like watching Hollywood movies, which becomes a supplementary tool and provides me with the context for learning English as a secondary school student. As a self-aware person, this is also the reason why I started to listen to foreign pop music at about the same time. Polanyi somehow makes me believe that I possess traits of a scientist, “the experience of seeing a problem, as a scientist sees it in his pursuit of discovery” (1966, p.21). Without knowing it at that time, I have been trying to fortify the tacit knowledge and search for a solution for the inadequacies of my English training.

Tacit knowing is shown to account (1) for a valid knowledge of a problem, (2) for the scientist’s capacity to pursue it, guided by his sense of approaching its solution, and (3) for a valid anticipation of the yet indeterminate implications of the discovery arrived at in the end. Such indeterminate commitments are necessarily involved in any act of knowing based on indwelling. For such an act relies on interiorizing particulars to which we are not attending and which, therefore, we may not be able to specify, and relies further on our attending from these unspecifiable particulars to a comprehensive entity connecting them in a way we cannot define. (Polanyi, 1966, p.24)

By the recurrent sessions of movies watching and music listening, from which I have integrated tacit knowledge with indwelling in my own way. Over all these years, it spawns personal knowledge and it has alleviated the lack of confidence to certain extent every time as I speak English.

To hold such knowledge is an act deeply committed to the conviction that there is something there to be discovered. It is personal, in the sense of involving the personality of him who holds it, and also in the sense of being, as a rule, solitary; but there is no trace in it of self-indulgence. The discoverer is filled with a compelling sense of responsibility for the pursuit of a hidden truth, which demands his services for revealing it. His act of knowing exercises a personal judgment in relating evidence to an external reality, an aspect of which he is seeking to apprehend. (Polanyi, 1966, p.24)

   The mentioned method applied in my English learning claimed to be effective on myself, yet other teammates among the presentation group disagreed. When studying in Canada, I practiced English language by conducting regular conversation with peer students and teachers, through this process, I continued to seek and correct my own mistakes. As each student is unique and different in our own way, have different interest and passion. Some are more proactive than others in learning and will spontaneously seek corrections on mistakes they made. Looking at how we learn English in schools of Hong Kong, all students of the same age are given the exact same textbook and lecture, regardless of their “actual development levels” and “zone of proximal development” (Vygotsky, 1978, p.37).

When it was first shown that the capability of children with equal levels of mental development to learn under a teacher’s guidance varied to a high degree, it became apparent that those children were not mentally the same age and that the subsequent course of their learning would obviously be different. This difference between twelve and eight, or between nine and eight, is what we call the zone of proximal development. It is the distance between the actual development level as determined by independent problem solving and the level of potential development as determined through problem solving under adult guidance or in collaboration with more capable peers. (Vygotsky, 1978, p.38)

Students of various levels are provided with identical English training in the same class, at the end of the school term, the group of students is given the same set of examination paper. If the training system is merely evaluated by the results of the test papers, it doomed to be ineffective. An ideal and effective schooling system would have to determine the “actual development levels” and “zone of proximal development” of each and every student, from which to then define the individual training approach. In Canadian high schools, there are only four sessions of class per school day including English class, in each session, teacher will spend 70% of the time on lecture and the remaining on one-on-one tutoring. This is a very good opportunity for students to further clarify areas of frustration during the lecture. And it considers a potential way of closing the gaps between the zones of proximal development of different students in the class.

   In summary, given the unique historical background of Hong Kong, the British-Hong Kong government and industrialized schooling system have both promoted elitism at schools in Hong Kong. According to Polanyi as well as Freire, “banking” concept education requires certain fundamental knowledge before students realize on applying rules, in English language learning, and also other subjects. After all, schooling systems nowadays has been adopted since more than 100 years ago and perhaps industrial values are outdated. As such, more and more people are sending their children to alternative schools to have informal education, this certainly shows the need to update our educational tools, however,effectiveness of the alternatives is still an open question.


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