Friday, April 21, 2006

Tsai Yuan-Pei (蔡元培) in Hong Kong

A while ago I learned that Tsai Yuan-Pei’s grave is in Hong Kong. Actually he lived in Hong Kong for several years before he died. He was, of course, one of the most esteemed persons in modern China, particularly in education and culture. He was a 進士 in the Tsing dynasty, participated in the revolution leading to the establishment of the Republic of China, was minister of education, but quitted the post when he became dissatisfied with the warlords then ruling China. He was the president of the University of Beijing for 10 years, contributing tremendously to the modernization of Chinese culture and the reputation of the University of Beijing. During the May 4 movement, he came to the rescue of the students arrested by the government. In 1938, he came to Hong Kong to treat his ailment. He died in Hong Kong in 1940, and was buried in 香港仔華人永遠墳場「資」字號地段.

His grave happens to be in the same cemetery as my grandparents. So I would pay my respects once or twice a year, each time I visit my grandparents. Attached is a picture taken on April 5 this year (2006). It can be seen that the place has been tidied and someone placed some flowers there. I have never seen anyone there at the grave site so far. But every time I was there, the site was clean and tidy, so obviously someone has been taking care of the site. I have taken my daughters there, explained his contribution to the modernization of China and to the students of China in particular, and hope that he will continue to be remembered. I would on occasion mention him to my students in our university. Unfortunately, not too many students are familiar with him.

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Teaching as Mass Production in University

The teaching that is going on in universities in Hong Kong is changing rapidly. Classes are getting bigger as government funding is reduced. The background of the students studying the same subject is increasingly diversified as the entrance requirements and paths are liberalized, and programs of studies are made more flexible.

As a result it is getting harder and harder for the professor to tailor the teaching to suit the student. With 100 students sitting together in the same classroom, it is impossible for the professor even to get to know the names of many of the students, by the end of the 14 week semester. How can the professor possibly find out the characteristics of each of the students and teach accordingly? How do you teach computer programming to 100 students, 30 with programming experience acquired in secondary school or junior college, 30 with relatively strong mathematical and science background, and another 40 with arts background and little mathematics? What can the professor do but to pretend that all students are equal and feed them the same menu?

Student-based learning has been touted as the direction to go, in which the student takes charge of his or her own learning, with the professor more as a facilitator than a provider in the process of learning. The students in Hong Kong, however, have been trained for 13 years in a examination-driven, rigid curriculum where every single detail is prescribed. How can they be expected to miraculously switch to a student-based learning mode when they enter university?

In a typical secondary school there are about 40 students in a class, and in the last 2 years typically much less. In the first year in university the class size in the first year is much more likely to be 100 or more. With much frequent contact and a much larger class, what choices does a professor have, but to adopt mass production techniques?

I did my best to get to know my students’ names and what they are like. But it feels like a losing battle all the time.