Return to Why Vocablearning?

How did the project start and what was the result so far?

(A letter to the school management committee)

Inception of the Project

The whole idea of the project was first conceived in 2006 when a very desperate Form 6 student approached me for help. He said he would like to attend a university in the United States but his first attempt of SAT verbal test fell short of 100 marks (1 standard deviation in SAT). In spite of 3 months of arduous study, the result of his second attempt was more or less the same as the first one.

I wondered why he approached me, a chemistry teacher at the time, for advice to tackle a verbal test. Perhaps, I had talked too much about learning psychology in my chemistry lessons.

To tackle such an insurmountable task, I understood no ordinary approach would give him any reasonable chance, otherwise his second attempt should have shown certain improvement over the first one already.

According to my understandings of the exponential nature of forgetting, discovered by Hermann Ebbinghaus (a German Psychology), and the reason of productivity boom caused by IT development in the last decade, I wrote the first prototype of the Vocablearning program to assist his study.

Three months later, he attended his last attempt and got 105 marks higher than his previous one. This was equivalent to an advancement of a student from the 20th position to the 5th position in a class of 40 in 3 months’ time. The student is now doing a postgraduate program in the US.

When his result was made known to me, I immediately realized that this might be a feasible way to help Wahyanites and my kids to tackle their learning problems. Together with the Matthew effect discovered by Keith Stanovich (Chair of Cognitive Science, University of Toronto) and the importance of language in almost all kinds of academic learning, it might be possible to devise a virtuous learning cycle for users to enhance their effectiveness in learning. Through highly effective learning practice, users’ internal motivation to learn could be stoked up and the students could be inspired to love learning because no learning goal would be beyond their possible reach any more. The strong sense of possibility would give them the motivation to strive for excellence.

Challenge of the NSS Curriculum

While the HKALE will be heading to its final year of operation in 2012 and the HKCEE has already come to a historical end, all members of the School Betterment Committee reached a consensus at a meeting in the very early days that we should give academic performance a paramount focus in the school as the outsiders will judge the academic standard of a school solely on the UGC degree program admission rate rather than the “A”s obtained in the public examination. The project gave me a gleam of hope that a significant improvement is possible. If there is no significant improvement in academic achievement, the students will very soon know that more than 2/3 of their classmates would not be able to get admitted to university no matter how hard they try. It would be extremely difficult to motivate such a large group of hopeless students to put effort in their studies, let alone inspire them to strive for excellence. The failure in academic learning will entail all kinds of behavioral problems because of the students’ low self-image and their conflicts with the family.

Field Trial of the Vocablearning Program

Soon after the first prototype, I wrote the second prototype which was a standalone program for my kids and the kids of some of colleagues to learn vocabulary. The result was very rewarding.

A colleague used the program to help his son who was studying in Wah Yan to regulate his study of vocabulary in different disciplines. He observed that his son had marked improvement in concentration and reading ability. Moreover, the program also helped his son developed a disciplined learning habit. The English teacher of his son also commended that his son has remarkable improvement in English over the last 3 years.

The son of another colleague studying in a Band 3 school got his first overall examination pass ever in his life after 3 months of use.

In spite of these fruitful evidences, another colleague who was also convinced by the rationale and the results of the program was reluctant to try the program out with his son with the fear that his extra demand for academic work might jeopardize his relationship with his son.

From this experience, I realized that putting the program forward on a voluntary basis would not work as many parents would not have the volition to enforce the program, even though the exercise takes only a median of 10 minutes a day. To be successful, the learning program must be a part of the formal curriculum and be a part of the formal assessment.

Diverging Views of Parents and Teachers

When I approached our English panel to explore the possibility of introducing the program as a joint project between English Panel and IT department, the reply was not favorable though no extra workload would be imposed onto the English teachers at all. To increase the chance of success in publicizing the program to the parents and teachers, I accepted a TV interview with i-Cable, which can be accessed through the link on the right hand side of the program webpage .

After viewing the TV interview and listening to the rationale of the program, the program was very well-received by the parents but not by the teachers. At a parent meeting with the presence of parents of students from Form 1-3 and the Principal, I explained the adaptation of the program on behalf of the Liberal Studies panel as a strategy to enhance the reading ability of the Form 3 students. A parent of a Form 2 student raised her hand and requested the school to adopt the program for the Form 2 boys immediately as well. As the acting panel chairman of LS, this was beyond my clout and I promised the parent that I would bring the issue to the principal. Regardless of 2 years of trying negotiation and intense research to prove that the program can really deliver what it promises, the effort was in vain.

Successful Application of the Operating mechanism of Vocablearning in AL-Chemistry Teaching

In the meantime, also as a chemistry teacher teaching a class of Form 7 and with another teacher teaching another class, I used the program to deliver chemistry content to the whole form of Form 7 students studying A-Level chemistry in 2009. After 7 months of doing the exercise compulsorily, the students managed to get their passing rate and credit rate improved by 26% and 94% as compared with the result of the previous year. Meanwhile, the improvement in the passing rate and credit rate of the overall result was only 5% and 15%.

In spite of the exceptional improvement, a colleague queried that I could not prove that the improvement was solely due to the effect of the program. I was dumbfounded by such a query. For anyone with certain common sense in scientific method and research method, he or she should know that it was scientifically impossible to make such a proof. I could only prove the validity of the program by repeating the pattern once again.

In the preparation of the 2011 A-level chemistry examination, another group of students used the program to do the same set of exercise for 19 months, 9.5 months on a compulsory basis and 9.5 months on a voluntary basis. An improvement of 18% and 101% was observed this time comparing with only 4% and 37% improvement in the overall result. I believed that the improvement could be even greater if the exercise was compulsory in the whole period of 19 months. Indeed, the average number of exercise done by a student in the voluntary period is only about a quarter of that in the compulsory period. Though the pattern repeated, the same query was raised by the same colleague.

Strategies Employed to move the Project forward

Without the whole-hearted support of the key decision makers, I understood that the only chance of success was to be in the position of decision. When a colleague lobbied me to apply for the post of Assistant Principal, I told him that the project would be my only reason to apply. I also stated explicitly in my letter of application that the project was my last hope in giving Wah Yan a jolt. When I accepted the offer of the position of Assistant Principal, I understood that I passed the point of no return.

Even though being the Assistant Principal responsible for the academic performance and curriculum design of the school, I found the negotiation still reached an impasse. Several papers were written to explain the rationale of the project. However, whenever a meeting was held to discuss the project, criticisms were raised but they were not directed to the rationales, premises, methodology, data, assumptions, or deductions in the paper but the conclusion. Many colleagues just restated that they had already tried their very best and no change to the status quo was needed. The supporters of the program were only about 25% of the teachers in the meeting and there were about another 25% of the teachers abstained.

Considering the failure of my attempt to increase the teaching hour in the school for the new NSS curriculum a few years ago and the embarking of the athletic program, the school is running short of at least 540 lesson hours or 90 school days for NSS and the athletic program will start draining time from the students soon. Though I had already gathered all sorts of research findings to address all objections against the project, the students were running out of time. Recently, I overheard from a parent and confirmed with the student that there was a teacher who finished 80% of a textbook in 3 hours with the students. Proportionally, he could finish the 270-hour curriculum in 76 hours. There was no wonder why most teachers opposed my proposal of lengthening the school hours a few years ago. It was simply not necessary.

Having been worked in Wah Yan for about 14 years, I had never heard of any decision making processes being scrutinized in a way close to this level of severity. Perhaps, the real reason of the objection was not about the project itself but about something else that I had done. If all decision making processes of the school had been subjected to the same level of scrutiny, probably, the school would not have made any wrong decision.

To prevent the devastating result in the next 10 years in the way I perceived, I decided to give the project a final jolt. Before the all panel chairperson meeting, I knew that I might need to resign after the meeting. When the negotiation went nowhere in the meeting, I pretended running amok. As expected, the psychological effect of my acting finally enabled the project to be started with all Form 1 boys and I could gather the data about the effect of the program on a large group of students which was what I didn’t have and being criticized upon.

Result of The First Year Full Scale Implementation

The data collected last year was also very pleasing. With quite a large safety margin, it is reasonable to predict that the project will catapult the UGC degree program offering rate of the school by about 100% and generate a value of at least $30,000,000Note for the graduates of Wah Yan every year.

Note : For detailed explanation, please refer to “Q8 of Answers to the Queries Raised by Teachers on the Vocablearning Project”.

What does the difference between 30% and 75.5% UGC subsidized degree program offering rate mean to the parents ? What does it mean to the students ? What does it mean to the school and what does it mean to the teachers ? There is no wonder why the parents are the most adamant proponents of the project.

Final Words

The project works not because I wrote the computer program. It works because it utilizes the knowledge of cognitive science and motivation theory, findings of recent research in applied linguistics and corpus study, computational power of microprocessor, connectivity of internet, years of field trial and adjustment, the vision of an ex-assistant principal whose value was deeply influenced by the wisdom and the selfless life of the Jesuit Fathers when he was a student in Wah Yan, and the emotional drive from his love for Wahyanites and sympathy for the parents.

As a fresh graduate who declined the invitation of the former Assistant Principal, Mr Chow, to return to teach in Wah Yan 22 years ago, I taught in La Salle College, Siu Ming Secondary School and Maryknoll Convent School thereafter before returning to Wah Yan. The experience of teaching in these three Tier-1 schools allowed me to understand different key elements that make different local schools successful. My exposure in this area is unique to anyone in Wah Yan. When I mentioned the project to a former colleague in La Salle, a school with a much higher UGC subsidized degree program offering rate, I was immediately ushered to the two assistant principals and English Panel Chairlady to discuss whether the scheme could be applied to their school, and invited to present my study in their Education Symposium to be held in 2012.

Sometimes, I contemplate that it is a God’s calling asking me to do the project otherwise it is unimaginable how the project can reach the present state. Though I am sorry for the chaos I might have brought about, I do not regret for what I did. I also believe that the success of the project will make a very significant contribution to the Ignatian Mission in the Greater China Area.

I think the lyric of the school song written by Fr. McGovern describes my feeling best, “In all that we do whether duty or pleasure, we count not the cost, but unselfishly strive. What’s mean or unmanly, we shun with displeasure. Come praise or come blame, we hold our heads high.”

If the SMC still have difficulty in making a decision for the present situation, I want a public hearing to be conducted with the presence of the parents and old boys to gather their opinions on the program before the final decision on the fate of the project is made.

Jan 2012

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