The ultimate approach to education is a hotly contested topic worldwide and Hong Kong is no different. However, ‘the Dalton Plan’ – the city’s latest choice for discerning parents – may sound like a fad, but it’s actually nearly a century old. Originating in Dalton, USA, in the 1920s, the Dalton Plan is an educational system created by Helen Parkhurst, who studied under Dr Maria Montessori. Parkhurst created the system as a reaction against the teacher-centred, ‘one size fits all’ mode of education that continues to endure worldwide, especially in Hong Kong.
The Dalton Plan is based on a strong belief that, whenever children are given responsibility for their own learning, they instinctively seek the best way of achieving it. Consequently, they execute their decisions with focus and rigour, leading to greater success.
A man with a plan
Despite boasting extensive knowledge and experience in child-centred learning in both the United States and China, Larry Leaven, Founding Principal of Dalton School Hong Kong (DSHK), knew there was something different about the Dalton Plan when he first encountered its inquiry-based philosophy.
“I may sound a little ‘Pollyanna’,” Mr Leaven told Top Schools, “but every decision should be about what’s best for the kids.
“The opportunity to run a school based on the Dalton Plan was both exciting and terrifying, particularly when bringing it into a context in which it may not even be understood, let alone appreciated. In my conversations with bilingual international school parents, I discovered they wanted something they didn’t currently have, but when presented with the [better] alternative, they kept looking at the learning process through the same lens.
“Then, when I came to Hong Kong, it felt like on every street corner there was a mini-university or language testing centre. I would see this and say, ‘Okay, this [market-centred approach to language learning] is the reason we need a Dalton school here’.”
According to Mr Leaven, who oversees DSHK’s campus in Tai Kok Tsui, Kowloon, which plans to enrol 60 students by the end of its first year, childhood is a period of exploring and discovering rather than a preparation stage for further formal learning.
“Helen Parkhurst’s belief is that, from the earliest years, play and exploration are that engine of learning. It’s that thing we really anchor to; where the child’s experience is a question of what can be explored rather than what is in the curriculum. It’s a little bit scary, but our ultimate goals are about the child.
“To use an example, our foundation six-year-olds said they love transportation… things that move. That’s what they said they were interested in, so that’s what the unit is and where the conversation starts. Now the actor Michael Wong is lending us his helipad and helicopter. And we’re doing a sailing piece for a water unit. For us, it’s all about finding the right fit for the kids.”
How does the Dalton Plan work?
To achieve its objectives, Dalton teachers implement a three-part model, which reorganises the education from teacher- to student-centred, transferring critical learning responsibilities from adult to child. These three parts are known as ‘The House’, ‘The Assignment’, and ‘The Lab’.
Each student belongs to a House, where they develop virtues, community spirit and skills of responsible citizenship. The Assignment is a contract between student and teacher, carefully designed and individualised so students understand and achieve curriculum goals, while developing time management skills, creativity, questioning, appropriate risk-taking and critical thinking through open-ended questions and inquiry-based learning. The Lab leaves students free to explore their interests in a more individualised manner, whether by independent work, one-on-one time with teacher mentors, collaboration in groups, or peer tutoring.
Biliteracy and dual-lens mathematics
One distinguishing factor of DSHK is that students are taught to be biliterate, not just bilingual. “One thing I’ve noticed here is that Hong Kongers are often bilingual in a functional sense, but they are not biliterate,” said Larry Leaven. “To us, cross-cultural competence is not just words, but exists along a continuum.”
DSHK parent, Ms Helen Scott, agrees with the power of the bilingual program.
“We plan to be in Hong Kong for the long term, so we really wanted to give the kids the gift of language, too. We concede that it will get harder as they get older, as we don’t speak Mandarin at home, but so far we haven’t had any problems and their Mandarin is supposedly on par with native speakers. We also really appreciate Dalton’s focus on integrating Chinese culture into language learning.
“It can be hard to get into some bilingual international schools and they don’t always spawn the happiest children, whereas our kids literally run into school. The Dalton rooms are so colourful and the facilities, such as the virtual lab and the robotics centre are amazing. It really feels like a school of the future.”
The Dalton Plan’s mathematics program is also representative of its core values. Firstly, the subject is seen through both an Asian and a Western lens. Secondly, the subject is explored through both oral and written components. Problems are explained and attempted in oral form to increase spoken confidence and encourage resilience. Finally, an Assignment is negotiated based on a student’s interests and abilities.
“We are trying to step away from the idea that the adults are in charge of learning,” said Mr Leaven. “To do this takes strong teachers – who are often terrified, mind you – but you just have to remind them to ask themselves: What does Matthew need? What does Brian need?’”
‘Don’t do homework’
With an initial enrolment of only ten students, and near one-on-one instruction, sceptics could argue that such bespoke services can only last so long in Hong Kong, and that eventually broader economic realities will take hold. So how do Dalton parents handle the pressures of pioneering education reform?
“Our parents have been so gracious in this initial period as we continue to ebb and flow,” said Mr Leaven. “But our parents know that Dalton wants to move away from that ‘second shift’ school mentality [tutoring after hours, excessive homework, etc.]. Our students make ongoing enquiries, not ‘do homework’. We are trying to change cultures around homework in Hong Kong. Our students should instead be asking: What am I working on? How can I push myself on that learning?”
DSHK parent Helen Scott admits the unique philosophy of the school – coupled with its high tuition fees – almost dissuaded her from joining the community, but the upside, including small class sizes, was just too great to ignore.
“We’re from the UK and a lot of our friends’ children are at an excellent international school right next door to where we live, so in a lot of ways it would have been easier to send our kids there. But we loved Dalton’s philosophy of kids taking ownership and being responsible for their own learning. And we haven’t looked back.”
Find all details on Dalton School Hong Kong, including fees here: http://topschools.com.hk/listing/dalton-school-hong-kong/