The End of the Liberal Studies Era

Liberal Studies in Hong Kong’s senior secondary curriculum marks its official end in 2023. The subject has been renamed as Citizenship and Social Development with major changes in the subject’s curriculum and assessment method. Senior secondary students will be sitting for Liberal Studies exams for the last time in the Hong Kong Diploma of Secondary Education (HKDSE) examination on April 27.

Liberal Studies was first introduced in 2009 as one of the four core subjects in the new “3+3+4” academic structure. The new structure was meant to further improve Hong Kong’s education system through the introduction of a new curriculum, an additional year of compulsory secondary education, and a unified public examination. Liberal Studies was positioned as a subject for students to connect knowledge across different disciplines and expand their perspectives beyond single disciplines.

“Reforming the academic structure entails wide-ranging changes which have far-reaching implications for the whole community. Success in implementation requires the attainment of the critical pre-conditions including the development of a new senior secondary curriculum, a new public examination and assessment mechanism, a smooth interface with university programmes and articulation with different pathways for further studies, vocational training and employment,” said Arthur Li Kwok-cheung, then Secretary for Education and Manpower, in a report on the new senior secondary academic structure published by the Education and Manpower Bureau in May 2005.

With an issue-enquiry approach to teaching, the subject aims to “broaden students‘ knowledge base and enhance their social awareness through the study of a wide range of issues”, according to the subject’s Curriculum and Assessment Guide published by education authorities in 2007. The subject also aims to equip students with a range of skills for life-long learning, including critical thinking skills, creativity, problem-solving skills, communication skills, and information technology skills.

Taking up no less than 10% of the total lesson time in the overall three-year senior secondary curriculum, LS has six study modules. See below for more information on the modules.

Despite widespread public support for the implementation of Liberal Studies, increasing controversies surrounding the subject arise since its implementation. With strong youth presence in many social movements, such as the 2011 anti-national education movement, the 2014 Umbrella Movement, and the 2019 Anti-Extradition Bill Movement, the subject has been frequently criticized by government officials and pro-establishment figures for having biassed teaching materials and radicalizing students.

Although the subject was initiated by Tung’s administration, the former Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa has called Liberal Studies a “failure” after the 2019 protests, blaming it for instigating violence among young people.

Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor, the incumbent Chief Executive during the 2019 protests, also criticized the subject for alienating and mistaking students to take critical thinking as “objecting to everything”.

In the past 10 years, controversies surrounding Liberal Studies have been arising constantly. Its problems did not appear today, its problems have been appearing since day one.

said Lam, during a radio show in November 2020.

Following fierce attacks from the government and pro-establishment groups, the government announced plans for reform for Liberal Studies in November 2020. After recommendations made by the Task Force on Review of School Curriculum set up in 2017, the Education Bureau (EDB) announced finalized reform details in a Circular Memorandum issued in April 2021.

(Video credit: Eric Lam)

Revamping the entire subject

With much greater focus placed on cultivating students’ national identity and understanding of the rule of law, the new subject Citizenship and Social Development will include three themes, namely (1) Hong Kong under “One Country, Two Systems”, (2) Our Country since Reform and Opening-up, (3) Interconnectedness and Interdependence of the Contemporary World, in its curriculum, reducing from the six areas of studies in liberal studies.

The new subject was implemented in September 2021 for all Form Four students in Hong Kong.

[Citizenship and Social Development] will strengthen students’ knowledge foundation through a better understanding of issues related to Hong Kong, the Country, and the World. At the same time, it can relieve students from the pressure of examinations, lessen class time, and create more space for students. Hence, it allows better structuring of the senior secondary curriculum.”

said Kevin Yeung Yun-hung, former Secretary for Education.

Words from the last batch of Liberal Studies students

Following the announcement of scraping the entire Liberal Studies curriculum in spring 2021, Raymond Yeung Man-lok and Danny Chung Ka-kwan who are F.4 students at the time became the last batch of Liberal Studies DSE candidates overnight, and they will face their assessment in late April this year with the help of their LS private tutor Jessica Yeung Yin-ying, a 2019 DSE candidate and final year student in the University of Hong Kong. 

When asked about how they felt about being the last of LS DSE candidates, Raymond said he did not feel particularly special about it. “I treat it as a normal examination, and I am a candidate for the examination.” “People may think we are special because we are the last batch of students,” Danny added.

“I think the module ‘Hong Kong Today’ has made me know more about what is happening now in Hong Kong,” said Raymond when asked if he likes studying Liberal Studies. Danny also shared a similar point of view, but he also stressed that he does not like the subject’s assessment method. 

“I like the topics taught in LS because they are quite interesting, but I always need to write a lot for LS assignments, so generally speaking, I do not like LS very much,” Danny said.

The Liberal Studies test consisted of short and long essay questions that required students to express their arguments backed with evidence in a short period of time. The questions are often politically themed and are often criticised as being too demanding for secondary school youngsters.

On the other hand, the new CSD curriculum base its assessments more on questions with a standard answer than that open-ended questions, meaning that students are likely to get the questions right if they recite their course material. Referring to a sample DSE paper released by the HKEAA, a considerable proportion of exam questions, including multiple choice questions,  are dedicated to testing candidates’ understanding of the national security law base on the information provided in a data booklet. Moreover, the new subject is only graded in a “pass-fail” manner, providing much fewer incentives for students to study the subject proactively.  

The sample CSD 2024 DSE question paper posted by the HKEAA. (Screenshot from HKEAA website) 

Although LS may not appear to be an easy subject to them, both students said they would still study LS if they had the choice to choose between the two subjects. “LS has helped with my ability to think critically,” said Danny, adding that studying CSD may be less demanding and time-consuming, and it might be a benefit because students can allocate more time to other subjects.

Encouraging “critical thinking” is admittedly one of the main aims of Liberal Studies education. However, in recent years, various government officials expressed concerns about how critical thinking is being delivered and received in LS. Legco member Ip Lau Suk-yee even criticised the concept of critical thinking was translated wrongly, misleading students into thinking that the act of criticising is equivalent to critical thinking. 

When asked about their opinions on Lau’s speech, Jessica thought that it is seemingly unreasonable for the government officials to point fingers at LS for misleading students in determining what is right and wrong, or even inciting aggressive sentiments among students.

Jessica is a final year HKU student and a part-time LS tutor. (Photo credit: Candice Lim)

“The LS modules discuss some rather sensitive yet common concepts such as civic revolutions and protests, but these pretty much happen in different places all around the world. In my opinion, it is unnecessary to scrap the subject.” said Jessica. 

A chapter named “The Rule of Law and Socio-political Participation” is included in the “Hong Kong Today” module of the LS curriculum. (Photo credit: Candice Lim)

In the revised CSD curriculum, topics on protests, political parties and civic revolutions etc. are substituted by the national security law and government policies in order to better establish students’ sense of belonging towards the country. 

Raymond expressed his doubt about whether the new CSD subject can solidify students’ concept of citizenship with the example of Hong Kong athletes earning a handful of medals from the 2022 Tokyo Olympic Games. “Hong Kong athletes earnt many medals from the Olympic Games, and that has increased Hong Kong people’s sense of belonging to the city. I think citizenship comes from one’s sense of belonging to the city, but not from a subject,” said Raymond. 

From Student to Educator: What’s Next for LS Teachers?

The subject replacement caused many issues and controversies in society. An LS teacher would like to share his observations on the subject and the future of LS teachers.

Johnson Chan is an LS teacher in a school in the Eastern District, he chose Liberal Studies Education as his major when he was an undergraduate student.

While some in the society suggested that LS might be a factor in stirring up social unrest and making the younger generation become more arrogant, Chan said this is distrust towards educators and overthinking the students.

Chan suggested that teachers do not have a great impact on students’ behaviours directly. He suggested that the concern would only happen only when students slavishly accept what the teacher has said, and teachers are expressing their opinion in an unprofessional manner. He thinks it seems to perceive students as too naive and shows their distrust of teachers.

He said the design and rationale of LS are to provide flexibility for both teacher and student, instead of installing a standard answer into students’ minds. He added that teachers would try their best to present the content unbiasedly, even though they may have different political stances. “If students have a fixed mindset toward political issues, teachers have the responsibility to present different stances to students, even if students may not like the stance,” said Chan. 

Under the new structure of the CSD, half of the topic is reduced or deleted from the syllabus. Chan said “Personal Development and Interpersonal Relationship” is the actual module being cancelled, while the other two modules are dissolved into other units.

He personally suggested that “Personal Development and Interpersonal Relationship” benefit students the most, as it includes knowing more about students’ behaviours, feelings, romantic relationships, social relationships, relationships with their families, and their life planning under their personal development. He added that LS sometimes is like a life-planning subject, which deals with difficulties students face when they grow up.

“There are no good or bad, but just applying to ‘different situations,” commented Chan on the cancellation of the module.

For the impact on students, Chan said he observed that students’ abilities in written expression are weaker if they are studying CSD, as less class time for the CSD subject means students may have less training on the abilities of expression compared to the past.

While the grading method of the subject is changed from letter grading to pass-or-fail grading, some in society suspected that teachers might not be as passionate as before when they are teaching the subject.

Chan however thinks the teaching attitude in CSD depends on teachers’ teaching style and students’ abilities.

He suggested that the learning abilities of the students in some schools are relatively weaker, who also have weaker language skills and abilities of critical thinking. Chan said those underprivileged students may have difficulties processing words and information, which ended up with a lower Interest and motivation in learning LS. CSD may then be easier for them.

But he reiterated that teachers’ responsibility is to interpret those contents and try to maintain the fairness of the information they taught, no matter what the syllabus and content are.

But he admitted that there is no concrete information on the assessment of the subject and they cannot estimate what a “pass” is for this subject, as the first-year CSD exam will be next year. Chan suggested that the actual situation depends on the passing rate, whereas the passing rate of Liberal Studies previously was around 89% to 90%.

A line graph showing the percentage of students passing or attaining Level 2 or above for the LS DSE examination from 2012 to 2022. (Data source: HKEAA)

Chan observed that students’ attitude towards the subject is that they don’t want to spend too much time on the subject or just want a “pass.” And he thinks this mindset could spread to students in different years when they need to study this subject. “I don’t think the subject (CSD) is easier to teach, but indeed requires more effort to deal with the information of the subject and students’ reactions,” said Chan.

When asked why Chan wanted to be an LS teacher and why he is still staying in his position as an LS and CSD teacher, Chan said this is a very difficult decision for him.

Chan said he is a first-year LS student and delighted to be the last-year LS teacher. When he was a secondary student, he thought LS enriched his knowledge in different aspects and hoped to pass the experience on to the next generation.

He said CSD is a substitution for LS, but the design of the curriculum and rationale of the subject is quite different. He found that the new subject revokes the knowledge he learnt in his five-year undergraduate studies as an LS educator.

I hope I can pass this experience on to the next generation. The subject no longer serves the purpose or is replaced, does it mean I have finished my mission?”

Johnson Chan

Chan is teaching final-year LS students at his school and is considering changing his job after his students graduate.

We tried to contact several government officials for comments, but none of them responded.

(Video credit: Eric Lam)

(Featured image: Candice Lim)

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