Shadow Education in Hong Kong: Issues, Implications, and the Future

Dr Kevin Wai Ho Yung, Associate Professor, The Education University of Hong Kong

Shadow education, a metaphor for private supplementary tutoring, has become an integral part of many education systems worldwide. In the past, tutoring was particularly prevalent in Confucian-heritage settings, mainly because of the test-taking culture (Carless, 2011), but it has spread globally in the past three decades (Bray, 2023; Yung & Hajar, 2023). In Hong Kong, shadow education is known as bou zaap in Cantonese. It is widely available in various forms, which are popular among students or their parents at different learning stages (Zhan et al., 2013). At the early childhood stage, shadow education manifests as playgroups and preparatory courses. Typically, these courses are strategically designed to develop young children’s cognitive and language skills essential for primary school interviews. A notable aspect of these early interventions is their focus on portfolio building and mock interviews, with the aim to impress top-tier primary institutions (Kobakhidze & Hui, 2023). This situation has counterparts in other parts of the world, including United States and the United Kingdom, where kids already start their “college admissions battle” at very young ages.

Moving to primary education, home-based one-on-one or small-group tutoring becomes prominent, offering personalised assistance that broadly aligns with the school curriculum and students’ individual needs. Subscribed learning programmes, such as Kumon and Cambridge English, complement this with structured curricula. Some are designed to foster self-directed learning and critical thinking, paralleling some of the generic skills highlighted in the Hong Kong school curriculum.

As students approach the critical juncture of secondary education, large-scale “cram schools” such as Beacon College and King’s Glory Education take centre stage. The focus usually turns to academic performance and rigorous exam preparation. The marketing of tutors as celebrities within these institutes highlights the intense pressure and competition inherent in Hong Kong’s educational ethos (Yung, 2021; Yung & Yuan, 2020). The rise of online tutoring, a response to the COVID-19 pandemic, has further expanded the reach of tutoring, although it has also raised questions about its effectiveness compared to traditional in-person methods.

Issues and Implications: A personal view

Despite the curriculum’s aim to foster holistic development and lifelong learning, shadow education tends to emphasise performance at the expense of personal growth. Over a decade ago, I was a tutor in a cram school. I remember I asked my tutees not to waste time reading books for leisure but to focus solely on exam-related materials such as past exam papers. I even asked them not to trust their schoolteachers but me because I provided them with the most appropriate resources to prepare for the public exam. These were indeed marketing strategies to make them feel the tutor is the “authority” to trust (Yung, 2021). This potentially stifles creativity and independent thought. My advice is that if students are to participate in tutoring, it is important that they constantly and critically reflect on their tutoring experience and exercise their agency to choose the tutor and resources that best support their learning.

Another issue with shadow education in Hong Kong is its accessibility and inclusivity. Private tutoring tends to favour wealthier families who can afford the tuition fees. Those financially underprivileged may therefore be disadvantaged, resulting in educational inequality. In this regard, some non-government organisations (NGOs) such as Principal Chan Free Tutorial World, with which I have been collaborating, have stepped in to bridge this gap. They provide fee-free tutoring to those in need. Still, this kind of tutorial service needs support from society, including resources for operation and human resources for of volunteers. I have recently led projects with the incorporation of generative AI in online tutorial platforms, hopefully to offer affordable or fee-free learning support for financially underprivileged students. I have also been collaborating with technology companies to develop avatar tutors. Students can receive tutoring from their “favourite tutor” with their preferred appearance, language, teaching style, and so on. Indeed, I believe that the future of shadow education will be dominated by technology and AI. This unprecedented shift in the tutorial industry is going to open up many exciting new opportunities for research and practice.

References

Bray, M. (2023). Understanding private supplementary tutoring: Metaphors, diversities and agendas for shadow education research. Journal for the Study of Education and Development, 46(4), 728-773. https://doi.org/10.1080/02103702.2023.2194792

Carless, D. (2011). From testing to productive student learning: Implementing formative assessment in Confucian-heritage settings. Routledge.

Kobakhidze, M. N., & Hui, J. (2023). Admission Olympics: The emerging tutoring market for kindergarten applicants. Compare: A Journal of Comparative and International Education, 1-18. https://doi.org/10.1080/03057925.2023.2212109

Yung, K. W. H. (2021). Shadow education as a form of oppression: Conceptualizing experiences and reflections of secondary students in Hong Kong. Asia Pacific Journal of Education, 41(1), 115-129. https://doi.org/10.1080/02188791.2020.1727855

Yung, K. W. H., & Hajar, A. (Eds.). (2023). International perspectives on English private tutoring: Theories, practices, and policies. Palgrave Macmillan.

Yung, K. W. H., & Yuan, R. (2020). ‘The most popular star-tutor of English’: Discursive construction of tutor identities in shadow education. Discourse: Studies in the Cultural Politics of Education, 41(1), 153-168. https://doi.org/10.1080/01596306.2018.1488241

Zhan, S., Bray, M., Wang, D., Lykins, C., & Kwo, O. (2013). The effectiveness of private tutoring: Students’ perceptions in comparison with mainstream schooling in Hong Kong. Asia Pacific Education Review, 14(4), 495-509. https://doi.org/10.1007/s12564-013-9276-7

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