Mother Nature’s children?
Shirley Zhao travels to a primary which focuses more on nature for its nurture than Hong Kong’s homework-heavy schools
Court in session!” one of three judges declares. The plaintiff, called ‘Lion’, then makes a statement against the defendant, called ‘Eagle’, before Eagle robustly makes his defence. The judges then examine the case separately, before they leave to reach a final verdict.
No, this is not an outtake scene from a Harry Potter film. It’s what happens at Gaia School, an innovative primary where teachers, students and even parents are given nature-inspired nicknames.
Nestled near the entrance of Tuen Mun Country Park, Gaia School is a green sanctuary far from the big city. It takes its name from the Greek goddess of the Earth (also tipping a nod to James Lovelock’s famous organism hypothesis) and it’s a school which, since it started life in 2007, aims at fostering healthy and positive personality growth in children through a ‘nature loving curriculum’. It’s novel, it’s fun and they claim it’s beneficial.
“Hong Kong’s education system is too score-oriented,” says Yip Chung-sing, the school’s principal and one of the founders. “Nowadays children are having too much pressure. They spend a lot of time studying – but they are not learning really useful things.”
The purpose of Gaia, according to Yip, whose nickname is ‘Starfish’, is to provide children with plenty of time to do what they like – and to make them ‘happy’. Students enjoy a surprising amount of freedom here. They don’t need to wear school uniforms, nor do they have excessive amounts of homework. They join various ‘interest groups’ initiated by other students and have extra-curriculum activities. Every Tuesday afternoon, classes are taught outdoors, while each Thursday afternoon is entirely devoted to different interest groups. Students and teachers have a full day every month for school outings. (Yip tells Time Out they’re going to watch a performance by the Hong Kong Dance Company soon).
Of course, students still need to study academic courses, of which Chinese, English and maths are compulsory. But, unlike other schools, Gaia doesn’t undertake school disciplines. Instead it focuses on a ‘life convention’, which is discussed, settled and constantly amended and updated by pupils and teachers during regular ‘life meetings’.
And, in case of arguments and conflicts, students can bring the cases to a ‘life court’, where a ‘plaintiff’ needs to file a complaint before he or she and the ‘defendant’ make statements in court. Punishment always means a service to the school, such as ground duties. Judges are constantly changed and senior students need to pass a qualification exam to become one. Yip says the life court is popular. “They can choose to solve the problems themselves in private,” he says, “but instead they choose the life court. Now we have a life court almost every day.”
Most children were transferred to Gaia by their parents after one or two years of unhappy life in mainstream education. Lee Suk-yin’s son was transferred in Primary 3 and is now in Primary 5. “He’s very active,” she says. “He couldn’t fit in at a disciplined, dull mainstream school with loads of homework. I couldn’t bear to see that, so I sent him to Gaia.”
Nicknamed ‘Garlic’, Lee Suk-yin has been a volunteer librarian for the school since last summer. She says her son now enjoys going to school and loves to talk about what happened during his day when he gets home – which, says his mum, never happened when he
was in mainstream education. “I want to let him know that learning can be a happy thing,” says Lee. “He’s just a kid and should not have so much pressure.”
So, it’s a relatively new – and certainly fun – way of learning which has been rolled out across the world over the past few years. But there is a drawback. In the end, the pupils at Gaia have to go to secondary school, where much more study pressure and mainstream education techniques are awaiting. No animal court there. So can these happy kids, who have been used to a low-pressure life, quickly and effectively adapt? Lee reckons yes. She’s not so worried. She says her son has become more mature and self-motivated as a result of this kind of education. “When he is mature enough, he will understand the pressure and know how to deal with it,” she says.
According to Yip, interpersonal conflicts tend to increase in a school environment which has a lot of freedom and activities – and by dealing with those conflicts, pupils at Gaia will become more mature and adaptable than most other students in mainstream schools. He also says the school encourages students to read more, ask more and write notes of observation, so their curiosity and desire to learn will grow. “I still keep track of our former students,” he says. “They generally do quite well in secondary schools. Some of them are even the top ones in their grades.”
Cheung Chee-yin, nicknamed ‘Nature’, is another parent volunteer at the school. She helps in the kitchens, where only vegetarian food is served. “I don’t expect him [her son] to be a top student, as long as he has his pursuits,” says Cheung. “Some students can have straight As at school but they can’t even take care of themselves in life. Here my son has learned skills which he can use for all of his life. To me that’s the most important thing.”
With the school bell ringing, the 57 students dash from the classrooms and on to the playgrounds to enjoy a 30-minute break. Most gather on one of the playgrounds for hockey, as today is the final of the school hockey competition. The rest are on the adjoining playground playing basketball.
The first match is played by the two junior hockey teams – ‘Fire’ and ‘Mountain’ – and the second match by the two senior teams ‘Wind’ and ‘Forest’. According to Yip, the names were inspired by the famous quote from Sun Tzu’s The Art of War: ‘let your rapidity be that of the wind, your compactness that of the forest. In raiding and plundering be like fire, be immovable like a mountain’.
The playgrounds are filled with yelling and cheering, while teachers and volunteers look on attentively. Apparently Cheung has taken the role as cheerleader. She takes out a plastic basket from the 7kitchen and bangs it with a plastic bottle, shouting as excitedly as the children. “In mainstream schools only elite students can play games like hockey,” says Cheung, “but here everyone can play these games. Look at them. They’re like pros!”
But Yip knows that schools like Gaia can only be a ‘small circle’ thing. “Innovated schools can never become mainstream in Hong Kong,” he says. “The government gives little support to these schools.” Yet Yip also believes there will be more innovative schools on the way. “Mainstream schools only focus on study. Students there tend to be more indifferent toward people and lack interpersonal skills.”
“It’s very comfortable studying here,” says Yuen Lai-tung. But as a 12-year-old Primary 6 pupil, she is about to enter secondary school very soon. “I know the homework will increase and teachers will be very strict,” she tells Time Out. “But I try not to think about it right now.”