Get Closer to Ms Willow
In order to gain entry to some of the top Universities such as Cambridge and Oxford, what are some of the criteria the interviewer would look for beside academic results?
W：There are many students who can achieve amazing grades at school, and still not be able to gain entry to the top universities around the world. Although being number one in the class is essential in the high-pressured Hong Kong school system, it’s not as important for entry to the best international universities.
The teaching at these universities, especially Oxford and Cambridge, is conducted in very small discussion groups. The teachers are leaders in their fields. Students need to have the thinking skills to enable them to engage with, and challenge, some of the best thinkers in the world today! This is the key skill that these universities are looking for.
Let me discuss my personal experience with the interviews I undertook to gain entry to Cambridge University. I was very nervous about the whole process. I didn’t come from a great school. I didn’t know anybody who’d been to a top university. Then, in the interview, I was asked a lot of questions to which I had no way of knowing the answers! But the interviewer explained that he didn’t care if I knew the answer or not. His goal was to find out if I could think my way through this challenge, and whether I could ask him the right sorts of questions to develop an answer there and then!
As you can see, a student needs to show their potential to learn independently, and to think their way around a problem, in order to succeed at the interviews for top universities.
What is critical thinking? How does it benefit a child?
W：Critical thinking is the ability to think clearly and rationally. It includes the ability to engage reflective and independent thinking. Someone with critical thinking skills is able to make connections and evaluate ideas and arguments. They can also think logically and work systematically.
You should be able to see that at their lowest level, critical thinking skills will help a student to do better on something as simple as a comprehension test. They help readers to look past the surface of a text and at the same time to judge well what the question is really asking. These skills will also help a student to think reflectively and to learn from their mistakes, which makes for a much better student.
At higher levels, critical thinking skills help students to move towards clear expression of ideas and also acceptance of personal responsibility for their own thinking. It is essential that students can work without someone standing over their shoulder. Too frequently, I see smart students losing marks unnecessarily because they are not able to follow instructions without help. For students who possess the knowledge to get full marks on a test, it is a real shame to see this so often.
Which age group students would best suit the Critical Reading and Writing course that you have developed the curriculum for?
W：I think that students cannot start early enough with this sort of thinking! It would have been very easy to develop a course that only targeted students whose thinking is already mature enough to have complex discussions. However, I have seen so many students who do not fulfil their full potential in primary school because they are so focused on academics that they neglect the importance of critical thinking skills. Therefore, we have started this course from the summer before primary 1, in order to keep hold of the natural inquisitiveness of young children.
This course incorporates a wide range of skills to match the school curriculum throughout the years, while constantly keeping the focus on critical thinking. By the end of this course in secondary 2, students will have an incredibly strong basis from which to progress on to a DSE preparation course or an iGCSE course.
Assuming that I have a child that is currently studying at schools such as DGJS, how would the CRW course improve my child’s performance at school and benefit their future?
W：I have mentioned above the ways that critical thinking skills can benefit a student in general. However, I think that it is also necessary to point out that we have paid close attention to the textbooks used by top local schools while developing the curriculum for this course. For example, we have incorporated a lesson on topic sentences into our P2 course, in preparation for its coverage in the DGJS Day Book in P3. We also closely monitor the format of exercises and exams which students do at school in order to use a similar style in our lessons.
One of our major themes which carries across the years is an understanding of a text as a thing which has been created. We always ask students to think about why the author created it – what was their purpose, and what effect did they want to have on the reader? This leads into the essential skills needed for both the HKDSE and the iGCSE – an ability to comprehend and to create a particular tone or mood and to respond to those things as a reader.
In order to enhance the child’s critical thinking / reading and writing abilities, what are some of the special techniques you use in class?
W：We are very lucky to be able to teach students from some exceptional local schools, such as DGJS. These students do not need to devote all of their time to learning vocabulary or practising basic grammar. We are able to push them further than mere success on the next school exam, and instead, we can cultivate a much richer ability to appreciate and understand English in the same manner as a native speaker does.
One of the key features of this course is that we look at a very wide range of texts, much more than a school curriculum will allow time for. Our goal is for students to be constantly confronted with something new and unfamiliar, and to have a response to that. Over the years of this course, a student will be able to fit together the pieces of the different strands of literature which are covered, and bring together a comprehensive overview of English literature. This allows us to challenge students to make connections and to look critically at a text in a very broad way.
All of the teachers on this course are Cambridge graduates, and we very much follow the tutorial method of teaching. We are always questioning our students’ responses, and always challenging them in ways which ask them to go beyond a simple right or wrong answer. It is not good enough for a student to be correct, but they must be able to explain why they are correct. Without this, a strong student will never be able to fulfill their potential in an international setting, where critical thinking skills are essential.
Are there any recommendations you could give to Hong Kong parents with regards to improving their child’s critical thinking ability in daily life?
W：Do anything at all which makes a child ask: ‘why?’ It’s not your job to answer this question for them, but to help them to think about how to find the answers for themselves. In my classes, I never let students tell me that they like/dislike something without explaining why. When we read, I will ask them to guess the meanings of unknown words for themselves, or to predict what will happen next in a story. These are preliminary critical skills.
Books are one of the best ways to broaden a child’s mind and make them ask: ‘why?’ Books take unexpected twists and turns. They make us work to understand what’s happening.
However, there are many alternatives for reluctant readers, or even if you just want to plan a challenging family activity. One of my favourite things to do as a child was to go to the Museum of Science and Industry in Manchester, where I grew up. It’s very similar to the Hong Kong Science Museum, with lots of things that a child can play and experiment with. I remember the way that my dad would always help me to work out what was happening myself. He never gave me answers, but always asked me questions about different parts of the processes, until I could figure it all out for myself!
Find your child’s passion and encourage them to pursue it in any way that gets them asking that key question: ‘why?’