Saturday, June 14, 2008

Beating the Unbeatable Foe - An educationally (For Hong Kong) incorrect post

The past two week have been as the last two weeks of any school year always are, the busiest of my year. One of my hats at the school is that I am responsible for end of year textbook return for all secondary students. I have the textbooks cataloged into the library system and assign them by checking them out to students in the fall. This is a big job that makes me both mentally and physically tired. However, getting all the books back, assessing fines for damage and getting everything closed down and ready for next year is just part of the job and in a certain way I enjoy the hectic pace and the feeling of accomplishment that comes with completing so many task. The past two weeks are filled with heavy lifting as I stack and move the books into the summer storage area and assessing the condition and recording the return of the books. It is also fun to see the high school seniors, who were in grade 2 when I became the librarian happy about their graduation even if I know most of them are far to naive and immature to really be considered adults. But they are at least old enough to begin that real education that comes from actually living and I can be happy for them and appreciate how hard they have worked to graduate. I can also look forward to a vacation, and a general period of relaxation, and refreshment so that I can rest up for the coming year that begins in August. So this is in many ways my favorite time of the school year.

All is not bliss because there is something that pops up at the end of the academic year that as an educator in Hong Kong I do not like. I always have a number of parents approach me for textbooks. They want their child to have every book for every class in the coming year so that they can have the summer to "get ahead" for the fall. The school has a rule that we will only do this if the child has been recommended by the Special Needs teacher or if it is an AP class. That does not stop parents from asking.

Do not misunderstand. I am all for academic excellence. Kids need to know facts, there is a place for hard academic work. Subjects should be challenging and academically rigorous. But there is a place where academic enrichment becomes child abuse and many parents in Hong Kong have passed that point about 5 extra tutorial sessions ago. One of the parents asking for textbooks this week told me that she had already enrolled her child in a math camp in Illinois and still wanted him to go completely through the Algebra 2 book that takes all year in the 9th or 10th grade. Luckily for her son the teacher did not agree to this. She expects her son to make an absolute 100 on any math test he takes, nothing less is acceptable. If she were ever in a movie Dorothy would probably drop a house on her.

I believe that this type of excessive expectation being forced upon children is, at least in part, a result of the EVIL corporate environment here. Most of the parents have to work what amounts to two jobs here to get one pay check. 70 or 80 hours a week seems to be about the norm for a lot of jobs. Thus there is a very real belief by parents that this is not only what it takes to not get ahead but to simply stay economically afloat in Hong Kong. As a result kids here are often raised by maids who get them up, send them to school, and then drag them from tutor to tutor until midnight when they come home to do their homework and then put them to bed at 3:00AM for 3.5 to 4 hours sleep. It is amazing to me how sleepy the middle-school and high-school students are in Hong Kong.

You can make an argument, perhaps a good one that this is just Chinese culture. Not being a cultural relativist I still say it is EVIL. Children need time to be children. I could, if I wanted list reasons for this but it probably wouldn't do any good. The parents are doing this out of fear that they mistake for love. They are afraid their children will have to work as hard as they do and see the accumulation of academic trivia as the hedge against the kid next door who might know just one more fact. It doesn't matter that the child can only play the piano pieces required for the test. It doesn't matter that they can memorize mathematical formulas but have no understanding of how they relate to the real world. It doesn't matter if they have no social skills. I doesn't matter if they exhibit signs of mental illness caused by stress. It doesn't matter that after a certain point higher grades on standardized test cease to be predictive of success. Nothing matters except being able to get good grades so that they can one day work 70 to 80 hours a week in a prestigious job. My God! I think Prestige is over rated!

I have learned that I cannot argue with the parent's mindset. Illogical people actually have their own internal logic.That means that most of the time you cannot reason with irrationality. Historically the best way you oppose irrationality is not through reason but though force and I do not have the authority or desire dissuade them that way. What am I going to do; beat some sense into them? Unless you can show them that they are wrong which is very difficult they cannot be reasoned with. Thus, if I refuse they complain about me to the administration and threaten to take their child to another school. If I give into them I am aiding and abetting the abuse of their child. So the question is, do I want to lose my job or help them abuse their child? I am beaten either way. I've kind of defaulted in the past to giving the textbook if a teacher or principal will agree to it but some of those can be leaned on will give books out regardless of any actual academic need.

This is a question I've thought about at this time of year for several years. How can I get parents to see that often times their kids grades would improve, or at least not fall if they were allowed to take some time off and be kids in the summer? I've tried lots of approaches. I am ashamed to say that maladaptive ones have been the easiest and the most successful. "I'm sorry, that textbook is being replaced and the new one isn't in yet." will work in some cases. "Come back next week when everything is returned" is another ploy because sometimes they do not come back; and even if they do I've bought the child a week off from extra math. I've also had polite conversations about the limitations of standardized test and the need for developing the whole person not just math skills. Nothing has been very successful.

For some reason the parents here tend to focus on math and science and generally ask for math books. This is frustrating to me because most of our students need extra help in language not math. So I just absolutely fume at the inappropriateness of this. Not only are they working their children like dogs when they need a mental break they are giving them practice in skills they do not need at the expense of the skills they do need.

Next year I am going to ask the principals if I can try something different. I am going to play to the parents fears but in a different way. I am going to purchase three or four copies of various books, written at different levels that deal math topics. These could be titles like The Physics of Baseball, Flatland, The Mr. Tompkins books, Galileo's Daughter, Fermat's last Theorem, just to name a few but I'll have to find some at a lower reading level as well. Then before parents start pestering me for algebra books I make an announcement for an "Advanced Summer Math Program" that will prepare the students for next years math courses with an explanation that we are broadening the thinking process so that the students are able to understand the concepts easier.

I am going to suggest to parents that their psychotic little brats (That is after all what abused children become) read one of these instead of doing endless extra math problems and write a short reflective paper on what they learned. This is sound in a number of ways but the most important one is that it shows kids that the math we do in a book exist in the real world. Geometry, trigonometry, algebra and calculus all describe REAL things, events or situations and being able to see those in life makes math easier to learn because kids see it as a practical skill to know. Knowing why a curve ball curves and showing the mental calculations a striker makes when he kicks a soccer ball or the relationship between musical notes and fractions give children useful clues about not only math but life. More than that it gives the kids practice reading technical materials and in dealing with abstract concepts and in writing and thinking which is what they need help in. I believe that this will be more beneficial to the students as well as less onerous. Who knows, maybe reading about baseball will encourage them to actually grab a glove and bat and go outside and play some baseball. Stranger things have happened.

We will see if the parents buy the plan.

Until Next Time
Fai Mao
The proponent of a sneaky curriculum

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