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The Curriculum Journal

ISSN: 0958-5176 (Print) 1469-3704 (Online) Journal homepage: http://www.tandfonline.com/loi/rcjo20

Conception of teaching higher order thinking:

perspectives of Chinese teachers in Hong Kong

Sze-yin Shirley Yeung

To cite this article: Sze-yin Shirley Yeung (2015) Conception of teaching higher order thinking:
perspectives of Chinese teachers in Hong Kong, The Curriculum Journal, 26:4, 553-578, DOI:

To link to this article: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/09585176.2015.1053818

Published online: 18 Jun 2015.

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The Curriculum Journal, 2015
Vol. 26, No. 4, 553 578, http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/09585176.2015.1053818

Conception of teaching higher order thinking: perspectives

of Chinese teachers in Hong Kong
Sze-yin Shirley Yeung*
Department of Curriculum and Instruction, Hong Kong Institute of Education, Hong Kong

Enhancing the higher order thinking (HOT) ability of students is a

worldwide educational goal. This has also become a significant
objective in the curriculum reforms in Hong Kong, which aims at
better preparation of students to meet the challenges of the new era.
Cultural aspects are often regarded as salient in determining
approaches to teaching. The influence of Chinese traditions on
teaching in Hong Kong has been discussed by many researchers, who
found the thinking of Confucius still strongly influences the
conception of teaching of Chinese teachers. By the in-depth interviews
with 12 Chinese teachers, their conceptions of effective HOT teaching
were examined. Nine teaching tips were suggested by the teachers.
The list of HOT teaching tips reflects that intermingled values of
Western and traditional Chinese education are embraced. The
findings also show how Chinese values influence teachers conceptions
of effective HOT teaching and the results are discussed with reference
to the influence of Confucian thought. The comparatively narrow
conceptions regarding HOT teaching imply that certain cultural
barriers are still hampering Hong Kong teachers in the post-handover
period. One major recommendation is that an awareness of the
cultural values of the context is important for any application of
foreign methods of teaching.
Keywords: higher order thinking; conception of teaching; Chinese
teachers; Confucian thought; cultural influence

As the new millennium unfolds, educators all over the world are consider-
ing how best to prepare the younger generation for productive and fulfill-
ing lives in an ever-changing world. Many have said that if our next
generations are to function successfully in the contemporary society, they
must be equipped with higher order thinking (HOT) skills for effective
acquisition and processing of information in a knowledge economy

*Email: syyeung@ied.edu.hk

2015 British Educational Research Association

554 S-y.S. Yeung

(Hargreaves, 2003). Globalisation, technological advances, migration,

international competition, changing markets, and transnational environ-
mental and political challenges all add urgency to the need for HOT skills
among students as a prerequisite for success in the twenty-first century
(Saavedra & Opfer, 2012).
With an aspiration to improve the effectiveness of school education in
this era of change, researchers have concluded that teachers need to
reform the way they teach. Although the transmission model of teaching,
through which teachers transmit factual knowledge to students via text-
books and lectures, remains the dominant approach to compulsory edu-
cation in much of the world (Organisation for Economic Co-operation
and Development [OECD], 2009), many have criticised it as obsolete and
ineffective. An emphasis on HOT skills, such as problem solving, critical
thinking and creativity, has instead become essential components for
the curriculum of the new century (Lam & Lipstone, 2007; Saavedra &
Opfer, 2012).
To prepare students to meet the challenges of the new era, the Educa-
tion Bureau (EDB) of Hong Kong launched a new round of curriculum
reform (Curriculum Development Council [CDC], 2001) that laid empha-
sis upon the cultivation of HOT among students. The guiding principles
of this curriculum reform included developing students generic skills,
providing a broad and balanced curriculum for students, widening
students perspectives to attain whole-person development, and providing
alternatives to conventional modes of teaching and learning. Students
were expected to acquire broad foundational knowledge in eight key
learning areas: Chinese Language; English Language; Mathematics; Sci-
ence; Technology; Personal, Social and Humanities Education; Arts; and
Physical Education. Nine generic skills (including collaboration,
communication, creativity, critical thinking, and IT skills) and values edu-
cation were incorporated in the curriculum. HOT capacities and interper-
sonal skills became important components in the overall curriculum
framework. However, in the years since the teaching of HOT was recom-
mended in Hong Kong there have been few studies investigating its
Studies have shown that teachers conceptions of teaching and learning
influence their classroom practice (Watkins & Biggs, 2001; Yeung & Lam,
2008). Teachers conception of an academic subject or an innovation
and its teaching and learning is in turn significantly influenced by the cul-
tural context that provides teachers with their tools, habits, and assump-
tions about fundamental learning goals (Li, 2011). Therefore, an effective
educational initiative in another part of the world may not be effective
when it is applied in a cultural context where Chinese make up the major-
ity of the school population (Yeung, 2009).
The Curriculum Journal 555

Hong Kong was under British colonial rule for 155 years until it was
returned to Chinese sovereignty in 1997. Hong Kong remains open to
Western influence (mainly that of the Anglophone cultures), but tradi-
tional Chinese values are still a force within a society that has an over-
whelmingly Chinese population. According to latest census statistics
(Census and Statistics Department, 2011), 93.2% of Hong Kongs popula-
tion are Chinese nationals and 93.6% of them are of Chinese ethnicity.
The effects of Chinese traditions on the teaching of Chinese teachers have
been explored by researchers. Many of them mentioned that Confucian-
ism persistently influenced the orientation and conception of teaching of
Chinese teachers (e.g. Bond, 2010; Chen, 2014; Hue, 2007; Watkins &
Biggs, 2001). On the other hand, some suggested there was an influence of
the legacy of British culture on school curriculum and teaching in Hong
Kong. Teachers in Hong Kong may have maintained a Chinese culture,
but have also mixed it with other cultural influences from the West (e.g.
UK or USA) (Cheng, 2004a).
This paper reports a recent project which intended to investigate how
Chinese teachers in Hong Kong perceive effective HOT teaching, which is
an initiative imported from the West, and to inquire if and how cultural
influences or barriers affect the enactment of this imported educational
initiative. The influence of Chinese traditional values of teaching, if any,
on such conceptions was also investigated.

Defining higher order thinking (HOT)

Both eastern and western literatures have discussed the concept of HOT.
At the beginning of the 1980s, Chinese scientist Qian Xuesen presented a
series of articles to advocate research on thinking science (Yang, 2005).
Resnick (1987) was among the first to define HOT as having nine distinc-
tive characteristics, including non-algorithmic, complex, self-regulated,
effortful, etc. Lewis and Smith (1993) offered a useful comparison
between lower and higher order thinking skills. Lower order thinking
(LOT) demands only routine or mechanical application of information
but HOT challenges students to interpret, analyse and manipulate infor-
mation to solve problems. Some academics attempted to categorise HOT
in greater detail. Bloom, Engelhart, Furst, Hill and Krathwohls (1956)
Taxonomy of Educational Objectives identified six levels within the cogni-
tive domain of learning, which can be thought of as an early categorisa-
tion of the order of thinking skills. At the lowest levels of the taxonomy
were Knowledge and Comprehension, moving up to more complex and
abstract mental levels of Analysis, Application, Synthesis and Evaluation
(see also Anderson et al., 2001). Marzano (1988) conceptualised HOT as
thinking processes, such as concept formation, comprehension, decision-
making, and problem solving. Others categorised thinking skills into
556 S-y.S. Yeung

micro or essential thinking skills (e.g. compare and contrast, sequencing,

classification, causal explanation and prediction), macro or complex cog-
nitive strategies (e.g. critical thinking, creative thinking, problem solving
and decision-making) and metacognitive skills (McGregor, 2007; Swartz
& Perkins, 1990). In sum, HOT requires students not only to understand
the relationship between different variables (LOT) but also how to apply
or transfer that understanding to a new, uncharted context (higher
order thinking) (Saavedra & Opfer, 2012, p. 10). Newmann (1990)
explains that HOT is necessary for people to: (1) participate as responsi-
ble, empowered citizens in a democracy, (2) contribute as productive
workers to a technological society, and (3) have rewarding personal lives,
which includes managing ones private affairs, continuing to learn and
benefiting from culture (p. 45). This ability is exactly what students need
to meet successfully the demands of the twenty-first century.

Teaching of HOT
Researchers from the West have suggested various strategies and
approaches to enhance students HOT. Leaman and Flanagan (2013) dis-
tinguish the teaching of HOT from LOT by stressing that we had come
to understand teaching as a practice that moves beyond knowledge and
application of quality teaching strategies (lower order skills) to the
moment-by-moment use of critical thinking skills to meet the needs of
every learner (higher order skills) (p. 48). Eggan and Kauchak (2001) sug-
gested that teachers role is teaching for understanding. They have to
employ various teaching methods such as asking thought-provoking ques-
tions and guiding students to do a variety of thought-demanding things,
for example, explaining, finding evidence and examples, generalising,
applying, analogising, and representing the topic in a new way (p. 15).
Milvain (2008) suggested that constructivism should be the basis of HOT
teaching, where learners construct or reconstruct knowledge and under-
standing by means of an active thinking process. Newmann (1991) sug-
gested three essential elements to effective HOT teaching the
knowledge, the skills and the dispositions. It is important that teachers
design instruction explicitly to help students acquire and use in-depth
knowledge, skills, and dispositions of thoughtfulness to solve higher order
challenges. Borich (2006) and some other researchers identified the impor-
tance of thinking dispositions in the teaching HOT. Among them, Costa
and Kallicks (2009) habits of mind was an impressive model. To teach all
the key elements of HOT, Costa (2001) suggested that a balanced pro-
gramme should include three components: Teaching for Thinking, Teach-
ing of Thinking and Teaching about Thinking. Similarly, Swartz and
Perkins (1990) proposed Teaching for Thinking and Teaching of Thinking
as equally important in a HOT curriculum. Fogarty (2009) had a similar
The Curriculum Journal 557

Table 1. Conception of effective HOT teaching in Western literature

Four dimensions for HOT What should teachers do?

Teaching for Thinking (setting Create a rich and encouraging classroom environment
the classroom climate) that is conducive to students thinking
Teaching of Thinking Ask HOT questions and/or structure challenging HOT
(instructing HOT Skills) tasks and activities that motivate the students to use
prior knowledge to gain new knowledge
Teaching with Thinking Give students ample time and opportunity to think and
(structuring classroom prepare responses to questions; encourage them to
interactions) exchange thoughts with others and to be highly
involved in dialogue, discussion, etc. (Fogarty, 2009)
Teaching about Thinking Guide students to become conscious of their own
(helping students to reflect thinking processes and have the ability to control
metacognitively) and regulate them (Keefe & Walberg, 1992; Swartz &
Perkins, 1990)

proposal the Four-Corner Framework, where the four corners are

Teaching for Thinking, Teaching of Thinking, Teaching with Thinking
and Teaching about Thinking. Hence, literature in the field informs us
that teaching of HOT should include four dimensions, i.e. Teaching of,
for, with and about Thinking (Table 1).

Chinese conceptions and values in teaching

There is comparatively less literature devoted to Chinese conceptions of
HOT teaching. It is however well documented that Chinese classroom
instruction can be characterised as having large class sizes, with the teach-
ing lecture-oriented and examination-driven (Li, 2011; Gao & Watkins,
2010; Watkins & Biggs, 2001). Some commented that Chinese education
discourages the expression of individual opinions, independence and crea-
tivity (Biggs, 1996a, 1996b; Chen, 2014; Cheng, 2004b) as the high stu-
dent teacher ratio necessitates an emphasis on discipline, obedience and
punishment, for the convenience of classroom management.
Besides the issue of class size, some attributed the de-emphasis of HOT
teaching in Chinese classrooms to the nature of traditional Chinese school
education. J. Li (2005) stated that Western learning beliefs emphasise the
mind while Chinese learning beliefs emphasise personal virtues and this
difference is evident in classroom teaching. Bond (2010) observed that
teachers in Hong Kong regard themselves as having the triple roles of cul-
tivating students cognitive development, their positive attitudes and
moral behaviour.
Some commented that the Chinese conception of teaching reflected
traditional Chinese values, which are largely Confucian values (Chen,
558 S-y.S. Yeung

2014; Huang & Lee, 2015; Tu, 1989). Confucian classes are mostly quite
formal and students are expected to receive knowledge from the teacher.
Teachers can be highly authoritarian and the teacher-student relationship
is characterised as hierarchical. An uncritical attitude to the teacher is
explained by the transfer of the Confucian ethic of filial piety (Biggs,
1996b; Ho, 2001; Li, 2005; Kim, 2007). Confucian tenets that an educated
person has to learn modesty develop the virtues of diligence, endurance of
hardship, concentration and perseverance, etc. lead Chinese students to
stay quiet and receptive, lacking a challenging attitude toward authority
and seldom initiating questions or verbal interactions in the classroom.
This has strengthened the tendency to stress an expository teaching
approach in Chinese classrooms (Kennedy, 2002; Li, 2005; Pratt, Kelly &
Wong, 1999).
Hong Kong is special in that students are exposed to the interactive
influences of both traditional Chinese Confucian-heritage culture and
Western ideas. Teachers conceptions of teaching are mediated by cul-
ture-specific educational environments and interactions. An investigation
of how teaching of thinking in this specific context is perceived as effective
may be useful.

Research design
Research purpose
The research aimed at exploring Hong Kong Chinese teachers concep-
tions of effective HOT teaching. It investigated how cultural influences or
barriers, if any, affect the implementation of this imported educational
initiative. The influence of Chinese traditional values of teaching on such
conceptions, if any, was also investigated. Findings and their implications
may add to the knowledge-based concerning quality HOT teaching.

Research method
The study was guided by grounded theory (Corbin & Strauss, 1990). This
is a qualitative research technique, which helps researchers to develop
new theories by collecting data first, and then drawing the embedded the-
ory from the data itself. The methodology that the present researcher has
adopted is in-depth interviews, which are particularly suitable to uncover
and inquire into what is inside the mind of the informants, i.e. the concep-
tion of teachers toward effective ways to teach thinking. It is difficult to
tap the complicated details of peoples thinking using quantitative meth-
ods. Conceptions relating to teaching are interior experiences of teachers
and interviewing is an effective way to learn about peoples interior expe-
riences (Weiss, 1994).
The Curriculum Journal 559

The researcher used a general interview guide approach (Patton, 2002)

in collecting data. An interview guide was developed which included the
following questions:

(1) How would you describe your HOT teaching?

(2) What do you think is an ideal, effective HOT lesson? What charac-
teristics should an effective HOT lesson have?
(3) What kind of strategies have you employed to enhance the effec-
tiveness of your HOT lessons?
(4) What kind of difficulties have you encountered, if any, that hinder
your implementation of effective HOT teaching?

In the interviews, the researcher remained free to build a conversation,

to explore, and to probe into information that would elucidate and illumi-
nate the research theme. Each of the selected teachers was interviewed
using semi-structured questions. Teachers were interviewed in their
mother tongue (Cantonese) by the researcher. Most of the interviews
lasted for about one hour. With the approval of the informants, all the
interviews were audio recorded and transcribed. A bilingual research
assistant then translated them into English.

Sampling procedure
The researcher invited 12 primary teachers to be informants. They were
from different primary schools in Hong Kong. These schools vary in
background and missions but all have adopted HOT teaching as part of
their recent curriculum reform. The schools implement HOT teaching
in various ways some adopt a whole-school approach for HOT teach-
ing while some others infuse HOT in subject teaching. The teachers
experience ranged from 3 to 12 years. They are all Chinese who were
born in Hong Kong. Cantonese is their mother tongue. All of them had
participated in implementing HOT curriculum in their classrooms. The
teachers were chosen by the reputational-case selection method
(LeCompte & Preissle, 1993) on the basis of the principals recommen-
dation or their reputation for quality work among their colleagues and
supervisors. Table 2 summarises the characteristics of the teachers and
the schools.

Data analysis
Qualitative data analysis began after all the raw data from the 12 individ-
ual interviews were transcribed (Miles & Huberman, 2014; Patton, 2002).
During the analysis, patterns and themes regarding the four dimensions
560 S-y.S. Yeung

Table 2. Participants of the research

Years of Approach of HOT teaching
Gender Rank1 reaching School type in the school

T1 Male AM 8 Subsidised school Whole-school approach

T2 Female CM 4 Subsidised school Infused in the teaching of
Chinese Language (only
for primary one to three
T3 Female CM 3 Subsidised school Infused in the teaching of
General Studies
T4 Female AM 10 Private school Whole-school approach
T5 Male AM 12 Subsidised school Infused in the teaching of
General Studies and
T6 Female AM 5 Subsidised school Infused in the teaching of
General Studies
T7 Female CM 6 Subsidised school Infused in the teaching of
Chinese language (only
for primary four to six)
T8 Male CM 4 Government school Infused in the teaching of
General Studies
T9 Male CM 4 Private school Whole-school approach
T10 Female AM 8 Government school Infused in the teaching of
General Studies
T11 Female AM 7 Subsidised school Whole-school approach
T12 Female CM 5 Subsidised school Infused in the teaching of
General Studies, Chinese
and English language
AM and CM are ranks for qualified primary school teachers in Hong Kong. AM stands for Assistant
Master/Mistress while CM stands for Certified Master/Mistress. AM is senior to CM.

of HOT teaching (see Table 1) as well as traditional Chinese conceptions

of teaching were identified.
Two main tactics were adopted to ensure the validity and credibility of
the study (Denzin & Lincoln, 2008):

(1) To reduce the likelihood of misinterpretation, the teachers were

asked to provide curriculum documents, such as lesson plans or
post-lesson reflective journals, for triangulation with the interview
(2) To ensure the validity of the interview data, the transcripts were
sent back to the respondents for verification and validation. The
respondents were also asked to elaborate their comments to ensure
that the transcripts truly reflected their views.
The Curriculum Journal 561

As it emerged from the data, the teachers conception of quality HOT
teaching embraced the following dimensions:

(1) their understanding/definition of effective HOT teaching;

(2) effective strategies of teaching thinking;
(3) underlying epistemology;
(4) practical concerns about including HOT in teaching

Defining effective HOT teaching

Almost all 12 teachers defined good HOT teaching as teaching that ena-
bles students to think at a higher level, or to develop as effective thinkers.
Many of them agreed with the Hong Kong Government that HOT teach-
ing is important to ensure Hong Kongs competitive advantage in the
knowledge economy. For instance,

If students are to function successfully in contemporary society, they must

be equipped with the lifelong learning and thinking skills necessary to
acquire and process information in an ever-changing world. This is also the
recent reform agenda of Hong Kong Education Bureau. (T1)

(E)ffective HOT lessons can help students improve their thinking skills. By
continuous practice, they will become effective thinkers who are equipped
with useful abilities of analytical thinking, creative thinking, etc. Their abil-
ity to compare and contrast, create and imagine, all in all, eventually
improves. (T4)

Better HOT lessons enable students to consider more possibilities and chal-
lenge their assumptions about problems. They are effective in training stu-
dents to experience better thinking by exercising keener judgement, and to
learn how to maintain objectivity and balance. (T6)

Effective HOT teaching strategies

Interestingly, the 12 participants offered similar strategies that they
believe can enhance students HOT effectively. The teachers proposed the
following nine teaching tactics or tips:

(1) Infusing HOT into subject teaching. Teachers suggested that HOT
could be effectively taught by infusing it into subject teaching. The
subject they mostly suggested is General Studies. General Studies
is a subject learned by all primary school children in Hong Kong.
It is an integrated subject formed by merging three previous sub-
jects Social Studies, Health Education and Integrated Science
(CDC, 2002). The subject includes discussion of various social
562 S-y.S. Yeung

issues and is thus considered as a good context for implementing

HOT teaching.
(2) Use of group learning approach. All the teachers found that HOT
teaching would be effectively implemented if they let students learn
in groups. Many of them found that the approach of cooperative
learning (Johnson & Johnson, 1994) worked well with the teaching
of thinking.
We (teachers) have designed motivating HOT activities in which students
are asked to work in groups. The approach group-based learning often
works! Students were found helping each other to work excitedly for the
group goals. (T7)

(3) Use of models of thinking or thinking tools. Almost all teachers

found that it is important to adopt effective thinking tools or mod-
els to design and conduct classroom activities.

(I)ts good to provide some models of thinking for students. They can fol-
low the models during the thinking activities. Both students and teachers
can thus have a kind of common language for teaching and learning of
HOT. (T1)

The EdB (Education Bureau) has recommended the so-called 13

techniques2 for training students HOT. We plan to reserve several lessons
in every grade for the drilling of students in one or two techniques in every
lesson. We will also vertically organize our school curriculum by spreading
the instruction of the 13 techniques along lower to upper primary grades,
for instance, we can teach the technique of Consider(ing) all factors to pri-
mary three classes but the technique of Forced connection to primary five
students. We aim at drilling every student to become an automatic user of
the 13 techniques. (T2)

Teachers agreed that some famous thinking tools or learning strategies

are useful in guiding students to think. They include:

I. Blooms taxonomy (in the design of different levels of questioning

and assessment items on test papers)
II. Other systematic and easy-to-follow approaches such as mind
mapping, six thinking hats (de Bono, 2000), inquiry method, and
problem-solving model (Delisle 1997).

Teachers preferred models which have clear, simple and systematic

procedures as one teacher described,

our team (of teachers) agrees that the technique, prediction of con-
sequence is an appropriate thinking activity. It is a safe method that has
easy steps for students to follow. So we identify some topics in semester two
which can best fit this technique of thinking. Then we design certain lessons
for implementing it. (T5)
The Curriculum Journal 563

for upper primary classes, HOT lessons that request students to use six
thinking hats to consider an issue are often effective. This is because stu-
dents find this thinking model easy to learn different colour of hats repre-
sent different perspectives. (T6)

(4) The necessity of model answers. When leading students to inquire

into certain social issues (such as reclamation and recycling, or
pet-keeping in public estates), teachers considered that they had
the full responsibility to provide response and feedback to
students comments and suggestions. After the games or activities,
suggested answers had to be provided for students reference.

(On the issue of pet-keeping), their (students) ideas are sometimes too ide-
alistic. For instance, one student said to stop dogs from running around,
adults could simply give the dogs an injection! So you can see the solutions
they propose are sometimes impractical, and teachers follow-up evaluation
is important! (T7).

(5) Plan for manageable lessons. To ensure the effectiveness of a HOT

lesson, teachers thought that they need to make it manageable.
Hence, cautious pre-lesson planning had to be done regarding vari-
ous aspects, such as the choice of thinking activities used in the les-
sons; the topic for students thinking activities, the timing of lesson
activities, the organisation of the classroom, and the possible disci-
pline problem thus caused.

Teaching time is so constrained (40 minutes for a lesson) that we cant

afford to be wrong. So to make the lesson manageable, we need to plan our
lesson very carefully we need to choose a topic that students have good
knowledge of, and the choice of discussion question should be within their
cognitive level. (T2 and T3)
We have to be careful to devise cases which are part of the daily lives of our
students. We have to race against time. For example, to stimulate students
awareness of the importance of environmental conservation, we chose the
issue of availability of dogs toilet for their exploration. Many students
have kept dogs as pets. They therefore completed the HOT task easily. (T6)

(6) Control of the thinking environment being neither too open nor too
free. Many teachers in the group agreed that some control should
be exercised over students thinking. For example, to better control
the flow of the HOT lessons, some teachers made cautious choice
of issues for students discussion. These issues were never too
open-ended and teachers (and even students) had certain expected
suggestions for such issues. For example,

We would give them some conditions or guidelines. Once I gave them an

incomplete statement if theres a sudden electric shock and asked them
to finish it with their creative thinking. There are always students who are
564 S-y.S. Yeung

too keen to provide diverse answers. We are alert to the possible

problems thus caused and therefore add one condition for students
consideration please limit your answers only to your feeling. Thanks
God the flow of the lesson therefore was under good control! (T9)

(7) Working to the demand of assessment. The teachers were very con-
cerned about the need to identify relevant assessment criteria to
evaluate student HOT learning. They cared about how students
perform in the thinking activities; and their experience tells them
that scores are valid and direct indicators of performance. There-
fore, they were very keen to design appropriate assessment forms
to support their evaluation. Some of them presented samples of
assessment forms during the interviews.

Assessment is often a difficult task that affects our design of thinking activi-
ties. An effective HOT lesson should make fair assessment of the students.
We have to report (to parents, to administrators) the performance of stu-
dents in these thinking activities. (T8)
We need to design an assessment form with suitable criteria to evaluate stu-
dent thinking in the HOT activities. This task is difficult for many teachers.
Hence, we have no choice but to confine our design of HOT teaching to think-
ing dimensions that are easier to assess (like critical thinking). Colleagues
found it difficult to measure students creative thinking. (T10)
Because of the heavy teaching load, we may not have enough time to design
assessment for different thinking activities. So, to be honest, we would
repeat using a similar activity and adapt the same assessment form for dif-
ferent grades. (T11)

(8) Emphasis on moral development and character building. Teachers

were not satisfied by merely teaching students how to think. The
development of students moral conduct, character, personality
and social skills, etc., were also considered to be fundamental for
effective HOT teaching,

We all know that besides thinking abilities, we need to help our students to
develop good character and personality. We need to help them develop
good moral conduct, social skills, and love of nature and others. Most
teachers consider this our most important mission of teaching. (T1)

(9) Emphasis on students reflection. Many teachers reserved self-reflec-

tion time in every HOT lesson for students to reflect about per-
sonal learning. Self-reflection was regarded as an important
element of effective HOT teaching and students were often
reminded to evaluate their own thinking. As one teacher remarked,

(T)hese efforts (of asking students to reflect) enable primary children, who
are chiefly ego-centric, to reflect on their own mindset so as to advance to
a higher level in thinking. (T6)
The Curriculum Journal 565

Teachers underlying epistemology

Epistemology relates to ones belief about knowledge. The teachers shared
a belief that both subject-content knowledge and thinking skills are
important objects of learning and have to be taught effectively in a good
HOT lesson,

The fundamental function of classroom teaching is to transmit useful

knowledge to students. I also appreciate HOT teaching because it is perti-
nent to developing students thinking abilities. Ive tried my best to teach
both well during the lesson. (T3)

However, they often considered knowledge transmission a task of top

priority while the development of thinking was a supplementary input for
students. The following findings illustrate this observation:

(1) Some teachers believed that the development of thinking abilities

should come after knowledge acquisition. To them, HOT and con-
tent knowledge are two separate kinds of knowledge to be learnt.
Before setting students off to thinking activities, it was necessary
to supply students with the relevant knowledge. Thinking activities
were often considered as a means to develop students HOT or for
strengthening students memory of the knowledge learned during
the lesson, as one teacher explained,

Students thinking can be empty if it is not grounded on relevant knowl-

edge. Hence, I think it is important to give students some useful knowledge
before setting them off on playing HOT games or activities. (T9)

(2) Teachers often requested students to present their answers orally

during the lesson or to put down answers on worksheets before the
lesson ended.

We think that we should try every effort to ensure that students have
learned some knowledge before the end of every HOT lesson. (T12)

This explains to some extent why teachers often found themselves

short of time to teach.

Practical concerns about infusing HOT into teaching

Large class sizes, time constraints, and the quantity of required subject-
content coverage were all practical difficulties faced by the teachers in the
implementation of effective HOT teaching (in the ideal form they had
described) in classrooms. Another practical concern raised by some teach-
ers was preparing students for examination. This concern keeps a tight
566 S-y.S. Yeung

rein on their allocation of time, topics and effort to infuse HOT into regu-
lar teaching. Teachers explained these concerns in the interviews,

With the large class size (around 35 to 40 students), one could hardly pro-
vide adequate guidance to every student. (T6)

Teaching time in local primary schools is limited. We have only 10 minutes

to give instruction, 20 minutes for student activities and presentation, leav-
ing only five to 10 minutes for wrapping up. With this time constraint, we
can hardly say that lessons are effective! (T8, T5)

On top of time constraints, we have to rush to complete the subject syllabus

in time for students preparation for examinations. Parents sometimes com-
plain that teachers should spend more time on preparing children for inter-
nal and external examinations. (T11, T12)

The current research shows that teaching of HOT in Hong Kong is influ-
enced by intermingled Western and traditional Chinese values in teaching.
Teachers conception of effective HOT teaching is found to be character-
ised by both Western and traditional Chinese (mainly Confucian) values
of teaching. Faced with the practical orientation in Chinese societies,
teachers in Hong Kong are often torn between the aim of high academic
achievement and the teaching of HOT. On the other hand, the findings
show that the conceptions of teachers regarding HOT teaching were com-
paratively narrow or confined. This feature suggests that certain cultural
barriers are still hampering Hong Kong teachers in the post-handover

Agreement of suggested HOT strategies with the four dimensions of HOT

The nine tactics for effective HOT teaching proposed by the teachers were
found to coincide fairly well with the four dimensions of effective HOT
teaching proposed by Western scholars (see Table 1). Table 3 further dis-
plays the agreement of the nine tactics with the four dimensions of HOT
The tactic of infusing HOT into subject teaching agrees with the princi-
ple of Teaching with Thinking. This conception, however, also implies
that top priority is placed on knowledge transmission while development
of thinking is only a supplementary input for students. The use of group
learning approaches aligns with the famous western theory of cooperative
learning (Johnson & Johnson, 1994) and the principle of Teaching with
Thinking. The consideration of using models of thinking or thinking tools
is close to the principle of Teaching of Thinking, which suggests teachers
Table 3. Comparison between teachers conception of effective HOT teaching with theories from the West and traditional Chinese values of
Nine HOT teaching tips suggested by Theory of HOT teaching advocated Traditional Chinese values of Teaching influenced by
the informants in the West Confucian thought to a certain extent

1. Infusing HOT into subject teaching Teaching with Thinking in the HOT Academic-oriented epistemology: knowledge transmission is
four-dimension model the top priority while development of thinking is a
supplementary input for students
2. Use of group learning approach Teaching with Thinking: structuring
classroom interaction
3. Use of models of thinking or Teaching of Thinking: instructing  teachers should have good knowledge of subject content;
thinking tools thinking skills  teachers tend to remain teacher-centred when conducting
student-centred initiatives;
 teachers could be highly authoritarian to keep absolute
control over the classroom;
 teachers emphasises on discipline, order, time control and
obedience for effective teaching
4. The necessity of model answers
5. Plan for manageable lessons
6. Control of the thinking
7. Working to the demand for Achievement-oriented culture: examination success as the goal
assessment for schooling
8. Emphasis on moral development Education should support all students to self-cultivate morally
and character building for the ideal of a gentleman or perfect man.
9. Emphasis on students reflection Teaching about Thinking: helping to
reflect metacognitively
The Curriculum Journal
568 S-y.S. Yeung

should directly instruct and train students in thinking skills. However, as

some teachers trained students to use these thinking tools/models mechan-
ically, it seems that they failed to recognise that effective HOT teaching
should also be constructivist teaching. The emphasis on helping students to
reflect is coherent with the dimension of Teaching about Thinking in the
four-dimension model.
Hong Kong teachers ideas about effective HOT teaching are thus in
many ways consistent with relevant Western theories. However, one
dimension of HOT teaching was found considerably missing the dimen-
sion of Teaching for Thinking (setting the classroom climate). The teach-
ers had not proposed sufficient strategies to cultivate an environment in
which students would turn thinking skills into part of day-to-day behav-
iour, to be valued and sustained. This dimension, which Tishman, Perkin
and Jay (1995) term the ideal of a culture of thinking, is essential for
developing the thinking dispositions of effective thinkers (Borich, 2006;
Costa & Kallick, 2000).

The influence of traditional Chinese teaching values and Confucian ethics

Five out of the nine tactics of effective HOT teaching proposed by the
teachers in this study were found to coincide with certain traditional Chi-
nese conceptions of teaching. They include:

(1) necessity of model answers;

(2) plan for manageable lessons;
(3) control of the thinking environment;
(4) working to the demand of assessment; and
(5) emphasis on moral development and character building.

The importance of a well-planned and orderly lesson. The first three con-
ceptions above illustrate the emphasis of a well-controlled classroom in
traditional Chinese thinking. Teachers in the current study emphasised
the importance of a well-planned and carefully-structured lesson, in which
students are provided with close supervision and instruction, model
answers, feedback and a conclusion. The thinking process was under full
control of the teacher, who had the authority to set students off on think-
ing, monitor their learning pace, and control the content and timing of
student discussion. Hence, this study has confirmed previous findings
(Biggs, 1996b; Chan & Chan, 1999; Tweed & Lehman, 2002) regarding
features of Chinese classroom and teaching as follows:

(1) teachers should have good knowledge of subject content;

(2) teachers are still inclined to be teacher-centred when conducting
student-centred initiatives;
The Curriculum Journal 569

(3) teachers could be highly authoritarian if necessary in order to keep

absolute control over the situation;
(4) teachers place an emphasis on discipline, order, time control and
obedience for effective HOT teaching.

Besides, these conceptions of effective HOT teaching also display the

influence of Confucian thought in education (Chen, 1993; Ho, 2001),

(1) the faith in hierarchy: respect and docility towards teachers (who
are the superiors in the hierarchy) from students (who are the
(2) the belief that teachers represent authority and ought to have
strong content knowledge;
(3) the conviction that teachers have the duty to give students final,
trustworthy answers to their questions (the model answers, in
teachers terms).

Apart from traditional influences, the practical difficulties that the

teachers faced also reinforce these conceptions. As in many other contem-
porary Chinese societies, teachers in Hong Kong still face large class sizes,
high student teacher ratios and a packed teaching syllabus. These con-
textual constraints have produced a strong need for teachers to maintain
order and structure in their lessons. Lessons with tight frames are cer-
tainly easier to manage. As a consequence, teachers often exercise the-
matic control over the discussion and conversation of students (Xie,
2010). Effective HOT lessons, in their view, should therefore begin by
careful planning with topics and answers explicitly prescribed, and a strict
time limit should be set for thinking activities and discussion as well.
Rather than providing a free climate for students to express their
thoughts, many teachers cannot resist promptly criticising or manipulat-
ing students answers. Although the teachers claimed that these strategies
were effective in teaching HOT, they might have reduced students inter-
action as well as thinking levels.
The achievement-oriented culture. The conception of working to the
demand of assessment restates another characteristic of Chinese education
noted by some scholars (Bond, 2010; Gao & Watkins, 2010; Watkins &
Biggs, 2001) the emphasis on examination and assessment. Chinese
education is often described as highly achievement-oriented. This relates
to the Confucian idea that an educated person should succeed academi-
cally. He can then serve the public and make society more civilised and
the government more caring and responsible (Lin, 2010; Rainey, 2010;
Watson, 2007). Although classical Confucian thought may not take this
view, examinations have traditionally been regarded as an effective sieve
570 S-y.S. Yeung

to select outstanding educated men. This old practice has become a deep-
seated Chinese value and hence examination success is generally regarded
as the goal of schooling. In Hong Kong, this is still true today. A student
will strive hard all the way up from primary to secondary grades to excel
in examinations and eventually to be enrolled in a university. Although
students only need to sit for one public examination instead of two since
2012 (Hong Kong Examinations and Assessment Authority, 2014), the
tradition that assessment drives teaching and learning remains strong
(Carless & Lam, 2014).
The responsibility of cultivating students moral character. The emphasis
on moral development and character building for teaching of HOT con-
firms the suggestion of researchers who claimed that Chinese teachers
regard themselves as having the multiple roles of cultivating both
students cognitive abilities and moral, social and personal virtues (Bond,
2010; Ho, 2001; Hue, 2007; Li, 2005; Pratt, 1992), This conception reflects
the influence of classical Confucian thought (Li, 2005), which defined
junz (Chinese: ; literally lords child meaning a gentleman or a per-
fect man) as everyones ideal role model and expected education to help
cultivating peoples moral attributes so that they can eventually become
such an ideal person. According to Confucius, a gentleman has all the vir-
tues of ren (Chinese: ; literally benevolence), including filial piety, hon-
esty, sincerity, dutifulness, wisdom, courage, and sympathy, etc. (Chen,
2014; Gao & Watkins, 2002; Lin, 2010; Rainey, 2010; Watson, 2007) and
is expected to act as a moral guide for the rest of the society. Most Chinese
teachers in Hong Kong who were brought up in a Chinese family wish to
be such a role model for students and to cultivate their moral qualities.
The teachers in this study also regard this as one element of good HOT

Teaching thinking in Hong Kong classrooms: a pragmatic approach

As mentioned, some previous studies assumed that Chinese education dis-
couraged the expression of individual opinion and creativity. The present
study, however, provides evidence that these interpretations have to be
modified. Teachers in Hong Kong emphasise both the mind and personal
virtues, and they have proposed and also put into practice some strategies
to promote HOT in classrooms. In principle, this is consistent with Con-
fucian thought, which has stressed the importance of thinking in learning,

The Master (Confucius) said, learning without thinking is in vain; thinking

without learning is hazardous (The Analects3, 2, 15)

It is interesting to find that Chinese teachers in Hong Kong have

adapted the Western approach to educate children in thinking by
The Curriculum Journal 571

choosing certain practical approaches, which become particular features

for teaching thinking in a Chinese context. They include:

(1) transmission of knowledge goes before teaching of thinking (see

also the above section on epistemology);
(2) teaching of thinking as a skill;
(3) providing model answers to students at the end of the discussion.

Western theory understands the teaching of HOT as a process of facili-

tating and intriguing students to explore, analyse, criticise and generate.
To the Western teachers of thinking, the process of learning is more
important than the outcome in terms of the knowledge gained. Learning
through thinking is a constructivist process where students are encour-
aged to use knowledge to construct or create knowledge (McGregor,
2007; Milvain, 2008; Perkins, 1999). However, findings from this study
imply that the Hong Kong teachers have a different philosophy and epis-
temology. To them, knowledge inherited from the past and printed in
textbooks is almost the ultimate or definitive. Knowledge is to be learned,
or more accurately to be transmitted by teachers to students. This is,
again, a Confucian thought knowledge is the wisdom transmitted from
the past, which should be learned humbly from generation to generation
(Lin, 2010; Rainey, 2010; Watson, 2007). Knowledge transmission there-
fore takes precedence in teachers instructional decisions, while teaching
of thinking is just a supplementary goal.
It was appropriate when Tweed and Lehman (2002) described Chinese
teachers as inheriting the Confucian pragmatic ethics in teaching. Obvi-
ously, the approach trusted as effective by the teachers in this study is dif-
ferent from the Western one. Like many Confucian followers, the
teachers in the present study showed that they prefer to believe that
knowledge can be applied, rather than be created (as claimed by Western
The Master (Confucius) said,

I will not open up the truth to one who is not eager to get knowledge, nor
help out anyone who is not anxious to explain himself. When I have pre-
sented the key concepts of a subject to one who cannot apply them to solve
three other problems, I will not repeat my lesson. (The Analects, 7,8)

The Master said,

to learn and practice constantly, is it not a pleasure? (The Analects, 1,1)

The study shows that Hong Kong teachers opt to teach thinking as
skills. By recommending models of thinking as tools to be used, teachers
572 S-y.S. Yeung

once again demonstrate the Chinese pragmatic orientation in teaching

(Biggs, 1996a; Cheng, 2004b; Tweed & Lehman 2002). These teachers are
happy to train students in certain skills or models of thinking, provided
that their own vital role in transmitting coherent knowledge is not for-
feited. The traditional values of teaching and the Confucian ideal of a
good teacher are so influential that very few of them could trust faithfully
the constructivist philosophy that knowledge can be explored and self-
generated by learners. This may explain to a certain extent why the teach-
ers always consider it important to provide students with model answers
after the HOT activities. The model answers are taken as knowledge to be

Cultural barriers and affordances Hong Kong teachers encountered with

HOT teaching
When Hong Kong teachers drilled students to use the thinking tools or
models mechanically in well-controlled classrooms, it seems that they
failed to recognise that effective HOT teaching should also be constructiv-
ist teaching. Although the teachers claimed that these strategies were
effective in teaching HOT, they might have reduced students interaction
as well as thinking levels. One could comment that the conceptions of
teachers regarding HOT teaching were comparatively narrow or confined.
Their preference for teaching HOT is probably influenced or reinforced by
the skill-based approach promoted by Hong Kong Education Bureau to
teach HOT (e.g. the 13 techniques, as mentioned by the key informants in
the study). The concept of HOT teaching has at least three layers of func-
tions, namely to enable students to participate as empowered citizens in a
democracy, to contribute as productive workers in a technological society,
and to learn and to lead a successful life (Newman, 1990). Maybe influ-
enced by the policy of the Hong Kong Government (CDC, 2001), teachers
were found aware of the latter two functions of HOT teaching i.e.
equipping students with thinking skills is important to facilitate the devel-
opment of a knowledge-based economy. On the other hand, the function
of HOT teaching in nurturing students democratic competence and val-
ues was seemingly overlooked. In fact, some previous studies have shown
that many Hong Kong teachers are inclined to work to the expectations
of officials (Huang & Lee, 2015; Yeung, 2012). These studies found that
sometimes frontline teachers may be misled to highlight teaching proce-
dures rather than implementing the essence and underpinning values of a
teaching innovation (Huang & Lee, 2015; Yeung, 2008, 2009). In many
cases, the will of officials dominates the decision-making of schools and
teachers. In this way, teachers become mere technicians, instruments and
deliverers of other peoples agendas (Hargreaves, 2003, p. 161). Eventu-
ally, teachers in our community have little capacity to recapture their
The Curriculum Journal 573

dignity and act as, in Hargreaves(2003) words, the societys leading

intellectuals (p. 161). Teaching is reduced to technical rationality and
teachers do not become truly reflective, professional practitioners (Schon,
1983). Eisner (2001) severely criticised this as a culture of schooling in
which a narrow means/ends orientation is promoted (p. 187). Some
researchers complained that attempts to confine curriculum to a techno-
cratic orientation and to restrain the teaching force to a low level of pro-
fessionalism had a depoliticising orientation, tactically deployed by the
Hong Kong government to serve political agendas in post-1997 Hong
Kong (Kennedy, 2004; Morris, 2004; Leung, Yuen, & Ngai, 2014).

Conclusion and recommendations

This study has investigated teachers ideas about effective HOT teaching
in Hong Kong. The sample of Chinese teachers provides a list of effective
approaches to teach thinking. The nine tactics match most of the four
dimensions of effective HOT teaching proposed by western scholars. The
missing dimension of Teaching for Thinking implies an incomplete imple-
mentation of HOT teaching when compared with the ideal. From their
suggestions, it is also found that Chinese values in teaching have influ-
enced the conception of effective HOT teaching of teachers. And some
significant strains of Confucian thought underlie this cultural influence.
The findings confirm certain results from previous studies of Chinese
teaching and clarify some misunderstandings in previous literature that
Chinese teachers are reluctant to teach thinking.
Moreover, the findings show that Chinese teachers in Hong Kong have
adapted the Western approach to teach thinking by choosing certain prac-
tical and mechanical approaches, which become particular features for
teaching thinking in a Chinese (Hong Kong) way. It also shows that the
ideology reflected in the conceptions of these teachers remained mostly at
the technical side. From the perspective of student learning outcomes,
we can see that these ways of teaching thinking have some limitations.
For instance, students would have less autonomy and freedom to think
and express themselves. The true essence of student-centred education
and constructivism, which are the underlying philosophy of HOT educa-
tion, is only partially achieved, and may somehow have been twisted (see
also Yeung, 2009). Some may criticise that this is the verdict of a judge-
ment through the eyes of the West. At any rate, the present research once
again affirms that cultural differences and probable barriers are essential
factors that policy-makers ought to consider before launching any educa-
tional reform, especially if they wish to incorporate new ideas borrowed
from foreign countries.
In the new era of Hong Kong as a Special Administrative Region
(SAR) of China, curriculum development is inevitably affected by the
574 S-y.S. Yeung

political concern that the next generations need to be educated with the
value of national identity and even that of patriotism. But after all, curric-
ulum building for the future should be a global conversation (Yeung,
2012). Teaching children to become effective thinkers is increasingly rec-
ognised as an immediate, global trend of education in recent decades.
Turning to the global market economy, Hong Kong cannot afford to lose
its competitiveness as well as its uniqueness. Moreover, telephone surveys
reveal that the younger generations (aged 18 29) have a stronger commit-
ment to democracy than the older age groups (Chiu, 2010; Hong Kong
Institute of Education, 2013). All these developments may imply real
change in the curriculum conceptions towards the direction of democratic
education. HOT teaching can be a potential mode of curriculum that is
capable of emancipating schools and teachers, and arousing the con-
sciousness of students in society towards a new sociology of knowledge.
Including HOT in the school curriculum is therefore essential for demo-
cratic development of every society (Gardner, 2006). This is as true for
Hong Kong as it is for other places. Persistent efforts to implement think-
ing curriculum will have an impact on every culture.

Disclosure statement
No potential conflict of interest was reported by the author.

1. Confucius (551 491 BC) was the foremost among Chinas ancient philosophers. His
teachings and thoughts had a profound influence on the development of Chinese history
and left a deep imprint on the Chinese psyche (Lin, 2010). He was born during what is
known as the Spring and Autumn Period (722 480 BC) in Chinese history. That was a
time of tremendous social, economic and political changes. Confucius offered solutions to
these issues. The philosophy of Confucius emphasised personal and governmental moral-
ity, appropriate social relationships, justice and sincerity.
2. The 13 techniques proposed by EDB in Hong Kong include: 6-W thinking skills,
timeline, compare and contrast, attributes listing, six thinking hats, consequences
and sequel, forced connection, considering all factors, other peoples points of view,
guess and match, examining both sides, alternative ways, and predicting all con-
sequences (Tsang, 2012).
3. The Analects, or Lun y u, also known as the Analects of Confucius, is the collection of say-
ings and ideas attributed to the Chinese philosopher Confucius and his contemporaries. It
was believed to have been co-written by Confucius disciples who recollect what their Mas-
ter (Confucius) had said and done (Watson, 2007).

Notes on contributor
Dr Sze-yin Shirley Yeung is currently an assistant professor of the Department of Curriculum
& Instruction at the Hong Kong Institute of Education. Her research interests include curricu-
lum change and implementation, school-based curriculum and evaluation and the infusion of
higher order thinking across curriculum and teaching. She is recently engaged in studying the
implementation of higher order thinking curriculum in regular and small class teaching
The Curriculum Journal 575

settings and the evaluation of the impact of School Self Evaluation (SSE) and External School
Review (ESR) policy to school curriculum and teaching.

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