In the course of teaching and learning, I often hear people ask “Why do we need to learn such-and-such?”

I believe this is a question on the minds of many students under the old as well as new academic structures.

Under the old academic structure, Chinese Language, English Language and Mathematics were compulsory subjects and students who were entering Form 4 had to select their stream of study – Arts, Science or Commerce.  Quite a few Arts students would ask when studying Trigonometry, “Why should we learn the Law of Sines and Cosines?” To them, being able to add, subtract, multiply, divide and work out percentages would suffice for daily life. They see no point in acquiring knowledge that is “unrelated to their further studies and future career” and “inapplicable to daily life”. However, is it really “useless” knowledge?

In fact, when doing calculations, we are developing our logical thinking skills, which is more important than knowledge acquisition. Through studying, we can learn how to make observations and comparisons, perform analyses, draw conclusions and inferences, form judgements as well as express ourselves succinctly in a rational manner. While all these may not be considered readily applicable “skills”, they are necessary for sensible and logical thinking. We study, not only for academic knowledge, but also for a long-term goal.

Nevertheless, in today’s commercial world, speed and efficiency are prized qualities, and learning without seeing immediate “effects” is not supported by parents and students in general. The new senior secondary curriculum has failed to change the students’ instant gratification mindset even though it has broken with the tradition of streaming students into the fields of Arts, Science and Commerce. By designating Chinese Language, English Language, Mathematics and Liberal Studies as core subjects, and combining these with a variety of electives, the new curriculum broadens students’ horizons and nurtures their life-long learning abilities.

Taking Chinese Language as an example, students often ask the following questions:  “Why do I need to learn Chinese Language? (I can communicate in Chinese in daily life.)”; “Why do I need to learn grammar? (Everyone understands what I’m saying.)”; “Why do I need to learn classical Chinese? (It’s already outdated.)” It is undeniable that most Hong Kong students can communicate in Chinese in daily life. However, does it mean that they are proficient in this language? To illustrate this point, let’s consider the case of overseas travel. We may be able to communicate with the local people in their language without any hindrance to mutual understanding despite using grammatically incorrect sentences. This shows that there is actually a gap between daily communication and the correct use of language.

Language is the vehicle of thought. Learning grammar facilitates our use of proper sentences to effectively express ourselves. As for classical Chinese, since it recorded the cultural wisdom of our ancestors, it could help us when we encounter different situations in life. Without learning it, how could we grasp its essence and use it in today’s society? A considerable number of tycoons have been known to take inspiration from the philosophy and strategies of Lao Zi and Zhuang Zi as well as The Art of War by Sun Zi when making business plans with the aim of finding repeated  success by drawing on ancient people’s wisdom.

Attitude determines not only altitude but also depth and breadth. No matter how the curriculum may change, it is merely a supporting hardware. The learner’s attitude is the most important. If we take a long-term view instead of focusing on instant gratification, we can learn much more and go much further ahead.

(Source of photos: Wikimedia Commons)