Through Fulbright, Hanstedt helps Hong Kong transform its educational system

Higher Education in Hong Kong is undergoing a dramatic transformation, evolving from a three-year British model to a four-year American model. A Roanoke College professor was there to help develop the new general education curriculum, finding striking similarities with developments in the U.S.

Until 2000, most Hong Kong students attended secondary school for five years, until age 16. The best students went on to attend two more years of secondary education, and the top half of that class - about 18 percent of the age-eligible population - were admitted to one of Hong Kong's eight public universities, free of charge.

"Understandably, this creates an atmosphere of intense competition," says Paul Hanstedt, professor of English, and one of several Fulbright Scholars who advised the Hong Kong universities. "It results in a student population that perceives 'education' to be the consumption of finite bytes of information in preparation for an exam. Students expect professors to lecture, providing them with as many facts as possible in a given period of time."

Hong Kong university graduates were brilliant - scoring near the top of international assessments of math and science - but Hong Kong businesses and employers weren't hiring them.

"Those students were very, very, very good at taking exams," he says. "They were extremely knowledgeable in their fields. But by the time a student leaves the university, everything they learned may have already changed."

Employers preferred the hire the students who, not quite good enough for the Hong Kong university system, went on to study at U.S., British or Australian institutions. Employers wanted graduates of general education programs, who were able to adapt to new situations.

To better prepare students, Hong Kong universities are developing an educational system that can respond to these needs, experimenting with a new curricula that focuses on general education - previously overlooked in Hong Kong -- and interdisciplinary learning.

Hanstedt was well-suited to helping the country make these changes. He was one of the campus leaders in Roanoke College's revision of its general education program, and he consults with universities both in the United States and abroad about matters of liberal education, course design, and writing pedagogies.

Many of the conversations are the same. "How do we engage students in their own learning? How do we get them to think beyond the test? How can we inspire in them the life of the mind?" he says. "Along the way, professors begin to understand that whole-person education requires whole-person teaching. Our engagement with students must extend beyond the classroom into the areas where we question our own ideas, take intellectual risks, and find the real joy of our work."

"Coming home, I felt like I'd learned a lot about the overall complexity of these changes," he says. "Many times college faculty are rewarded for focusing very narrowly on their work. But that's the opposite of what we need to teach our students." Faculty are often justifiably wary - or at least weary - of the process, of the change and demands it puts on them.

In May 2012, Hanstedt literally wrote the book on the subject, publishing "General Education Essentials:  A Guide for College Faculty" (Jossey-Bass/Wiley).

"I wanted to write a book that would explain what's happening at an institutional level and why, and offer some solutions," he says. "I want to reassure faculty that it's a good thing to have that student who's not in your field, who has little interest, to have an opportunity to explain why what you do really matters and why they should care."

Curricular reform - either on campus or half a world away - is a leap of faith.

"Hong Kong's experiment should be applauded," Hanstedt says. "And it should be watched with great attention on both sides of the Pacific for what it can tell us about Asia as well as what it can tell us about ourselves."

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