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Motivation: Quest for meaning
The education system of Hong Kong is characteristic of keen competition. Everything is ranked. For example, majority of local primary schools are ranked in terms of the percentage of school students entering prestigious high schools. High schools are ranked by their students performance over their university entrance examination and proportion of enrollment by local and or overseas universities.
In most high schools, students are ranked by different indicators like individual ranking by total scores of all subjects and or subjects. It may take into account of the number of extra-curricular classes and types of sports and musical performance and the like.
One of my students who has completed her primary education from a private school rejecting the practice of ranking students, entered into a highly competitive catholic girls school in 2013. She told me that she was very worried about her ranking in the school. Her high school groups students of each grade into classes by ability. At the end of this academic year, she was very concerned about her chance of getting into the high ability class, she tried her best in the year end examination though.
While she was aware of her talent and intellectual abilities, she felt it unfair to be ‘classified’ as low ability class. Driven by fear, she tried so hard to convince herself to earn good grades for the competitive tests and examinations of the school. It is nothing to do with the level of difficulty in school learning. What bothers her is lacking motivation to revise learning materials which are too easy or factual. She forced herself to memorize all the factual information in order to stay competitive enough to promote to the high ability class in the following year. In the past, she studied for mastery reaching personal goal for excellence. In other word, she is doing things against her will just for surviving the competitive education environment.
Last week, a few days before the new school term, she came to see me trembling. She showed me her smart phone that she received a whatsapp message from her classmate who went to school to find the release of student list by different ability classes.
My student dares not reading these student lists because she doesn’t want to see the bullies and other trouble makers going to the same class with her. Therefore she wants me to read for her and tell her which class she has been assigned to.
She is assigned to the elite class! Then she frowns.
She reflects that she has to do all the competitive assessments making her eligible for the elite class next year. She is not happy that she has to work hard on learning materials not motivating at all for the sake of getting competitive scores. She asks me how she is going to survive in an learning environment lacking intellectual challenge and opportunities to develop her genuine interests. She wants to learn something motivating enough that she has to stretch her limit of abilities.
In retrospect, she was a motivated student in the primary school striving for her best. Her teachers understand her as an individual.
In a school environment where student motivation is tied to performance and social comparison, gifted and talented students find it suffocating and distracted towards meritocracy. My student is just one of the victims struggling with motivational issues.
Sadly, she is not alone.