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Let's Get Real About Academic Expectations

Director of Literacy Henrik Hoeg's explains how the race to read sooner and faster is, in fact, a race to the bottom.

By Henrik Hoeg, Director of Literacy

Last week, I found myself locked in a two-hour conversation with a parent trying to convince her that her son was an excellent reader. We were touching base after my first two literacy sessions with her child, who had been given the lowest possible ratings on every literacy metric on his latest report card. She was in panic. But, in my session with the boy he had effortlessly read a chapter book and produced excellent written work for a seven-year-old.

The education system is Hong Kong consistently ranks among the best in the world when measured by academic results. But, in the process of getting there, expectations for students have become unrealistically high, and in some cases, developmentally unfeasible. Parents feel like they have no longer have footing for what expectations they can reasonably set for their kids.

And as the world shows us, there is a lot of leeway. In Scandinavian countries, whose education systems rank as high as Hong Kong and are widely admired, children are not expected to begin reading until the age of seven. In Hong Kong, I regularly encounter parents who are concerned that their four or five-year-old is not reading up to their expectations — or, more often, to a school’s expectation.

Reading, like so much learning, is not a rush to the finish line. The child that crawls first does not necessarily become an Olympic sprinter, and the child that is pressured to read as soon as possible does not have better literacy outcomes. What the child does gain is unnecessary stress, a disdain for reading, and a notion that academic achievement is an end in and of itself. It’s a notion many of us could stand to discard.

The competitive streak among some schools doesn’t help either. As one school shifts expectations to have kids reading earlier, other schools feel they have to play catch up. It’s a vicious race to the bottom. Naturally, what gets trimmed to cram in extra rote learning and forced reading is creativity, play, critical thinking, socializing, and physical education, all the things standardized testing cannot capture and academically-obsessed educators see as frivolous.

The result is a generation of kids who feel like they are drowning in the ever rising expectations. Kids who are increasingly likely to develop anxiety or depressive issues. These kids eventually come out of the academic assembly line under-equipped for a job market that increasingly values lateral thinking over rote knowledge. 

So, what can parents do? There is good news as parents are in a great position to counteract some of what is going wrong.

This starts with not buying into the mindset that sees grades as the most important thing in life. Parents should know that their child’s happiness is more important than their academic success, and shouldn’t let anyone convince them otherwise. Reading, learning and exploring should be treated as enjoyable activities, adventures in curiosity, rather than hoops to jump through on the trudge towards academic “excellence”.

Inevitably, as the recent spate of tragedies in the school community have highlighted, major changes will need to be made to the underlying philosophy of education in Hong Kong. But perhaps the first step, for all of us, is asking children how they are doing, more often than we ask them how they did on their latest report card.

This article originally appeared in the SCMP Education Post.