Q&A with Chiang Kai Shek College President Dr Dory Poa on Implementing Educational Reforms


Dr. Dory Poa is the President of Chiang Kai Shek College, the largest Chinese Filipino school in the Philippines, with successful alumni like SM’s Henry Sy, PNB’s Lucio Tan, Jollibee’s Tony Tan Caktiong, among others. A language expert, Dr. Poa obtained her doctoral degree at Stanford University and taught in the Philippines, the USA, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Australia prior to her present assignment.

She shares insights about reforming the Chinese subjects’ curriculum in the elementary and high school level and making students truly multilingual.

Q1: What was your mandate when you assumed the presidency of Chiang Kai Shek College in 2013?

A: I first joined Chiang Kai Shek College (CKS College) in January of 2013 as a consultant on curriculum reforms. One of the most immediate challenges that the College was facing then was the pressure to meet the requirement set forth by the Department of Education for all schools to be K+12 complaint by the year 2016. To make this happen without sacrificing the quality of education and without financially over-burdening our students and parents, I worked out a three-year transition program that was implemented when I assumed office as President in June of the school year 2013.

CKS College has received a number of compliments from educators commending our Transition Program as one of the best K to 12 transition programs.

When I assumed office in June 2013, the teaching of Chinese was also facing a great challenge. CKS College is a premiere Filipino-Chinese school that has been known for educating students who are fluent in at least four languages (English, Tagalog, Mandarin, and Hokkien). However, for some years there was a view within the Chinese community that graduates of this bilingual program were no longer fluent in Chinese. Furthermore, Chinese was becoming unpopular among students. I then put reforming the Chinese curriculum on the top of my agenda.

Based on my experience as a language educator, and based on my previous experience and in my long term observation of the teaching of Chinese in Filipino-Chinese schools, I came to identify the core of the problem as the teaching approach and the teaching materials.

Traditionally among the Filipino-Chinese schools in the Philippines, the teaching of Chinese was mainly the teaching of Mandarin, which was being taught as if it was the first language of the students, and the textbooks used were designed for first language learners. Yet Chinese in the Philippines are not native Mandarin speakers; their ancestors mainly originated from the Southern part of Fujian Province in China, where they speak a language known as Minnanhua (Southern Min, popularly known as Hokkien). Not only do they not speak Mandarin, most members of the younger generations are barely fluent in their ethnic language (Minnanhua/Hokkien), though the lingua franca in the Chinese community is still Minnanhua/Hokkien. Because of these factors, the teaching approach and materials were not suitable for them; they should be learning Mandarin as a second language if not as a foreign language. It was in this light that the present CKS Chinese Academic Curriculum Reform was developed.

Starting with the beginning of the academic year in June, 2013, a series of drastic measures was undertaken to revolutionize Chinese language teaching at CKS College:

1. changing the approach of teaching Chinese (Mandarin) to teaching it as a second language;

2. replacing the Chinese language textbooks with modern updated versions suited for teaching Chinese as a second language;

3. improving language instruction through the adoption of effective communicative language learning approaches such as the following:

1. Video projects, to enable students to practice applying Mandarin more, increase their confidence in speaking Mandarin, nurture their creativity, and foster Information and Communications Technology (ICT) literacy in Chinese;

2. Reader’s Theater, to allow students to practice speaking Mandarin and nurture their collaboration and leadership skills;

3. Integrating Mandarin pop songs into the teaching of Mandarin, to increase learning satisfaction while reducing learning pressure and promoting students’ motivation and interest; and

4. Picture books integrated with Chinese compositions, to decrease lexical gap problems and increase students’ creativity.

4. promoting the learning of spoken Hokkien alongside the teaching/learning of Mandarin;

5. giving more academic weight to the Mandarin/Hokkien subject by considering it as the subject for Mother Tongue learning within the new K+12 curriculum;

6. developing and applying measurable approaches to assess and evaluate student performance;

7. ensuring that all teachers are trained to use new academic technologies and resources through continuous seminar-workshops and training; and

8. securing educational software to enhance and improve the quality of language teaching.

The ultimate goal is to produce what I call “三文四語”(Sanwen Siyu) graduates, that is, graduates who can 1) read and write three languages: English, Pilipino and Chinese; and who can 2) speak four languages: English, Pilipino, Mandarin, and Hokkien. These four languages provide our students with more options in different existing job markets: local (Chinese community), national (general Filipino market), international (Greater China and ASEAN markets) and international (English speaking markets). The goal is to bring back the teaching of Chinese as a service to the community.

Allow me to have a little longer explanation here:

When the first Chinese school was founded, it was actually a monolingual school wherein the teaching was mainly in Hokkien (Southern Min), as the overwhelming majority of the Chinese in the Philippines is from the Southern part of Fujian Province. In addition to teaching students how to read and recite the traditional “Three Character Text” (三字經) in Hokkien, students were also taught how to write letters, as many of the pioneer immigrants could not read or write, and so the most sought after jobs at that time was as ghost letter writers. Later on they were also taught how to use the abacus, as most of these young immigrants needed to work in their parents’ businesses. When the Americans came, English was then added to the curriculum. In other words, the establishment of Chinese schools was to serve the community, to produce graduates who would be useful to the community.

The situation changed after the founding of the Philippine Republic and also after the founding of the Republic of China. The focal point of the issue was citizenship. As we all know, the Philippines follows the principle of jus sanguinis (law of the blood), Chinese in the Philippines were all citizen of the Republic of China, and naturally, their schools were therefore put under the auspices of the Republic of China. The teachers, textbooks and teaching approaches were imported first from China, then later, Taiwan. In other words, Chinese schools in the Philippines at that time were branches of schools of the Republic of China. Not only were the textbooks and teaching approaches in line with the prescriptions of the Taiwan government, political activities and political slogans were also extended to all the Chinese schools in the Philippines. The teaching of Chinese was not to serve the needs of the local Chinese community anymore; the teaching of language had also transformed from the original monolingual Hokkien to bilingual Hokkien-Mandarin, and then later to monolingual Mandarin, following the practice in Taiwan at that time.

At that time, the situation made sense, since most of the Chinese in the Philippines were citizens of the Republic of China. However, On 11 April 1975, a Philippine Presidential Decree was issued allowing Chinese and other foreigners living in the Philippines to be mass naturalised, and as a consequence, almost all Chinese in the Philippines became Filipino citizens ovenight.

Mass naturalization of the Chinese in the Philippines was immediately followed by the Filipinization of all the Chinese schools. This should have been a good chance for the Chinese schools to be liberated from the control of a distant political institution, however, neither the Chinese community nor the Chinese educators were politically or psychologically ready to do that. Though Chinese classes were cut down to just two hours a day, and the textbooks were limited to the ones locally printed, the Chinese schools continued to teach Chinese in the same manner as before, treating their students as first language speakers. In other words, educators and Chinese community leaders continued to believe that they are still in a diaporic situation.

Q2: What were the major pain points of parent and student customer segments then and how did you address each of these major pain points?

A: There was not much of a problem with parents and students. Only a handful of conservative parents resisted the change, as they interpreted it as lowering the standard of Chinese, or for not giving importance to the learning of Chinese culture and history. I did not see any resistance from students mainly because the new approach made it easier for them to learn the language. At least, you don’t hear much of “I hate Chinese” among students anymore.

Q3: You also changed the Chinese Language textbooks, causing a controversy in the Chinese community then. Why was this change important? What has been the result since?

A: Yes, indeed it was quite a big step for CKS to take because the textbooks and the writing system are very much a cultural and political issue within the Chinese community. One columnist even criticized the reforms going on as an act of “cutting off our roots from our motherland.” Actually, I did not change the teaching of the writing system—we are still teaching students the traditional style (繁體字) — because I believe that education should serve the purpose of the community, and since most of the writing in major local Chinese newspapers is still in the traditional style, and most sign boards and local Chinese documents are still in that style, I think that it’s important for our students to learn it. However, in terms of the global situation, knowing the simplified style is also important. This is the reason, when I changed the textbook, that I picked one that is printed in both styles.

Another more controversial issue was the teaching of the phonetic symbols. CKS College had been teaching the Taiwan style phonetic symbols, which I think are already obsolete, and it was an added burden for students to learn another set of symbols for representing sounds rather than just using the Roman alphabet, which Pinyin is based on. So I initiated the switch to the Pinyin system.

Furthermore, the most important was changing the teaching approach and the presentation of the teaching materials from first to second language teaching. As I mentioned earlier, most of the Chinese schools had long been teaching Chinese as a first language, ignoring the fact that most of the Tsinoy kids are Tagalog or English native speakers. Even their parents might not speak Chinese anymore. In fact, the term “Chinese” is very problematic. If you say “Chinese” in the Philippines, then you are referring to “Chinese” from the Southern Min speaking area of Fujian province in China. So when you say “Chinese” spoken in the Philippine Chinese community, then you are referring to the Southern Min language. But the “Chinese” being taught in the Chinese schools is Mandarin or Putonghua/Guoyu, the national language of China and Taiwan. That’s why Mandarin is almost a “foreign” (I put “foreign” in quotes as the Chinese will kill me for saying this) language to the Chinese in the Philippine, as the lingua franca of the Philippine Chinese community is Hokkien (Minnanhua/Southern Min). With this background, teaching Chinese (Mandarin/Putonghua/Guoyu) as a first language to the Tsinoy kids is just inappropriate.

In addition to changing the teaching approach to second language teaching, I also reinstituted bilingual classroom language instruction, that is, using Hokkien alongside the teaching of Mandarin/Putonghua/Guoyu. I think this is the missing link compared to the previous teaching of Chinese (Mandarin) in the Chinese schools. In fact, the teaching of “Chinese” in the Philippine Chinese schools evolved from monolingual (Hokkien) language learning to bilingual (Hokkien alongside Mandarin) language learning and teaching and then to monolingual Mandarin-only language learning and teaching. I believe that though most of the Tsinoy kids now don’t speak “Chinese” anymore, they actually still are getting a lot of Hokkien input in the family and in the community. Though Hokkien and Mandarin are two different languages from the linguistic point of view, they belong to the same language family. Hokkien, being reinforced alongside the learning of Mandarin will not only help the learners learn Mandarin, it will also help the learners maintain their “Chinese” once they leave the Chinese schools, as they will continuously hear Hokkien being spoken in their environment. Other than this, it is also functional for the Tsinoy kids to know Hokkien, as most of them will be staying and working in the Hokkien speaking Philippine Chinese community. And, most importantly, as an ethnic group in the Philippines, it is important for them to maintain their heritage language.

Q4: How are the teachers coping with change?

A: Teachers have actually been trying very hard to cope with the changes, as they are the ones who have been feeling the pain of teaching something students have difficulty absorbing. They have been trying hard to adapt and adjust their approaches to teaching.

Q5: What were the challenges in the beginning of the change effort you instituted? What do you still need to overcome?

A: The mindset. It’s convincing teachers and a minority of the parents that making the lessons functional and easy for students to absorb is not equivalent to lowering standards. And that having lessons that are difficult and hard to swallow is not equivalent to high standards. And that learning should be fun, and that teaching should be fun.

Q6: Looking back, what would you have done differently?

A: I would probably do the same.

Q7: Many schools are quite alike. What is the main uniqueness of Chiang Kai Shek College now? What do you want it to be?

A: Yes, indeed, but Chiang Kai Shek College still excels in terms of its Chinese teaching. Actually, the curriculum and teaching reforms going on in Chiang Kai Shek College are not just happening in the teaching of Chinese. We are also reforming the English Division. I would like to see Chiang Kai Shek College excelling not only in the quality of its Chinese curriculum, but also in having a competitive English curriculum.

We are continuously reviewing our Chinese curriculum, and continuously revisiting our teaching materials and teaching approaches. This coming July, we are going to start an IB (International Baccalaureate) Program. We are going to have two pilot classes each in Grade 7 & 8 using IB teaching and learning concepts in both the English and Chinese curricula. Eventually we are also going do so in the primary grades. I hope that the IB approach will inspire our English and Chinese faculty to go further in revolutionizing our teaching approaches. In fact, it is more challenging to touch on the teaching in the English division as it had basically been left untouched by previous administrations.

Q8: You have readily supported the ‘Learning Chinese is Fun Movement’, a project of the Chinovation for Social Change Foundation. How can this movement help you in your school reform agenda?

A: This is exactly what we are trying to do, to make learning, not only of Chinese but all learning, to be fun. In addition to this, Chinovation also shares the same vision in the preservation and promotion of Filipino-Chinese heritage language and culture. Since we are working toward the same goal, whatever activites the Foundation has will certainly reenforce our reform agenda.

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