Learning Communities and Hong Kong’s Public Schools

On June 26, 2015, a Sing Tao newspaper published an article reporting a five-day study tour by approximately 20 members of the Hong Kong Association of Heads of Secondary Schools. They visited three exemplary schools that showcased the use of self-regulated learning and learning communities. Go to article (in Chinese).

The delegation was very impressed. For example, the article reports that according to Ms. Lee Suet Ying, the chairperson of the HKAHSS:

Though some schools in Hong Kong are carrying out self-regulated Learning, teachers are still being the center of the classes. While in Japan teachers are practicing student-centered classrooms in real teaching. This made Ms. Lee reflect that maybe only if the teachers in HK should stop being twinkling in class can self-regulated Learning come into effect.

She was further quoted as saying:

The classes in Japan are very peaceful. Teachers are being gentle and kind, talking in a low voice just like a child next door. When students raise questions in class, teachers will … listen to their questions.

One of the three schools had had discipline problems before becoming a learning community. Ms. Lee was quoted as saying:

However, through observation, we found out that the learning environment was quite good. Even if the teachers were talking in a quite low voice, students were vey concentrated, which makes big with difference that in Hong Kong.

Mr. Michael Wong, the Director-general of the HKAHSS, was reported as pointing out that through this visit, he thought the “Flipped Classroom”, which was popular in quite a few schools at present, could be integrated with Learning Community.

(Thanks to Ms. Emily Li, a student in the DPLE M. Ed. specialism, for translating the article.)


The idea of a learning community emerged 25 years ago in the United States in the work of Professor Ann Brown to improve literacy and learning in inner city schools. Dr. Katerine Bielaczyc has continued to develop the idea and has done research on the use of material resources and online work in learning communities. Professor Manabu Sato (University of Tokyo) has done much to advance the use of learning communities in Japanese schools. Professors Bielazyc and Collins have developed a set of design principles for learning communities that are widely known.

I would add to both the account in the article and these principles that a learning community should be a happy community. The community members must be willing to and appreciate working together toward serious goals. They celebrate achievements.

Response to the news article

Study tours that focus on exemplary practice can be useful, but they can easily lead to superficial implementations. I can imagine a staff meeting in the Fall, at which a school principal announces the school is henceforth emphasising learning communities; accordingly, the use of microphones during teaching is banned, and teachers should speak softly and listen to students. Perhaps, despite these procedural changes, not many of the design principles of learning communities will be recognisable in the teaching that would follow. Learning communities are complex social environments, and it will take much learning by a school to enact them.

I think that the news article unfairly characterises Hong Kong teachers as the centre of attention, students as lacking concentration and failing to be self-regulated in their learning, and, perhaps, classroom environments as lacking warmth. It blames the teacher for the the perceived lack of engagement in classrooms. To the, contrary, in the almost 9 years I have been working with Hong Kong teachers, I have been impressed that quite a few of the classrooms I have encountered have been places where serious work is going on, but that at the same time are happy places. I certainly would have no difficulty finding exemplary classrooms in schools of all levels that would do well if evaluated as learning communities.

But Ms. Lee does have a point. The idea of the teacher as the centre of attention also is quite common in Hong Kong’s classrooms. An extreme case perhaps, I once observed a Form 5 physics teacher deliver a 30-min presentation in which he analysed voltages and currents in a few electric circuits, filling up the blackboard with equation after equation, never making a mistake, indeed never even erasing a word and rewriting another. At the end, the teacher made a slight bow and there was applause. It was an impressive performance! When I asked the teacher why he had not charged the students with trying to work out some of the details, perhaps in small groups, he answered that he didn’t think he could manage to complete the lesson that way.

It’s true that the teacher must ultimately be the one to implement a new educational idea, but it’s equally true that this is impossible without having the necessary support in place at all levels of education systems. In our DPLE specialism, we introduce teachers to a variety of perspectives including self-regulated learning and learning communities. Almost all teachers are interested in these and want them for their classrooms, but I see big differences in how far teachers in international (i.e., private, using IB curriculum and philosophy) and public schools are able to take them in their teaching. Teachers in public schools quickly run into barriers that they feel are insurmountable, many of them arising from school policies. By contrast, teachers at international schools often have school policies that support experimentation.

As an example, when my M. Ed. student Mya enacted knowledge building for the first time in her primary classroom in 2008, she had something to attach it to: the PYP Learner characteristics, which include being an inquirer and risk-taker. These were non-negotiable for the parents and the school administration; they even were important if Mya wanted to remain accepted by her colleagues. One might say they were essential to the school’s philosophy and mission. Mya solved the problem by creating a contract together with her students, which articulated how knowledge building could be used to develop the learner characteristics. Mya attended a conference in Toronto to learn about knowledge building from other teachers and academics, and then embarked on an 8-month journey in her own class to develop and evaluate her teaching using knowledge building. This first-year experience was on par with the best international  examples of knowledge building. The fact that her work was so well articulated with the school’s mission meant that she could invest all this time and effort.

In the public schools, this level of alignment with policies is not as obvious. As an example, I looked at the Curriculum and Assessment Guide for Physics (Secondary 4-6) for the Diploma of secondary Education (DSE) examination (updated 2014).

In learning science, most Hong Kong students are strong in memorising content knowledge, analysing numerical data and understanding scientific concepts. Many local teachers view these processes as interlocking. The strengths of Hong Kong teachers and students should be acknowledged and treasured. (p. 106)

The memorisation-understanding strategy, proposed by Professor Ferrence Marton (University of Gothenburg), states that in learning a vast body of content memorisation and understanding work together: students need to organise a large body of content in a conceptual framework if they are to be able to retrieve it. (Also see the How People Learn Report, p. 16.) But the government’s advice here does, in my opinion, little to advance education from a quest to learn a large store of knowledge. Learning in the 21st century must achieve much more than that (e.g., learning to be a self-regulated learner, to work together, and deal with novel situations). The advice perhaps relies too much on teachers’ and students’ current strengths, and thereby signals that the new DSE curriculum is, actually “more of the same.”

The Guide goes on to outline three main teaching strategies: direct instruction, inquiry, and co-construction, which seems good advice. However, it again sends mixed signals by the level of endorsement given to each:

Direct instruction, if appropriately used in an interactive manner, is a powerful tool to help learning. Well organised content, contextualised examples and vivid interactive presentation with clear focuses are important features of successful direct instruction. (p. 107)

“Teaching as inquiry” is advocated by many educators who believe that knowledge is best constructed through individual learners’ effort and activity. This is a more student-centred approach. …(p. 108)

Teaching as co-construction is an approach which sees learning as a social interactive process in which the teacher may also act as learners. This view stresses the value of students sharing their new knowledge through group work, with the teacher as a learner partner providing support. (p. 108)

All three of these approaches are useful and important, but the first is presented as fact and the last two as beliefs or views. It’s It is no wonder that the first continues to be dominant in teaching in many classrooms. In summary, the level of support for inquiry and learning communities at this level of policy does not seem very clear.

A problem closer to classrooms is that school policies often create barriers to experimentation in classrooms. In Hong Kong, school leaders have a great deal of autonomy and therefore establish their own school policies, but these do not necessarily add value for student learning. Some possible examples, based on my own observations, are:

  • Frequent testing. The DSE curriculum simplified the government examination system to reduce emphasis on such examinations. But apart from the abolition of the Advanced Levels examination (HKALE), testing practices and attitudes in schools appear to have changed little. A lot of instructional time is devoted to rehearsal, testing, and going over test results in great detail. According to the synthesis of research evidence of factors that influence achievement by Professor John Hattie (University of Auckland), testing has only moderate impact on achievement, compared with concept mapping, teaching strategies, classroom discussion, and the provision of formative evaluation.
  • Policies that make it difficult for students to collaborate when they are not in subject classes, for example, when all students are required to be in their homerooms after school to work on assignments and are not permitted to visit students from other homerooms.
  • Policies that make it difficult for teachers to arrange out-of school experiences that could enhance learning. This is where it is essential for a school to be a learning community, and not just a class of students. Flexible arrangements certainly are possible that would make it possible for students to have some out-of-school experiences that are educationally significant.
  • Policies that prevent teachers from investing time in learning, innovating and improving their craft. Time for these things has diminished a great deal for public school teachers, but I think it is one of the best things teachers can do to remain energised in their teaching and improve student learning, compared to the many things teachers are asked to do. When teachers invest time and money in new learning many principals see this as a personal thing, but it is something that can and should benefits the school as well.

The way forward?

Excitement among school principals for learning communities and self-regulated learning is a good thing. But over the  years of working with teachers, I have come to believe that more can be achieved by school leadership than by individual teachers. To implement the learning community concept, it seems important that a school becomes a learning community, for example, examining which policies and modes of operation prevent learning at the organisational level, and seeing learning by individual teachers as something that can benefit the school. When the organisational conditions become more favourable to it, teachers can experiment with different ways to be in a learning community in their classes. But perhaps all the biggest change we’ll see is that custodial staff will remove microphones from classrooms over the summer.