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Dots for tots

Reforms in the education system-what they mean

In the first of a two-part article, Kumudini Hettiarachchi looks at the 'radical' changes facing teachers and students

booksPuzzled parents hovering around school gates. Little Mihiris, Rameshes and Ameens in their newly-stitched uniforms and polished shoes, tiffin boxes and bottles of water in hand standing on the threshold of their schools unaware of the major changes they face in the classrooms. Education authorities going from school to school, explaining what is about to happen this year.

What does the future hold for 370,000 five and nearly six- year-olds, seemed to be the question on the lips of parents as they accompanied their children to school last week.

The concerns are many, fuelled by bitter memories of this or that government using children as guinea pigs. The concerns need to be addressed because these memories are fresh for mothers and fathers of the 1999 batch, as some of them have been the "victims" of the N.C.G.E/H.N.C.E. "revamp" in the 1970s, themselves.

The education reforms being introduced from this year are "very radical" but will lead to the development of "world standard" human beings, believes National Education Commission (NEC) Chairman Professor Lakshman Jayathilake.

What was wrong with the old system? Many things, according to him. "Look at society around us...the sub-standard way even simple things, like road repairs are done. The intolerance. The high alcoholism. Students cramming for examinations, just to pass them, but not gathering knowledge..later they are unabale to work in or adjust to different situations." 

What about continuity? The reforms were decided on after much discussion, debate and advice, Prof. Jayathilake who is also Director-General of the National Institute of Education (NIE) and a senior academic, says.

The NEC was appointed in 1991 on a recommendation of the Presidential Commission on Youths in 1990, after hearing representations from the public including a large number of rural youth about the lack of reasonable educational opportunities.

Stressing that there is nothing wrong with healthy competition, he refers to a World Bank report that analyses competitiveness as being viewed in the context of a nation being competitive rather than each individual having a "man-eat-man" attitude.

He says that lack of personal values, lack of competence and a decline in national efficiency could be attributed to the quality of education, pointing out that education should have five individual goals: (a)be well-informed: (b) have a general level of skills (c) be disciplined (d) have a certain degree of refinement, especially social refinement (such as not dumping garbage on the road. Prof. Jayathilake gave the example of Japan, where people taking pet dogs for walks would also carry a bag or canister to pick up their droppings), (e)have good speech - the ability to get something done through words and persuasion rather than using a weapon.

The inputs for the reforms were by the public from all over the country, doctors, child growth experts, psychologists, nutritionists, academics, teachers, politicians from different parties and professional bodies. At least 200, in number. A pilot project was also conducted in the Gampaha district last year, Prof. Jayathilake said.

Reforms cover three key areas - general education, university education and technical and vocational education.

What are the reforms in general education, which are being introduced at three levels - in Grade 1 (earlier known as Year 1), Grade 6 and Grade 9?

Primary Reforms:According to Prof. Jayathilake, the primary reforms are crucial. In the past the primary section had been taken for granted. Though donations in cash and kind were taken by some schools, from new admissions, these monies were channelled to upper grades and rarely used for the lower school. Often, the primary was neglected financially. Adequate numbers of teachers were not deployed and the environment in which primary children studied was deplorable.

In a bid to educate parents on the new reforms, educationists are doing the rounds of schools, talking to parents and new entrants on the reforms.

At one such meeting with parents, NIE's Director of Primary Education, Dr. G.L. Nanayakkara said the first 10 days of the Grade 1 child will be used for "identification."

Though all government schools started the term on January 4, it was only on Friday that all Grade 1 students trooped to class for the inauguration ceremonies connected to the reforms. Up to January 18, they would go back to school in small groups for the identification process. Regular work as such would begin only after the 18th.

During the identification process, the teacher would talk to the child, see her at play with others, observe and gain first hand knowledge about her background, whether she has any physical problems such as sight or hearing impairments, the home environment with whom the child lives, whether the mother has gone to the Middle East, who the guardian is etc. This would help the teacher to find out the talents, strengths and weaknesses, which did not happen in the old system. This is not a test of the children but an accumulation of information, which would not be displayed in public but would only be used to further improve the strengths and remedy the weaknesses, Dr. Nanayakkara asserts.

Giving a simple example, he says that if the teacher found that a particular child was slightly short of hearing, a desk close to the teacher's table could be assigned to that child. Under the past system, that child's problem would have gone unnoticed.

The reforms would be implemented thereafter. Primary education, which covers Grades 1, 2, 3, 4 and 5 has been divided into three "key stages". They are Key Stage One which includes Grades 1 and 2; Stage Two which includes Grades 3 and 4; and Stage Three which is Grade 5, Dr. Nanayakkara said. 

Dr. Nanayakkara said it had been found that earlier some of the subjects taught didn't seem to have any relevance to children's lives. Under the reforms, there is a major change in how these subjects or themes are being introduced. It is called "mode of instruction" rather than teaching. So far several countries had tried out two extremes of education: teacher-dominated teaching, where children were passive listeners or child-dominated learning, where the child was allowed to do what she liked at all times. The latter had been tried out in the United Kingdom in the 1970s, but had not worked very well. What Sri Lanka is proposing is a mixture of the two, slightly more inclined towards being learner-centred. The modes of instruction would be play, exercises and seat (desk) work, he said.

* First Key Stage - learning through play, with a bit of activity thrown in 

* Second Key Stage - learning through play, but more learning through activity, 

* Third Key Stage - play reduced considerably but more activity and desk work

Detailing what was meant by "activity- based" learning, Prof. Jayathilake said children would not just be sitting (sedentary) in class, but would walk around. They would look at a beetle, touch a flower and count the petals. This would help develop both the right side and the left of the brain, as they would not only be writing but also using their eyes and hands. It would also be emotionally satisfying for the child.

Such activity did not mean that children would not write anything or look at books. It was a misconception that under the reforms they would not be learning and writing numbers or letters of the alphabet. They would start drawing the shapes of the alphabet, the NEC Chairman said.

The play method, he said, would attract a child and hold her attention, make the child relate to others and also develop thinking skills. Take a game of dominoes the child would have to think up a strategy, follow the rules and "concentrate" without running about.

In the First Stage children would be introduced to four subject areas: 

-Language - only mother tongue. There will also be the informal use of oral English during play-activity. Eg: If the children are playing with sand, the class teacher would casually tell them it was "sand" thus making them familiar with the English word informally. -Maths, Religion, Environment-related activity. The formal teaching of English and the second national language (Tamil for children in the Sinhala medium and Sinhala for children in the Tamil medium) would be introduced in the 2nd Stage.

Dr.Nanayakkara said unlike in the past, the curriculum would help children to develop five competencies:

1. Communication - competency to express views ideas through words, mathematical means or graphs (diagrams) 2. Environment - competency in managing the social, biological and physical environment 3. Ethics and moral value-based religion 4. Play, enjoyment and recreation 5. Learning to learn.

The curriculum was "competency-based", to help the child, when she grows up to do a job satisfactorily. It would also help her gain a complex combination of knowledge, skills and attitudes. This system conformed to a suggestion in an UNESCO report that the four pillars of education were: learning to know, learning to do, learning to live together and learning to be. The reforms would not only impart knowledge but also enable the child to learn skills, Dr. Nanayakkara said.

Under the reforms, children in Grade 1 would not be exposed to time-bound "pencil and paper tests" at the beginning as they were overawed by them. But during all their play activity there would be school-based assessment.

The teacher who has thus done the assessment of the child in Grade 1 would move with her to Grade 2. When asked about the danger of favouritism or discrimination, Dr. Nanayakkara said if in rare cases there was a "mismatch," the school authorities should be able to rectify the situation. Teachers too were being trained in the new system. Prof. Jayathilake said teachers had been instructed to give different coloured "stars" or "dots" for work, depending on performance. The papers with the stars would not be displayed in public, thus indicating that one child was better than another. It would only be for sharing with the child's parents.

Another interesting development would be that the number of children in Grade 1would be limited to 35 per class, by the year 2000 and each child would be required to have 10 square feet. The NIE, on a special request of President Chandrika Kumaratunga has also put out colourful and attractive textbooks under the reforms. - Part II next week
Why reforms? Reasons why reforms were seen as essential At present around 14% of students in the 5 to 14 age-group who are considered to be in the compulsory education age-limit do not receive any education. Major disparities in facilities available in urban and rural schools. Only 20% get through their O.L's islandwide. Though Sri Lankans are proud of the high literacy rate, some children can't read, write or do simple maths. It was revealed at a recent talk on education reforms that only 14% of Year 5 students and 26% of Year 7 students got the right answer when asked to do a simple division ( divide 812 by 4). The late start in introducing English. Before the reforms English was taught as a formal subject only from Year 3. 


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