SCMPPublished in the South China Morning Post, October 28, 2013

South China Morning Post article, published in print and online 28, October 2013

South China Morning Post article, published in print and online 28, October 2013

“Young people should not take what they are told by teachers for granted. They should not accept ‘no’ for an answer. Be inquisitive and ask difficult questions because education is about discovery.”

These were the words of Prince Andrew as he told Hong Kong students that they shouldn’t be afraid to question their teachers. He was representing Queen Elizabeth at the official launch last month of the School Outreach Programme organised by the Royal Geographical Society (RGS) in Hong Kong.

Perhaps hearing these talks makes them more sceptical and more inquisitive RUPERT MCCOWAN, DIRECTOR OF THE ROYAL GEOGRAPHICAL SOCIETY HK
The programme, an initiative by the local chapter, aims to help students through educational and inspirational talks by RGS speakers. The official launch followed a 12-month pilot scheme that brought together noted speakers and more than 3,500 students.

“We are left with a newfound confidence. They inspired us to take on the world,” says Alexandra Gough, a Year 11 student.

Funded by the RGS, the 25 talks given last year across 17 international, local and English Schools Foundation (ESF) schools were divided into three categories: educational, academic and master classes or workshops. The speakers came from a variety of countries and professional backgrounds, but they all shared a belief in the importance of education.

Emily Chappell, a British cyclist who was on a solo ride around the world, surprised many students when she described the friendliness of the Pakistani and Iranian people she encountered during her travels. Many students admitted they had a different view of these countries, primarily based on what they heard from the news.

“There are so many misconceptions among adults, but there are perhaps even more among students,” says Rupert McCowan, director of RGS Hong Kong and founder of the programme. “Perhaps hearing these talks makes them more sceptical and more inquisitive about actually checking what they read in the newspaper or even what they hear from teachers.”

In some schools, parents were invited to attend the talks. They said the question and answer sessions were often the highlight of the event, thanks to the simple honesty of children.

Famed British mountaineer Chris Bonington said he had never been asked by adults if he had “dropped one of those things you have to hit into the rock” and whether he’d ever had to decide to “leave someone behind and let them die” within a few minutes of each other.

“This has been a really fantastic programme for our school. It opened up classroom learning,” says Belenda Ryan, development director at Kellett School. “As one student pointed out, she realised these are just ordinary people, not superheroes or special people. Simply normal people who set a goal and had determination.”

The society has been working with the institutions to pair up the best speakers with the schools’ learning programmes.

Although most of the students were between the ages of 11 and 18, in some cases they were as young as eight.

“I have been astounded by the speakers’ ability to give the same lecture they give to adults, using the same photographs and slides but with completely different words,” says McCowan, as he described the way the speakers tailored their interaction with children.

Other lecturers of note have included Mark Roberts, the BBC wildlife sound recordist who thrilled his audience with stories about working with David Attenborough while filming Frozen Planet, and Chris Schrader, the 21-year-old Dutch-Hong Kong student who spent his 18th birthday in the Gobi desert raising money to benefit the education of children in Mongolia.

Master classes have been designed to reach smaller groups of students with a common goal or interest. For example, historian Victoria Glendinning met with 20 senior students who were planning to, or had been accepted to, read history at a tertiary school, while photojournalist Nick Danziger met members of a school photography club.

The current academic year will bring another 25 speakers to Hong Kong and plans are already under way for next year.

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as Inspirational speakers reveal a whole new world