Mar 1 2016
Seven years ago, when Christine Ma- Lau Lo-ming told parents that her newly established learning center would focus on teaching character education, most would give her a blank look.
"What do you mean by teaching character? Like cartoon characters?" she said, recalling the questions that parents often raised. "They had no idea. Till this day now, when we talk about character [education], more people know what it is even they don't call it that."
Coined social emotional skills, positive education or positive parenting by academics, character education is only one of the umbrella terminologies used to describe helping children develop a set of good character traits that hold the key to happiness and success in their later years.
The doctrine advocates the explicit teaching of character building in classroom - just like how English or mathematics is taught as an academic subject, believing that will give people the vocabulary to define what different character traits mean.
"If you ask people how to define integrity, I would say that most people don't really know how to define it," Ma- Lau said.
"In that case, how do you use it outside of that context if you don't even have the vocabulary?"
Explicit teaching is important because it prevents children from going the wrong way as they know the real consequences for bad behavior, she added.
It also gives parents the tools to teach character at home.
Ma-Lau, the eldest daughter of MTR Corporation chairman Frederick Ma Si-hang, holds a bachelor's degree in philosophy and economics from the London School of Economics and Political Science, and a master's degree in education from the University of Pennsylvania.
She had been teaching English privately and psychology at international schools - but was frustrated with what was offered in education locally. There was too much emphasis on intellect and extracurricular activities, but too little on cultivating characters and moral values.
"Education isn't about just raising people that are intelligent, academically strong or have a huge knowledge base," she said.
"It's about preparing people to be successful in their future lives and to be someone who can contribute to our society."
Therefore, Ma-Lau founded Junior Excellent Members of Society, nicknamed JEMS, in 2009. The learning center in Wan Chai teaches a curriculum that she designs for children from two to twelve years old.
The curriculum is built on three core definitions around identity, relationship and community. It branches out to cover nine character focuses: uniqueness, responsibility, perseverance, respect, friendship, teamwork, empathy, compassion and giving.
"We came up with a unique curriculum that focuses on a person's identity, looking at their own values - what they believe in, how they view themselves, their own self-awareness and self- confidence," Ma-Lau explained.
"We then look at relationships - how you can build relationships with other people, what it means to show respect to other people, how to work in a team, how to compromise when necessary and how to negotiate.
"And last but definitely not least, the greater community - how can even young people understand the needs of different people in the community and contribute to the needs of different people in the society."
The five-step teaching process - a mix of storytelling, reading, writing and experiential learning - is used, from giving children a general understanding of what character means to defining and explaining the nine foci, modeling them, how to apply them and self- reflection.
"The younger ones do more arts and crafts. The older ones do more teamwork-based activities like putting together a business plan to raise money for charities in an annual charity carnival," she said.
Teachers at the learning center will also guide students on personal issues such as tackling bullying, planning for their future and handling disagreements with their parents.
Parents receive an individualized assessment about their child every month. They also meet the teachers every three months to discuss their child's progress.
The learning center started out with 30 students; it now enrolls a few hundred into an annual program and various holiday programs. Tuition varies from a few hundred dollars to several thousand. All lessons are taught in English, with a maximum of six children per class.
The one-year program is the most popular, with students coming from top schools, such as St Paul's Co- educational College and St Stephen's College. The parents who send their children to the learning center are mostly highly educated professionals.
Eyeing a bigger dream, Ma-Lau expanded the learning center to a second floor last month to hold more parenting activities. She has also recently started the JEMS Foundation to bring her character education programs to children from different backgrounds.
"The heart of founding JEMS is not about starting a learning center. That was the first step of a much bigger dream," she said. "The dream is to make Hong Kong into a city that cares, and have people that have a strong character value."
The foundation will hold the first Character Day in the SAR in September.
It is also exploring possibilities of working with nongovernment organizations, primary schools and universities to promote character education.
"We have limitations," she said.
"To go into a different community, of people who predominantly speak Chinese, it would be a totally different thing. So we are trying to figure out what would best suit the needs of people in the community and how we can meet them."