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Modern Children, Modern Ways: We chat to Australian child psychologist Dr Louise Porter

Dr Louise Porter 

Australian child psychologist Dr Louise Porter has spent 25 years researching and observing children’s development and social behaviour. She has published books on everything from teacher and parent collaboration to parenting styles and will shortly launch a new book about children’s self-esteem. Her observations on current teaching methods and how children are being brought up in Hong Kong’s high-pressure society may make many of us sit up and take notice.

Research has found that 35 percent of school children are now visual learners rather than auditory. How are schools adapting to this realisation?
In our parents’ generation the only way to learn was through listening; there were no televisions or computers. Even in our own generation, computers were just for adults and, as a result, most teachers were raised as auditory learners. However for visual learners, now thought to be 35 percent of the population, lots of the detail gets lost if they are relying just on listening. Thankfully, visual learners are now better catered for with iPads, computers and white boards in classrooms – tools that allow teachers to explain a concept visually. The most important change needed is for teachers to adapt their teaching methods and keep “chalk and talk” time to just ten minutes followed by an activity. Children should also be encouraged to demonstrate what they have learnt not just by writing but also through new methods such as PowerPoint presentations and drama performances. Knowledge discovered is more meaningful than knowledge conveyed.

Many of the schools here now offer the IB curriculum, but for those used to a more traditional education, the lack of competition both in the classroom and on the sports field seems alien.
Competition is detrimental to everyone; losers give up when they don’t see the point if they can’t win and winners get stressed out on the rat race of having to constantly meet expectations. In the classroom, judging students by ability creates a hierarchy which is exactly the climate in which bullying flourishes. Competition is also very bad for self-esteem; I call it the “Hong Kong Syndrome”, where people only feel worthy when they are doing well. If you have tied a child’s worth to his competence then they will feel pressured to always keeps achieving to be considered worthy. Children who try to do their best rather than always trying to be the best will have better self-esteem.

Many children in Hong Kong have their daily diaries packed with home tutoring in the parents’ hope that they will achieve more.
I’ve been visiting Hong Kong for over eight years interviewing and observing students, and the pressure that many of them are put under is counter-productive. One child I spoke to put it very clearly when he said he was so busy doing homework he didn’t have time to learn anything. Intensive rote learning may achieve impressive results on paper, but research has shown that using this method of learning will result in 50 percent decay in the first week alone – after just seven days, most pupils will only remember half of the information.

Fun is one of the basic human needs and we need more of it when we are young. Denying children and young adults some downtime is completely counter-productive.

You believe that homework can cause deterioration in learning and motivation. Children, especially visual learners, have to work incredibly hard during school hours. When they get home they need the downtime to process what they have taken in during the day. They also really need to be doing physical exercise, which works the other half of their brain. If children don’t work both sides then the information from school won’t be transmitted. The other reason I am anti-homework is that it can cause a motivation issue; if children begin to dislike learning then you have a problem.

What about reading?
Up until the age of eight or nine, if a parent is reading to a child then that is enough. It makes reading a pleasure rather than a chore and helps them understand the rhythm of language. Children shouldn’t be pressured to learn to read at a young age; research has shown that children who learn to read later actually read more in later life.

You suggest that children be allowed at least one hour of TV or computer time after school. Why is this so important for children today?
In our parents’ generation, left-handed children had their hand tied behind their back to pressure them to use their right hand. This is exactly what we are doing to visual learners almost all day at school when they have to learn by listening. As a result of this pressure, most children need downtime and time to process what they have learnt during the day. As parents we also have to realise that many of our children will be alive to see the 22nd century, so we need to let them learn how to use computers and technology.

Hong Kong is a very pressured society with very competitive parents. Does this concern you?
Yes, it does. There are a lot people in Hong Kong who base their self-esteem on achievement; they have to keep achieving to feel good about themselves. Sadly many bring their children into this scenario and see themselves as not worthy unless their children are outdoing everyone else. You can keep living that way, but sadly there will come a time when you will question if that is all there really is in life! Parents like this must realise that they can’t treat their children as another self-improvement project. They have to get to know their child and find out who they are and what they want to be. They are not here to fulfil their parents’ ambitions; they are their own unique person. Allow them to flourish and find their passion by allowing them to experiment with activities that interest them.

What is the most important rule Hong Kong-based parents should follow to ensure they nurture their children and help build their self-esteem in this high-pressured environment?
The single most important thing is not to praise your children. This may sound harsh, but by that I mean change your language. Make them realise that you are proud for them not proud of them. By acknowledging an achievement rather than praising it, you are telling them about you and your values; you are not labelling them as a good person for pleasing you. Don’t judge, just celebrate!