What is history education all about?
Mrs Hong Chan Tsui Wah
Deputy Secretary for Education
History education is an indispensable part of whole-person education. In Hong Kong school curriculum, the secondary education includes Chinese History and History as subjects offered at the junior and senior secondary levels. The subjects enable students to explore the evolution of human civilisation from the past and learn about the history of our country and the world, so as to nurture their sense of national identity, a global perspective, and positive values and attitudes. During the course of history study, it is important for students to learn how to apply historical data and analyse problems from different perspectives. However, unlike other subjects, history education emphasises the ability to learn from the past and take history as a mirror, and there is a dimension of making ethical value judgment between right and wrong. Recently, there has been a heated debate in society over incidents of improper Chinese History teaching by individual teachers, the approaches adopted in some teaching materials as well as the biased and lopsided questions in the public examination. The views of the Education Bureau (EDB) are set out below:
Knowing the basic historical facts and training students' thinking
History education attaches great importance to students' ability to understand the basic facts of historical incidents. Take the topics of Opium Wars and Sino-Japanese relations in the first half of the 20th century as examples: the former requires students to understand the background of the Opium Wars, the harmful impact of opium trade, the process of banning opium by the Qing government, the triggering events and development of the Opium Wars, the signing of the Treaty of Nanking, the consequences of the Opium Wars, etc. The relevant teaching materials and textbooks must clearly and accurately set out the historical facts. On the other hand, one of the major aims of history education is to enable students to develop their sense of identity and belonging to their own nation and country from the national and cultural perspectives in the course of studying the history of their own country. Therefore, while students may be exposed to views on the Opium Wars from other perspectives (such as those from overseas countries alleging that the Opium Wars were the results of east-west cultural conflicts and expansion of British trade), at the stage of basic primary and secondary education, teachers should let students know clearly that the treaties signed after the Opium Wars were all unequal ones, and that in 1972, Hong Kong was removed from the list of colonies of the United Nations. Teachers should never allow students to treat themselves as uninterested bystanders. Nor should they instil viewpoints which deviate from the facts of historical development.
History education stresses the cultivation of students' ability to think from different perspectives. A common teaching approach used by teachers is to provide students with comprehensive historical facts as well as commentaries from different perspectives, followed by suitable guidance to enable students to develop analytical power and judgement through critical thinking, which lays the foundation for fostering proper values among students. Nevertheless, for historical incidents with strong and convincing conclusions, the materials selected should correctly reflect the facts of the incidents. This is particularly important for primary and secondary school students who are still at the stage of basic education. Educationists involved in primary and secondary history education should follow the requirements of the relevant subject curriculum to select materials supported by the mainstream views and opinions of academics, so as to help cultivate students' correct values on humanities, ethics and history from their early years of development.
Quality assessment questions which are comprehensive, objective and fair
Such an approach may also be adopted in setting assessment items or even in public examinations, subject to strict compliance with several basic principles. First, the topic in the question should be historical persons or events with adequate room for secondary school students to discuss based on historical research. Students should not be guided to discuss the so-called positive impacts in questions involving cardinal sins such as invasion, massacre, ethnic cleansing. No country will put these questions in their textbooks. Nor would they set examination questions to let students discuss the "good" and "harm" of such cardinal sins. This is based on the universal consensus of human conscience and empathy education towards the extreme suffering of humankind. The examination questions may require students to comment on the factors leading to the success and failure of the two sides, but this does not involve ethical value judgement. Nevertheless, in the History paper of the Hong Kong Diploma of Secondary Education Examination (HKDSE) this year, there is a question asking the candidates whether they agree that "Japan did more good than harm to China in the period 1900-1945". As we all know, Japan mounted several invasions of China during 1900-1945, causing tens of millions of deaths among the fellow countrymen. Some people have tried to rationalise this examination question by arbitrarily arguing that this is an open-ended question, which technically allows students to come up with the conclusions of more "harm" than "good" or even all harm and no good. All these are in fact out-focused sophistry. The relevant curriculum and normal teaching will not involve discussions with secondary school students about the "good" brought by the Japanese invasion of our country. How can we measure the so-called "good"? Who are the beneficiaries of the "good"? How can this be compared with the war casualties? Can the acceptance of foreign aid and invasion by a foreign country be presented as "good" and "harm" to be measured, compared or offset with each other?
Second, the ability an examination question requires candidates to manifest should be commensurate with their level of learning. Not all complicated issues can be presented in a simple but balanced and unbiased manner. Some academics pointed out long ago that even university academics need to take a lot of time to sort out the history in the first half of the 20th century, given the complicated entanglement and interactions among the related historical figures, people of different social classes, countries etc. This is further complicated by sophisticated considerations about the interplay of the social, economic and political forces. The level of learning at the secondary level under the relevant curriculum has not reached the point where students can analyse in detail the complexities of the Sino-Japanese relationship in the first half of the 20th century. It is therefore utterly unreasonable and meaningless to request a secondary school student to answer the question concerned, which is far beyond their ability, in about 20 minutes.
In addition, if a question in the History paper asks about different views from different perspectives, the source materials provided should not be lopsided towards one selected perspective, and should instead allow candidates to understand and analyse the core issues involved from different angles. For instance, in case of a data-based question asking about the causes of the First World War, the questions should cover different perspectives, such as the contemporary international relations, interests of individual countries and rise of nationalism, to assist the candidates in arriving at a fair and balanced conclusion. The HKDSE question asking candidates to discuss whether they agree that "Japan did more good than harm to China in the period 1900-45" only provides source materials lopsided towards the assistance Japan provided to China during the early 20th century period, and the weight of the information provided is grossly disproportionate to the atrocities of Japanese invasion of China. Furthermore, the information provided in the question must align with the scope of the question asked. The question covers the period between 1900 and 1945 but only provides source information between 1905 and 1912, thereby leading candidates to comment on a historical event spanning across a longer time space on the basis of incomplete source information. The question is seriously biased and lopsided and hence, extremely unsatisfactory.
Since the setting of the question is inherently faulty, the reliability and validity cannot be measured. Invalidation of the question is the only reasonable and responsible remedy which can best protect the candidates' interests.
More importantly, the Japanese invasion of China had resulted in tens of millions of deaths among the fellow countrymen. The public examination question guiding candidates to learn and ponder over the so-called "good" Japanese invasion brought to China against the extreme pain and suffering of invasion has gone out of line with the aim of the relevant curriculum. It may also seriously hurt the feelings and destroy the dignity of our fellow countrymen who suffered greatly during the Japanese invasion of China (including those surviving counter-Japanese veteran soldiers and righteous heroes), which runs counter to the very meaning of history education. No wonder the question has been seriously criticised by a lot of people in Hong Kong, and we feel terribly sad about this. Examination and assessment plays a role as a commanding baton, and it is unimaginable that one day our teachers may actually teach their students to weigh the various so-called "good" against the "bad" brought by Japan to China during this historical period.
Taking a multi-pronged approach in nurturing the next generation
History education is an onerous and long-term educational work in schools. Co-workers in the educational sector constantly endeavour towards the goal of enhancing students' correct understanding of history and cultivating their sense of national identity. We have introduced a serious of measures to strengthen students’ understanding of history, including stipulating Chinese History as an independent compulsory subject to which schools must allocate sufficient lesson time; and providing a one-off grant on the promotion of Chinese history and Chinese culture for schools to organise diversified activities to develop primary and secondary school students' capacity to appreciate and pass on the splendid spirit and civilisation of the Chinese nation. Further, to complement the newly revised curricula for the Chinese History and History subjects (Secondary 1 to 3), professional training for teachers, including history-related Mainland study tours, is enhanced. We will also collaborate with experts and academics to produce diversified learning and teaching materials and review the textbooks of these two subjects rigorously. Subsequent to the recent incidents of individual teachers incorrectly teaching the Opium Wars and the problematic HKDSE question, we have made special efforts to upload teaching materials developed by front-line professional teachers for public perusal to forestall possible public misunderstanding that all teachers of history education are unprofessional because of the mistakes of individual persons. We look forward to joining hands with teachers and the public to create a more positive and wholesome learning environment for students, and to foster students' virtuous character, as well as their sense of identity and belonging towards our country and nation. It is hoped that students can model after many great historical figures and demonstrate a sense of commitment to the country and nation.
When there are problems in the implementation of the curriculum and assessment, especially those involving educational and examination and assessment organisations, the EDB has the responsibility to safeguard the education profession and take appropriate remedial actions in the interest of students and the public. The education sector, including many educational institutions, veteran principals and teachers, as well as the media have all agreed that the HKDSE question concerned is seriously defective. The standard of the question is far below that of an acceptable examination question, and it cannot effectively assess the candidates' attainment in a comprehensive and objective manner. The EDB's request for the HKEAA to invalidate the examination question concerned aims at protecting the interest of candidates. On educational matters, the EDB is not an uninterested third party. Nor is the EDB a mere provider of resources shouldering no responsibilities on the quality of education. Therefore, it is completely legitimate for the EDB to express our views and propose appropriate remedial actions, and the allegation of political intervention in examination is totally ungrounded.
We strongly call on all educationalists of different teaching ranks and positions to reflect on our vision and mission in education. We should never let the reputation of our education profession be tainted.
17 May 2020