Environmental Education in the Liberal Studies Curriculum in Hong Kong

By Chiu Wing-yin (Bernice)

Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. Introduction and Definition of Environmental Education

3. Environmental Education in Hong Kong Secondary Schools

4. Environmental Education in Liberal Studies Curriculum

1. Liberal Studies Curriculum

2. Liberal Studies Curriculum and Environmental Education

5. Recommendations

6. References

7. Appendix

8. About the Author

1. Introduction

The growing awareness about environmental degradation makes educators see Environmental Education (EE) as an essential strategy. However, many are concerned with the effectiveness of EE in schools (e.g. Fien & Yencken, 2003;  Lee, 1995; Stimpson, 1997; Tsang & Lee, 2014). This entry seeks to explore the development of EE in Hong Kong and analyze the Liberal Studies curriculum to determine its effectiveness. It starts by defining environmental education and giving its historical overview. After that, the entry introduces the Liberal Studies curriculum in Hong Kong and the place of EE in it.  

2. Introduction and Definition of Environmental Education

Tsang (2003) defines Environmental Education as  

the process of developing an environmentally literate, competent, and dedicated citizenry which actively strives to resolve value conflicts in the man-environment relationship, in a manner which is ecologically and humanistically sound in order to reach the superordinate goal of a homeostasis between quality of life and quality of environment.

The major components of EE include “information”, “awareness”, “concern”, “attitude and beliefs”, “education and training” which, according to Hawthorne (1999), are interconnected with each other.

The European Commission (1997) and the United Nations (1993) highlight the importance of environmental education to environmental sustainability. The European Commission (1997) states that environmental education is ‘essential to enhance levels of awareness and understanding of the key issues at the core of the sustainability imperative, promote attitude change, and modify pattern of behavior.’  Chapter 36 of Agenda 21 (UN, 1993) points out that

Education is critical for promoting sustainable development and improving the capacity of the people to address environment and development issues…..Both formal and non-formal education are indispensable to changing people’s attitudes so that they have the capacity to assess and address their sustainable development concerns.

In December 2002, the United Nations proclaimed the UN Decade of Education for Sustainable Development, 2005-2014. It emphasized that ‘education is an indispensable element for achieving sustainable development’ (UN, 2002). Environmental education can be one of the ways to address environmental problems.

It is, however, not common for countries to make environmental education a core and compulsory subject in the curricula. Instead, only elements of environmental education are incorporated into different subjects. Hong Kong is a typical case. The rest of the paper discusses environmental education in Hong Kong and analyzes its Liberal Studies curriculum.

3. Environmental Education in Hong Kong Secondary Schools

The Education Bureau (EDB) implemented environmental education in the school curriculum for the first time in 1999. The Guidelines on Environmental Education in Schools are used to promote the concept of sustainable development in schools.

The EDB’s plan for education for sustainable development (ESD) focuses on three major aspects: awareness, action, and attitudes. The EDB suggests the schools in Hong Kong adopt a cross-curricular, whole school, and action-oriented approach in the promotion of ESD. Instead of introducing an individual subject on environmental education, the EDB chose to gradually incorporate the elements of sustainable development and environmental education into different subjects. With the guidelines from the government, Hong Kong schools were able to implement environmental education in different ways and with different styles.

Some environmentalists and concerned groups found that the effectiveness of environmental education was questionable due to the variation in the approaches, however. For example, Fien and Yencken (2003) conclude that ‘there is a tendency for environmental education to be marginalized by most teachers and its practice is piecemeal.’ They describe the present pattern of environmental education as ‘short-term, often ill-conceived and unsystematic.’ 

Liberal Studies, introduced in 2009 as a compulsory subject, is one of the most relevant to environmental education in Hong Kong. John Lee (as cited in McBeath, McBeath, Qing, & Yu, 2014) claims that in Hong Kong

          the emphasis has been on school-based activities, in the nature of civic education....The guiding objective was merger of environmental education into the curriculum....There’s no requirement to teach it as an integrated subject...Some environmental education is included in Liberal Studies, and is taught along with energy, climate change, and sustainable development; energy is the focus.

Liberal Studies is a core subject for senior secondary students who take the Hong Kong Diploma of Secondary Education. It includes six modules that cover local, Mainland Chinese, and global issues, and has a high degree of flexibility in the design and use of learning materials. It is important to analyze whether the curriculum can incorporate EE, and whether teachers put enough emphasis on the parts relevant to the subject.

4. Environmental Education and Liberal Studies Curriculum

4.1. Liberal Studies Curriculum

Liberal Studies curriculum was introduced in 1992 as an Advanced Supplementary Level (ASL) subject for grades 6 and 7. The Curriculum and Assessment Guide (S4-S6) states that the design and assessment framework of the Liberal Studies curriculum are in line with contemporary views on knowledge and learning styles. The curriculum aims to encourage students to explore issues that are related to sustainability, the physical environment, and the relationship between humans and nature. Since 2009, it has become a core subject in senior secondary school. Liberal Studies comprises three areas of study: “Self and Personal Development”, “Society and Culture,” and “Science, Technology, and the Environment.” These three areas aim to help students develop an understanding of themselves, their society, and the world.

There are six modules under the three areas of study: “Personal Development and Interpersonal Relationships”, “Hong Kong Today”, “Modern China”, “Globalization”, “Public Health,” and “Energy, Technology, and the Environment.” Each module provides a list of Enquiry Questions to teachers. These questions should guide teachers when discussing controversial events and issues. As part of their studies, students conduct an Independent Enquiry Study (IES). They are required to use the knowledge and perspectives gained from the three areas of study. Students can choose their own topic based on their interest.

“Energy Technology and the Environment” is the most relevant module to environmental education. The Curriculum Development Institute and the Hong Kong Examinations and Assessment Authority (2007, p. 49) states that this module

seeks to analyse how we use energy, and discuss how this has a significant impact on our lives and environment, and how the development of energy technology relates to sustainable development.

The module is divided into 2 themes. “The influences of energy technology” investigates the relationship between energy technology and environmental problems such as climate change, acid rain, and smog. “The environment and sustainable development” explores the importance of sustainable development and its relationship with development of science and technology.

Apart from this module, teachers can teach environmental issues by adopting a cross-modular approach. For example, it is common for Liberal Studies teachers to connect environmental issues such as pollution in Modern China to explain how the rapid urbanization of the country has caused environmental problems.

4.2. Liberal Studies Curriculum and Environmental Education

Hong Kong has an exam-oriented education system that may have a negative backwash effect on Environmental Education. Backwash effect is a term used by the EDB, the Hong Kong Examinations and Assessment Authority, and Hong Kong teachers (e.g. Ho, 2015; HKSAR Government, 2014). It means that testing potentially has a negative effect on learning and teaching. Students’ understanding of the subject is affected as teachers concentrate on teaching examination skills and on the content that is needed for the examination.

Teachers also tend to pay less attention to global environmental issues due to the focus of examination questions on the local context. 2014 DSE Paper 1 contained a question about ‘wind power and renewable energy.’ Other questions on environmental issues were limited to the local and mainland context (see Appendix A). However, environmental problems are global problems; thus EE should not be limited to a single country. Schools should educate students to be responsible global citizens that have knowledge and skills to protect the environment.

Another problem with EE is that teachers of Liberal Studies may not have enough knowledge about environmental issues. There are no compulsory courses on environmental issues for prospective or in-service Liberal Studies teachers. As a result, teachers do not have comprehensive knowledge about environmental issues, and this affects the quality of EE they provide.

Additionally, the EDB recommends to allocate approximately 250 hours of lesson time to Liberal studies. About 168 hours are allocated to the six modules, and 82 hours are reserved for the IES (CDC, 2014). Schools are able to arrange lesson time flexibly throughout the three years. Also, the EDB gives schools freedom to choose textbooks and materials for different modules. Schools then decide whether it is necessary to include EE. In view of this, it is difficult to measure how many hours are allocated to the teaching of environmental issues, and whether or not students have exposure to EE through Liberal Studies.

The EDB states that Liberal Studies is not designed to promote Environmental Education. However, according to a survey conducted among 458 secondary schools, more than 98% of the respondents agreed that Liberal Studies was able to ‘enhance students’ understanding of themselves, their society, their nation, the human world and the physical environment.’ 93% of the Liberal Studies Panel Heads agreed that the subject can ‘help students develop positive values and attitudes towards life, so that they can become informed and responsible citizens of society, the country and the world’ (Education Bureau, 2015). This shows that Liberal Studies’ interdisciplinary nature can help students connect knowledge gained from other areas that are included in the subject (see Figure 1). 

Figure 1: Liberal Studies and the Three-year Senior Secondary Curriculum (CDI&HKEAA, 2007, p.3)

Figure 1: Liberal Studies and the Three-year Senior Secondary Curriculum (CDI&HKEAA, 2007, p.3)

5. Recommendations

Liberal Studies curriculum has potential to help schools teach environmental issues in a more systematic way. However, the unique nature and characteristics of the subject, the flexible use of lesson time and materials, as well as the lack of teacher training cannot guarantee the effectiveness of teaching EE in Liberal Studies classes. The EDB can play a bigger role in promoting the importance of EE in Hong Kong (White, 2013). It is recommended that the EDB give guidance to schools that is more concrete. The EDB should also develop compulsory training schemes for teachers on ESD and EE, with a focus on the implementation of cross-curricular and cross-modular methods.

UNESCO suggests that the tendency to prioritize examination performance may lead to a decline in ESD due to a decrease in available student school hours (White, 2013). Students do not understand the importance of environmental protection if their purpose in studying environmental education is to pass the examination. To successfully implement the EE program in Hong Kong, a whole school approach should be developed. This means that elements of EE should be integrated into the school curriculum, policies, and extra-curricular activities.


Curriculum Development Institute and the Hong Kong Examinations and Assessment Authority (CDI&HKEAA). (2007). Liberal Studies Curriculum and Assessment Guide (Secondary 4 -6) (with updates in October 2015). Hong Kong: Education Bureau.

Education Bureau (EDB). (2015). Report on New Academic Structure Medium-term Review and Beyond – Continual Renewal from Strength to Strength. Retrieved from http://334.edb.hkedcity.net/EN/334_review.php for the report (English only).

European Commission (EC). (1997). Environmental Education in the European Union. Brussels: European Commission.

Fien, J., Sykes, H., & Yencken, D. (2003). Environment, Education and Society in the Asia-Pacific: Local Traditions and Global Discourses. Routledge.

Hawthorne, M., & Alabaster, T. (1999). Citizen 2000: Development of a Model of Environmental Citizenship. Global Environmental Change, 9(1), 25-43.

Ho, K.K. (2015). Politicization of the Liberal Studies in Hong Kong. HKU Scholars Hub. The University of Hong Kong.

HKSAR Government. (2014). LCQ2: Curricula of Senior Secondary Subjects. Hong Kong.

Lee, J. C. K. (1995). Environmental Education in Schools in Hong Kong. Environmental Education Research, 3(3), 359-371.

McBeath, G.A, McBeath, J. H., Qing, T., & Yu, H. (2014). Environmental Education in China. Maryland: Edward Elgar Publishing.

Stimpson, P. G. (1997). Environmental Challenge and Curricular Responses in Hong Kong. Environmental Education Research, 3, 345-357.

Tsang, E.P-K. & Lee, J.C.-K. (2014). ESD Projects, Initiatives and Research in Hong Kong and Mainland China. In J. Chi-Kin Lee & R. Efird. (Eds.). Schooling for Sustainable Development across the Pacific. Dordrecht: Springer.

Tsang, P. K. (2003). Heading Towards Environmental Citizenship: The Case of Green School Initiative. In P. Hills & C.S. Man. (2003). New Directions in Environmental Education. Hong Kong: The Centre of Urban Planning and Environmental Management.

United Nations (UN). (1993). Agenda 21: The United Nations Programme of Action from Rio. New York: United Nations.

White, L. (2013). NGOs and Education for Sustainable Development: A Comparison of the provision of education opportunities for secondary schools in Hong Kong by UNESCO and WWF (Unpublished Master’s thesis). The University of Hong Kong, Hong Kong.

Wong, K.K. (2011). Towards a Light‐Green Society for Hong Kong, China: Citizen Perceptions. In International Journal of Environmental Studies, 68(2), 209-227.

Appendix 1


About the Author

Chiu Wing-yin (Bernice)

MEd, The University of Hong Kong

Email: bernicechiu@gmail.com