Speech by Professor Arthur KC Li,
Secretary for Education and Manpower
at the Presentation Ceremony of the Hang Lung Mathematics Awards
17 December 2004
Prof. Lu, Prof. Yau, Mr Chan, Distinguished Guests, Ladies and Gentlemen,
It is indeed my great pleasure to be here this evening to take part in Hang Lung Mathematics Awards Presentation Ceremony – a very prestigious occasion which marks a milestone in the mathematics education of Hong Kong . I see among us renowned mathematicians and academics who have made significant contribution in the advancement of knowledge, as well as promising young people who would one day join the rank of distinguished mathematicians and scientists.
Mathematics is not only a specialised subject (and perhaps a difficult subject to many people) but also an essential tool to enable us to understand the world around us. It provides means to create, acquire, organize and apply knowledge. Many amazing advances in science and technology have their roots in mathematics and they would never have been possible without mathematical and computational models. The use of mathematics is commonplace in daily life, and its application is found in all aspects of our life and society, including economies, finance, medicine, science, technology, environment, and even in policy decisions. Advanced mathematics is even more widely used, but often in an unseen and unadvertised way. It is often said that advances are made with supercomputers. However, there has to be a mathematical theory, which guides the computer in terms of speed and accuracy in every step of its operation. Mathematics is involved in matters related to life and death too. For example, statistics is essential in analyzing the causes of illnesses and the effectiveness of new drugs. The importance of mathematics is universally recognised and mathematical sciences are in a period of unprecedented growth.
In this technologically complex and highly competitive era, we need to equip our students with a powerful set of tools, which include logical reasoning, problem solving skills, and the ability to think in abstract ways. As one of the key learning areas in our school curriculum, mathematics education aims not only to provide students with mathematical knowledge, but also to equip them with the necessary skills so that they can develop the capabilities to learn how to learn and the confidence to face the challenges of the knowledge-based society.
As you are aware, we are proposing a reform of our academic system. Under the new “3+3+4” academic structure, all students will have the opportunity to study the 3-year senior secondary course, with enhanced language and mathematical abilities and a broadened knowledge base. The 4-year undergraduate programme that follows will allow more time and space for broader and diversified learning experiences. This will widen students’ horizons and expose them to both specialized and broad knowledge for a more balanced whole-person development. The direction of our education reform will focus more on learning skills, generic abilities, attitudes and values. We hope children coming through our education system will not only be effective learners at school, but will remain as critical, reflective and independent thinkers after they leave school. We also hope that the solid foundation we build for our children can help some of them proceed confidently beyond first degrees to engage in more challenging research work.
We will continue to pay great attention to mathematics education in the new senior secondary curriculum. In addition to English, Chinese and Liberal Studies, Mathematics is also one of the four core and compulsory subjects. A distinctive feature of the new curriculum is its flexibility. The proposed senior secondary mathematics curriculum will consist of a Compulsory Part and an Elective Part. The Compulsory Part aims to provide a broad and balanced curriculum for all students. The Elective Part is designed for students who want more mathematical knowledge and skills for their future endeavours.
Apart from the formal curriculum, we also try to develop students’ interests and talents in mathematics through competitions and other activities. Since 2001, the Education and Manpower Bureau has launched the “Support Measures for the Exceptionally Gifted Students Scheme” to help nurture and develop the potential and talents of exceptionally gifted children. Parallel support for their parents and teachers is also organized to help strengthen their competence in nurturing and supporting talented students. Around 3000 secondary students with outstanding performance/potential in leadership, mathematics or sciences have joined the Scheme to participate in various enhancement programmes.
It is gratifying to know that our students have been making remarkable achievements in international studies and competitions, and we should really be proud of them. Hong Kong remains the top of the league in Mathematics in the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) which was announced last week. Our 15-year-old students also rank 2nd in problem solving and 3rd in science, which is the envy of many developed economies around the world. In the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) which was released just two days ago, our students also performed substantially better than their counterparts in other places. In mathematics, Hong Kong rank 3rd among the 46 participating economies at the 8th grade (ie our secondary 2), and 2nd among the 24 participating economies at the 4th grade (ie our primary 4). In science, we rank 4th at both levels, representing a big leap forward from the 1995 and 1999 results. It is interesting to note that the percentage of total instructional time intended for mathematics in Hong Kong was among the lowest in the participating economies, showing that our education system has been a very effective one.
Our students also fared well in a number of international and national mathematics competitions. At the 45th International Mathematical Olympiad, our team has won two silvers, two bronzes and two honourable mentions. Our students also won a silver award and 7 bronze awards in the National Mathematical Olympiad this year.
Traditional mathematics competitions can be one of the most enjoyable and valuable experiences in mathematics for many students as they can change students' attitudes about what they are learning and motivate students to do more challenging mathematics. However, it still requires a big leap from successes in school mathematics competitions to productive work in mathematics. A student can excel in school and in competitions by becoming adept at solving problems to which a standard answer or solution is already known to exist. To become a research mathematician, however, a person has to be able to identify and make progress on interesting problems that may yet have no solutions. Studies have, in fact, shown that research projects have the potential to stimulate students' learning and foster classroom engagement by stimulating their interest with a variety of challenging and authentic problem-solving tasks.
Unlike many speed competitions with questions that expect standard answers or solutions, the Hang Lung Mathematics Award emphasizes mathematical insight, creativity and originality. In addition to those traditional mathematics areas such as algebra, geometry, probability or analysis, other topics could be chosen from a very broad range of fields, such as applications in science, engineering, medical research, finance, logistics, transport, etc. In this regard, I am sure that the Hang Lung Mathematics Awards will further motivate secondary school students to develop research skills, to boost up their confidence and to promote success in their future pursuits.
Thanks to Mr Ronnie Chan whose vision and generous donation have made the Hang Lung Mathematics Awards a reality. Our gratitude should also go to Prof Shing-tung Yau for all his efforts in making the scheme a success. I would also like to thank the Institute of Mathematical Sciences of the Chinese University of Hong Kong , the Hong Kong Education City Limited and other donors for their generous contributions to the Awards. Thanks should also be given to all teachers and school heads for their encouraging support to students and their efforts in promoting mathematics education.
On this special occasion, I would like to pay a tribute to the late Professor Chern Shing-Shen, who was widely recognized as one of the greatest mathematicians of the 20th century. It is indeed a great pity that Prof Chern cannot be with us today. Prof Chern was one of the creators of modern differential geometry and also winner of numerous prestigious honors in mathematics. His research led to the development of the later-named Chern characteristic classes in fiber spaces that play a role in a wide area of mathematics and mathematical physics. Throughout his career, he has been known for his kindness, generosity, and contributions towards mathematics. Prof Chern is certainly a role model for all our students and also everyone here. His passing away is indeed our great loss and he will no doubt be missed. However, I am sure that he would be delighted to see our advancement and efforts towards building a strong and prosperous environment in the study of mathematical sciences.
Finally, I would like to congratulate all winners of the Hang Lung Mathematics Awards for their outstanding achievements and wish them every success in the future. I am sure, with our joint efforts, Hong Kong will continue to excel in Mathematics and other disciplines as well.