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This week I wanted to write an article on the importance of fun in learning. But after the events in Mong Kok over Lunar New Year I found it impossible

to think about fun in the context of education. After all, the protesters I had seen on video throwing bricks and trash bins at the police, weren't they all products of the local education system? And doesn't that point to a failure of the system far greater than anything that can be rectified by making learning more fun?

Like most Hong Kong people I was deeply shocked by the violent nature of the protests in Mong Kok. Behavior like this occurs from time to time in cities all over the world, but it is not something that we have come to expect in Hong Kong, where the high levels of personal safety are immediately apparent to anyone who relocates here. And while it would be wrong to simply pin the blame for the actions of the protesters on the limitations of their education, local classrooms may be a good place to start when looking for long-term solutions to the problem of civil unrest here. For if education is, as Nelson Mandela asserted, "the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world", then any attempt to improve civil society needs to be rooted in what happens in schools.

This may sound like the prelude to a proposal for a more authoritarian approach to education here, but in fact it is nothing of the kind. For one of the fundamental problems in contemporary Hong Kong society, it seems to me, is the polarization of views on everything from constitutional reform to funding for infrastructure, and this kind of group polarization - a phenomenon in social psychology in which individuals tend to take standpoints that are more extreme in groups than they would do on their own - is less likely to occur in a society where the citizens have been taught to think for themselves.

When I was at university, I had the privilege of experiencing a tutorial system of education. What this meant in practice was that, twice a week, I had to defend an essay I'd written against the relentless questioning of my tutors. And since these tutors obviously had a far greater understanding of the subject matter than I did, the outcome was inevitable: I came off second best. But that did not mean that my views were necessarily invalid. In fact after one particular tutorial, in which I had defended my position so badly I was thinking of abandoning it altogether, my tutor turned to me and said, "Actually I agree with your argument." And at that point I realized that things are not always black and white, that there is more than one way of looking at an issue. The important thing is to have an open mind.

Now, obviously a tutorial system is too expensive to implement on a large scale. But with a bit of creativity and flexibility it should be possible to achieve the essential goal of the system - the cultivation of an open mind - within the confines of mainstream education.

One excellent way of opening students' minds is to introduce them to debating. This is actually a fairly well-established activity in Hong Kong already, with organizations like the Hong Kong Secondary Schools Debating Competition running regular inter-school debating contests for local students. In addition to providing students with an opportunity to practice their language skills, these contests offer them a framework in which to build up their confidence and gain a deeper understanding of contemporary issues.

Debating can also be practiced in the classroom, where teachers can tone down the procedural aspects of formal debates in order to focus on the language and content of students' speeches, as well as the underlying skills of collaboration and communication. Debating can even be taught as part of the New Senior Secondary (NSS) curriculum, since it is one of the elective modules for English Language. With schools required to choose only one elective from a choice of debating, sports communication, workplace communication and social issues, however, in practice few students end up studying it.

Nevertheless, in a society where exam results are regarded as all-important, the inclusion of debating in the NSS curriculum undoubtedly has a positive washback effect, not only for schools but also for society in general. For a strong foundation in debating helps students to become more aware of the complexity of the issues around them, and prevents them from falling into the trap of simplistic thinking and dogmatic intolerance. It is, in other words, the perfect antidote to the kind of violence we saw in Mong Kok over Lunar New Year.

(HK Edition 02/24/2016 page10)