Mixed Pedagogy: ISF Academy Hong Kong

I recently had the opportunity to ask a board member of Hong Kong's ISF Academy "so, why do you insist on teaching P.E. in Chinese?"

ISF Academy (弘立) is an upstart International School in Hong Kong, established in 2000. The over-subscription rates in Hong Kong's better private schools is well-documented, but I am quite sure that ISF Academy is a leader in over-over-subscription. 

Here is how ISF describes itself on its website:

The ISF Academy:

  • Educates learners in a Chinese-English bilingual environment;
  • Anchors its values on the Eight Virtues plus One;
  • Nurtures curiosity, critical thinking, and a lifelong love of learning; and
  • Builds life skills through experiential learning.

Basically, they are offering a curriculum intense enough to develop high-functioning Chinese language skills, but in a Western, non force-fed, curiosity-stimulating format. To paraphrase how ISF insiders described it, their academy is high-octane Chinese with a Western Pedagogy. The Headmaster, Malcolm Pritchard, embodies this himself,  blending the Brahmin Anglo boarding school vibe with cracking Jiangnan-accented Chinese.  

Furthermore, in addition to the dual Western-Chinese cognitive stimuli, ISF is inculcating cross cultural values- with an emphasis on the Chinese core, I must assume to be a counterweight to the Western (largely American) internet culture that so dominates its students after school hours. (My little brother is a student- I know).

 As the board member rhetorically asked: "will your kid be a scientist who has to deliver a paper in Chinese? Will they be a businessperson who has to take tough questions, in-language, at a press conference?" The implication  is that "so-so" Chinese, "also-ran" conversational Chinese in those cases- is worthless. And I intend to agree. I recall my 10th grade High School Tennis Coach who said: "you are only as good as your second serve."  Down Love-40 that couldn't be truer.

The reason they teach P.E. in Chinese, and for that matter have a heavily overweight emphasis on Chinese up to Primary 5 is that they want to enable students to "think" in Chinese. I.e. if you default to counting in Chinese, or doing reps or laps in Chinese, you have a much more solid linguistic foundation. Under duress at the Science conference, or under a barrage of hostile questions- ISF assumes you will be in a better position under its method to find that one critical phrase, just when you need it. 

In the words of the board member: "stovepipes don't work." We talked about the current research that shows multiple and shifting language environments can actually make kids smarter. Even though the blocks of CHINESE, and the reams of homework assignments might suggest otherwise, ISF doesn't treat Chinese and English as discrete. They know that even if though the teachers are teaching these subjects, and testing and grading them discretely- in the students' minds and in their social interactions in Hong Kong and elsewhere, they will blend. ISF knows that- and its mission is founded upon the idea that these things/ideas will talk to each other. And in this and future economies parents want their kids to be right in the middle of that conversation.

I doubt that ISF, its Headmaster, or Board would describe their school as mixed. Education-industry folks are understandably, if not necessarily conservative, so that is no surprise. Mixed can be controversial as a term- I accept that. But, you be the judge if ISF and what it stands for is mixed.  

I think that Mixed is on the tip of everyone's tongue. I think that "purity" is something that we are conditioned to value. But when you look at schools like ISF- the new elite- the upstarts changing the game- mixed, in a thorough and deep sense, is the rule. And whether it is parents of Mainland Chinese origin, HK locals, or Westerners- the market demand speaks for itself.