Feb 5 2012 Like many youngsters in Hong Kong, six-year-old Audrey Lee and her seven-year-old sister Andrea attend enrichment classes after school. But instead of bolstering their language or maths levels, the girls are learning another lesson that is just as important for their personal growth: how to be a decent human being.
In a lesson review at JEMS Learning House, they race to answer questions about what they learned the week before. 'Name something that makes you special,' the teacher asks. 'My face,' Andrea replies.
Her mother, Elsephine Lee, is pleased with the changes her daughters have shown since they started going to JEMS last year. 'Audrey used to be rather narrow-minded. She is more caring now. They learned about building relationships. They had a quarrel once, but reconciled quickly.'
Lee has also enrolled her youngest, three-year-old Bernice, in JEMS' junior classes to bring some positive influences to her life. 'She is a bully at home,' she says.
Set up three years ago, JEMS, which stands for Junior Excellent Members of Society, claims to be the only learning centre in Hong Kong that focuses on character education. The idea is to help children become satisfied, happy people rather than mere grade seekers. Its curriculum revolves around three key areas of identity, relationships and community.
The centre's founder, Christine Ma Lo-ming, has no doubt about the importance of instilling positive values among children in the formative years.
'Six-year-olds are so much more open. They are like sponges. They take it all in,' says Ma, who holds a master's degree in education from the University of Pennsylvania. 'Twelve-year-olds already have their own way of thinking.'
As both parents are often out at work these days, they have less time to spend with their children. Ma says this leaves a gap in values education which her centre can fill. She feels her classes can complement those at school. Although moral and civic education is part of the school curriculum, she doubts that students can get much guidance in large classes.
'Character education is important for people,' Ma says. 'A lot of parents come to me and say, 'I want to teach my children to be thankful'. The focus may be different for affluent people, but even for a very low-income family, you still need to teach your children to be thankful for what they have.
'Otherwise, they will never be happy. There are plenty of people who are affluent and not happy with what they have. And there are non-affluent people who are happy with what they have. It's about whether you have a positive or negative outlook on life. It's not so much about your circumstances as it is about your character and the way you perceive things.'
Some community groups share Ma's view on the need for instilling positive values among youngsters. The Boys' & Girls' Clubs Association of Hong Kong set up its Growth and Development Centre to help young people take responsibility for themselves, and develop problem solving, people and other life skills.
Children growing up in comfortable homes with helpers and doting parents often need a boost with personal development, says centre director Wong Mei-ling.
'Schools tend to focus on academic performance,' she says. 'Many children today are the only one, or one of two children in a family, and there is no lack of attention for them. Our training helps them develop values like a sense of responsibility. In some camps, we have primary or junior secondary students going out to do grocery shopping and then cook meals together.'
The concepts are introduced through small-group classes, overnight camps, games and other fun activities for youngsters from age three to 16. The centre also runs classes held over several weeks on topics like emotional management or how to deal with adversity. 'In some classes for junior primary students we teach them to do crafts for their parents to show their appreciation for them,' says Wong.
The Federation of Youth Groups also runs activities at its Youth Spot centres to foster values like social concern among youngsters. Last summer, its centre in Lohas, Tseung Kwan O, organised children to distribute rice to elderly people in the area. This year, it plans to take children on shopping trips to educate them against wasteful spending habits, says youth work officer Indy Li Hang-lam.
At JEMS, activities are organised around a different theme each month. In December, when the theme was thankfulness, students hosted a Christmas-themed English workshop and games with a nearby kindergarten, attended by many children from low-income families.
At the end of each school year, JEMS pupils are also put in charge of a fund-raising event, making raffle tickets and goods to sell in aid of local charities. Last year an impressive HK$100,000 was raised for Orbis, a charity that deals with impaired sight, and the Ebenezer School and Home for the Visually Impaired.
To learn about perseverance, students took part in an ice cube challenge in which each was given an ice cube embedded with 10 cent coin. They were asked to retrieve the coin by melting the cube with their hand. It was tough, but the children asked to keep the coin as soon as they fulfilled the task. 'You have to endure something before you can reach a goal,' Ma says.
There is no end to what one can learn in character education, she says.
'It is lifelong learning. There is always more to add to each segment, For example, perseverance means something quite different to a six-year-old than a 12-year-old. In their first year, we teach our students the idea of responsibility, for example, being responsible with their personal belongings at home, [or with] their time; in the second year, we teach them to be responsible with the internet [and] their emotions.
'Different issues at different stages give us a wealth of things to talk about,' says Ma, who draws up the curriculum herself. Although many resources on character education are available from the United States, she decided to create her own version to suit the local context, albeit in English because of the 'limitations' of her Chinese.
Ma, 30, says it was her experiences growing up that fired her passion for working with youngsters. She remembers being very quiet and shy as a child. She did badly in maths in Primary One, and one teacher, who gave her a harsh assessment, went so far as to suggest to her mother that she was a lost cause.
A year later, the young Christine became a different person after her family moved to England. Ma says she owes much of her transformation to a music teacher at her new school, who quickly spotted her personal strengths.
When asked to introduce herself, Ma could not think of anything good to say. Yet the teacher pointed out three positive things about her even though they had met only once.
'It was a turning point for me and things were different from then on,' she recalls. 'I ended up doing very well in school. I joined a sports team and did very well in maths.'
But Ma says her parents have always been the prime role models. The values that her father, Frederick Ma Si-hang, former secretary for Commerce and Economic Development, and her mother, Linda, a Christian event organiser, instilled in her still shape how she interacts with children and develops programmes for her centre.
'I am forever grateful to them for letting me go into education as a career ... Most parents want their children to be lawyers, investment bankers or accountants,' Ma says.
Education is not a lucrative line of work, she adds: 'This is not a career which is focused on making money. I am doing what I do to help children.'
Her centre's mission is important, but Ma says there is no substitute for the effect that parents have as role models in a child's life.
One mother she knows stopped sending her daughter to a music teacher after the girl told her the teacher had scolded the family helper. That, she thinks, sent a good message to the child.
Ma believes that it's all about the environment a child learns in.
'If you put a child with someone who is great at teaching something but they swear or complain, you are not giving them the best environment in which to grow up,' she says.
Ma communicates with parents frequently about their children's progress, but the last thing she wants is for them to rely on JEMS entirely.
'For us to be effective, it has to be a partnership of us, parents and schools,' she says.
'If we are building a child's confidence at the centre and yet they are told in school they are useless, we have alleviated the situation, but we have not fixed it.'