Updated: Mar 29, 2021
Jan Gube is an assistant professor at the Department of Curriculum and Instruction at The Education University of Hong Kong. Jan did not envision working as a university educator or becoming a scholar during his early years of studies but later directs his career path towards promoting diversity and inclusion in the education sector. In this article, he shares his journey and inspirations.
Tell us a little bit about your background?
I have a complex identity. I was born in Hong Kong and my parents are both Filipinos. From kindergarten to university, I studied in local Chinese medium schools and university in Hong Kong and later went to Australia for my postgraduate studies. Being a university educator wasn't the career path I had envisioned. I struggled in school; I went to a Band 4 (between Band 2 and 3 in the current ranking system; mid-low tier) secondary school and didn't like studying at that time. However, I reached a turning point after Form 5, where I switched to a private school and took my A-levels seriously. Though, it was so competitive to get into universities that I had to take a gap year. The gap year allowed me to work full time and take one more subject so I could meet the admission requirements of my university degree program.
After earning my degree, I started working in a tutorial centre. Later on, I worked part-time as an English language exercise book writer, and then as a researcher looking into different educational issues.
When I was a researcher, one of my bosses asked me what I wanted to do for my further studies. Inspired by my upbringing, I told them that I wanted to do something about the ethnic identities of minority students in Hong Kong. With the encouragement of my boss, I decided to take my PhD on this topic, and I conducted research on how a multicultural learning environment influences young people's ethnic identity.
What do you think is so wrong in our education system that it inspired you to take this route?
I didn't look at the whole issue thinking, “There is something wrong” or not when I was younger. Rather, I knew there was something missing in our education system.
For one, I was the only Filipino in my class back in primary school. People like me were treated just like other Chinese students, except that we were weaker in our Chinese. So, I started questioning my identity. Am I a Hongkonger? Am I a Filipino? There was no conversation about diversity and inclusion in school at the time. My learning experience in Chinese schools was more of a sink or swim situation, yet being surrounded by my Chinese peers helped me immersed in the local environment. To cope with demands in homework, tests and exams in Chinese subjects, I started attending tutorials until Primary 4, where I would do my homework. My tutor would then correct it and prepare me for dictations and tests. We would do this back and forth until I picked up my Chinese writing. Gradually, I learnt and became fluent in Chinese.
So how do you identify yourself now?
I am a Filipino from Hong Kong. I embrace the fact that I am different and that I have multiple identities.
Is your current job addressing your questions on identity?
Yes, my teaching touches on identity issues and my research concerns cultural diversity in education.
I currently teach Citizenship and Equality: Foundations of Schooling in a Global Age at The Education University of Hong Kong. The course looks at issues related to identity in many ways, particularly how education systems and schools shape who we are as citizens locally, nationally, and globally.
My research explores how diversity and inclusion are understood in schools, and how we, teacher educators, can promote cultural diversity within an educational context. At Education University, one of our initiatives is to advance teacher training in ways that better prepare aspiring teachers to teach in culturally diverse classrooms. Particularly, we want to better understand what it means to be culturally competent to teach in local schools with minority students, and to develop a curriculum that can strengthen aspiring teachers’ knowledge on equity and inclusion.
While popular in international settings, I think diversity and inclusion initiatives could be understood differently in the mainstream Chinese medium school context. Schools with limited exposure or experience in ethnic diversity could be very pragmatic in how they work with minority students. For instance, one common view is that: “Ethnic minorities cannot speak Chinese, so let’s teach them Chinese!” Based on research and experience, however, we know that language is not their only barrier to education and jobs. Indeed, a lot of underlying issues need to be addressed, such as how the learning environment, history, attitudes and policies contribute to (in-)equities of diverse learners in education, including how different stakeholders interact and respond to all these processes.
For example, in the curriculum, we talk about things like learner diversity to refer to students’ different abilities and disabilities to learn, yet the cultural dimension of diversity receives relatively little attention. If we ignore this dimension, it could be easy to be misled by an impression that teaching ethnic minorities is a burden.
Do you think training in the classroom will be sufficient?
Currently, cultural diversity in classrooms is addressed and discussed in limited ways in most local schools. What's lacking is people’s day-to-day experience to diversity, so classroom training itself is definitely insufficient.
Many Chinese students don't necessarily have a first-hand experience of growing up with people who are different from them. Indeed, most of them grow up in a very local Chinese setting where they haven't had the opportunity to talk to ethnic minorities.
What do you think is the best way to address diversity and inclusion issues in education?
Addressing diversity issues is inherently challenging because much of the work is really about changing attitudes. However, one of the best ways to do so is to have constant dialogues with different sectors in wider the community.
An important aspect of this dialogue is to consider whom we are trying to engage when promoting diversity and inclusion. As a non-Chinese person, diversity and inclusion work makes perfect sense to me and I can easily appreciate its value in terms of foster greater respect towards different cultures. Yet, I would always wonder whether the local majority would see it the same way, given that cultural diversity is not a norm for many people in Hong Kong.
Thus, in my view, part of our dialogue in diversity and inclusion in our sector is to see where Chinese teachers are coming from. This dialogue includes understanding their concerns, and having them understand how their own identities influence their teaching and how they relate with their students, including the assumptions they make on them. For example, by organising events that talk about Chinese culture and why it is important to Chinese people, and then engage them in a dialogue with non-Chinese people about their cultures and why they might be important to them as well. This may address some stereotypes people have about certain cultures and improve understanding on how our culture has influence on our thinking, beliefs, and actions.
I also think we need to be creative in bringing about cultural awareness, not just pursuing advocacy work in a general sense but also trying to foster interaction among different groups. For instance, in my classroom, we had a student from Kazakhstan, and one of the tasks I gave my students consisted of looking at the education system in different countries. The group in which the Kazakh student was decided to look at Russia’s education system (which was a context familiar to him). Through that exchange between him and my other Hong Kong students, the group gained some insights into the culture, not only from the lecture content but also from the other students.
Another thing that can also complement classroom education is extracurricular activities. One of my university friend joined a singing competition. However, the requirement was that the singing team had to be multicultural. I connected her to a Filipina friend. I do not know about the outcome of the competition, but they enjoyed the experience of rehearsing together.
Generally, I think there has to be a stronger connection between universities, schools, communities, and other civil societies. Such collaboration between these entities would provide a better understanding of the situation, not only through research but also through dialogues with different people or sectors.
A bit diverted from our topic but you said earlier that you went to a Chinese medium school. Why is that?
My dad put me in Chinese schools as he believed it was good for me in the long run. I complained to him at one point since I realised my friends went to English medium schools and had an easier time than me. However, my parents insisted I go there and my principal advised my parents to send me to a social service centre to receive tuition. I did that until Primary 4, where I began to develop fluency in Chinese.
From my point of view, if a migrant family has decided to stay in Hong Kong in the long run, the family should consider having their children learn Chinese. Learning the Chinese language will help the children build connections in school and with the local community. This will make things easier for them to get around, find jobs, etc. Knowing the local language can also help remove the feeling of alienation. This is because when children feel too different from other people or experience exclusion, they tend to withdraw and stay within their own community. These experiences will likely affect their self-development and growth.
Do you agree with the saying that being culturally competent is a key to success? And what is your advice to parents who have young children?
Hong Kong is a globalised city. Therefore, if you want your kids to work in multinational companies, there is a 99% chance that they will eventually work with people who are different from them.
So, if they are going to work in multinational settings, it's important to not only know your child's own identity, but also encourage them to work with other people effectively. That is not just about working with Pakistanis or Indians and simply coming together, talking to them, and fulfilling tasks together; it's about developing the ability and appreciating the opportunity to work with other people as well.
Conversely, appreciating such an opportunity comes with different challenges, like disagreement. In the place of work, your child may disagree with some people’s worldviews, thoughts, or practices. An important skill to learn is to sometimes disagree with people without being disagreeable.
When you migrate to another country, you most likely become an ethnic minority. Try to picture yourself working in another context with different norms, way of life and practices.
Knowing other cultures should therefore not be a luxury to children anymore. It should be a necessity because global education does not necessarily come from teachers. It simply comes from your interactions with people from other cultures. In teaching, it's about providing opportunities beyond the classroom to expand students’ horizons.
Also, experience is very important. You don't necessarily have to bombard your child with concepts of diversity or inclusion, but you can encourage them to do things together with different people and accomplish something greater together.
To connect with Jan Gube, please click here.