Hong Kong can learn from world’s top teacher Nancie Atwell

 Nancie Atwell, with former US president Bill Clinton and United Arab Emirates Prime Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum, at her award ceremony. Photo: AP

To be recognised as the world’s best in one’s profession is a great achievement, even more so when the career has a lasting impact on generations of people. For this, Nancie Atwell is a truly inspiring role model for teachers the world over. The American from a rural town in Maine has just defeated thousands of nominees from across the world to become the first winner of the Global Teacher Prize, an award dubbed the Nobel Prize of teaching.

Having graduated with a degree in English in the 1970s, she accepted a teaching job at a school in New York as a “fall-back” option. But what sets her apart from other teachers is the way she has revolutionised the classroom. Instead of imposing assignments and focusing on test scores, she encourages pupils to read and write what they like. Through such freedom, her pupils show the kind of initiative that other teachers can only dream of. Her students read about 40 books a year, well above the US national average.

Atwell’s success goes beyond her four decades of teaching and a number of inspiring publications. Not only has she broken free from a stringent teaching system to nurture a strong interest in learning, she has also redefined the idea of what constitutes success in education, from one being scores-oriented to one emphasising the pursuit of knowledge. Receiving her award at a ceremony in Dubai, she lamented the shift towards uniformity in classrooms. Teachers, she said, were little more than technicians reading out scripts in class these days.

The lesson is as much for Hong Kong as the rest of the world. Our education system is notoriously rigid, with students spoon-fed to score well in exams. Producing graduates for economic and social needs is placed before individual learning and development. Entrenched social values mean it may be unrealistic to expect our education system to be transformed into a giant, Atwell-style classroom where everyone can freely pursue their interests. But the learning process may bear better fruit if more teachers follow in her footsteps.

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