A lively discussion or at times taking the shape of a debate on the present educational system in Sri Lanka was the topic at the Sunday Times Business Club (STBC) held this week at the Taj Samudra hotel in Colombo. It was mixed with divergent opinions analyzing the actual situation of the country’s all important educational system with contributions by medical, educational and civil society experts.
In a marathon session of more than three hours things like whether school children are overloaded with information; whether they are losing their childhood by cramming for examinations via heavy flow of school and tuition classes and whether they have no time for play or recreation; whether they are prevented of social interaction and the examination model too heavy and certain modifications and changes were examined.
| Discussion in progress at the Business Club
In a nutshell the consensus with serious medical opinion was that the total educational system now used is an utter failure. The theme of the panel discussion was “Education: Current issues and trends” and focussed mainly on the plight of school children and the stress they undergo.
Dr Prasanna Gunasena, Consultant Neurologist, Lanka Hospitals who is among a group of doctors raising concerns in the country’s education system correlated the entire educational system operating today in the country to a bleeding brain (haemorrhage) which needs immediate surgery or immediate change. He said that when a normal patient comes, first the symptoms are diagnosed and the treatment is planned.
But when a patient comes with the symptoms of haemorrhage in the brain, the patient would immediately be moved into the operating theatre and perform surgery. He said that the educational system also needs the same, emergency treatment as the system is at a precarious juncture that needs immediate change, if not the system would collapse like the patient’s inevitable death.
Prof S. Sandarasegaram, a retired Dean of the Faculty of Education of the University of Colombo, a vibrant educationist for the last four decades, taking the floor first said that all these matters concerning a need to re-work the educational system werebrought to the notice of the policy makers - the National Education Commission - and in a report all these things (concerns) were mentioned and the Commission has shown a lot of concern about the school children attending tuition classes.
No Social activity
He said that as a result of children attending tuition classes they are deprived of getting involving in other social activities. But it has been inevitable they have to go for tuition to pass the examinations. He said that one must realise that the school education is to develop a person as a good citizen and to be a critical thinker. But the present system is more examination oriented.
He said that the system has become competitive because examinations have to be passed to get jobs, and thus acquire the related qualifications. Also it is competitive to enter the university as to become a graduate one should have the Advanced Level.
He said that this system is practiced by the countries which has entered the development process late adding that Sri Lanka too entered into development process late. He said that neither the parents nor the schools are concerned to make a child a good citizen. When a child passes the Advanced Level the parents are proud. But even though they become graduates, they sometimes are ridiculed because some cannot even write a simple letter.
He said the examination system is ‘spoiled’ and even if what is available in school is adequate the same teachers of these schools are also involved in giving tuition and the children are encouraged to attend to these tuition classes without teaching them adequately in school. Some teachers often give tuition during school hours outside the school and there are also students attending these tuition class without attending school.
The retired university educationist said policy makers and even some trade chambers specify the need for some soft skills, such as a knowledge of English, Communication and speaking ability, evaluation problem, solving skills, etc.
He said that some World Bank assistance was given to provide several skills for the university graduates, adding that much more than this needs to be done.
He said that the universities are blamed for overloading the curriculum and that they are responsible for the Advanced Level curriculum. Overloading is done because of the university entrance. He urged the civil society to make representations to the government to suggest the changes as the government is planning to bring in a new Education Act. He said that if the tuition is reduced the children could lead a healthy life.
Dr Nilupul Perera, Consultant Neurologist, Lanka Hospitals, also from the doctors’ group urging changes to the education system, said that people teach and learn to make the children a holistic person and at the end there must be holistic educational system. But the answer is that there is no holistic educational system today.
He said a child when born has 200 billion cells. But due to this faulty educational system, the child after 10 years loses around 10 to 20% of these brain cells. One has to use them or lose them and he said that if they are not used they would be lost.
He said that there are separate departments in the brain and there is a huge push and pressure of information to cognition and thus the cells in other departments are lost. In such situations the child would not be able to answer questions and when it comes to practical problems the child cannot answer such questions as their brain doesn’t have the necessary cells. The system really damages the brain cells.
Dr Perera said that to save these cells the best way is to use them. He said that there are six components for a holistic educational system. To have cognitive factions, but physical developments to be made, one has to be a physically fit person. Then for aesthetic development, one has to enjoy singing and then comes social development, skills – dealing with people –, communication and mental development, to control the emotion. One should be able to control the emotion levels of society.
He said that if the educational system cannot provide these components, then that is not an educational system. He said that children should have time to interact with others. He said that this is the unfortunate situation that the present day school going children are suffering from.
There is no way of developing mental or spiritual development when all the cells meant for that are wasted and lost. He said that it is simple theory to memorize something, one has to read it over and over again many times. The child cannot memorize, ifhe does not have enough time to do it.
He said that the practice today is the children do something today and tomorrow there would be a different topic and like that everyday different things are taught and there is no provision in the present system for memorizing; no time is given for the child to memorize.
Reduce home work
Dr Perera said that the reduce homework forerunner to make the child a good person is to reduce the ‘homework’ and the text books have to be re-written. He said that as a neuro-physician, he could not possibly think or shudder to think how everything has to be crammed in the small child’s brain.
He said that today knowledge is all over and one only needs to learn as to how to find that knowledge. The brain should be trained to use this knowledge and must be able to retain the brain cells. As there is enough knowledge all over, a decision should be made as to what to teach. Not everything, but the essentials should be taught. He said that what happens today is merely damaging and killing the brain cells of the children.
Dr Athula Ranasinghe, Head of the Department of Economics at the University of Colombo, said – after listening to Dr Nilupul Perera - that he could now visualize as to how many brain cells he has lost during his time as a university student and said that what is available today is a kind of destructive kind of education. From the point of view of a social scientist, he said there are a number of things to know about the curriculum as the school children are overloaded with information.
He said that the greater targets of education are knowledge, skills and attitudes and it is a narrow classification. But in the curriculum there is only 100% knowledge and nothing-else, nothing about extra curricular activities, personal development and relaxation. He said that he too was a victim as a parent. He said that his child who was in Grade V was asked to draw a tree and its shadow and to show the difference of the shade every hour.
The following day the child had refused to go to school because she could not complete the picture (shading of the tree every hour) as she had to attend tuition. He said that unlike earlier days, there are better systems available now. Now the role of the parents in the education of their children also has to be understood.
He said that the competition for the examinations is not created by the parents but is created by the society.
With the competition there is lack of points at higher levels and due to this competition the child is pumped with enough knowledge with additional tuition. He said that the other factor is that the attitudes must be changed. There should be additional inputs in English, IT and sports.
He said that children after school go to the tuition class and then to the swimming pool which has pushed the child to be mechanized and the outcome is pathetic. He said that those students who start university education with English A passes in the Ordinary Level, could not write a letter as they only have knowledge but no attitudes and no skills.
Dr Ranasinghe said that the examination system needs to be identified and refocused and the education model needs changes. He said that the changes should be incorporated essentially to reduce competition and it should not be a competition-based model. He suggested that there should be a diversified educational system in the higher level – an alternative system should be merged. He also said that there should be a way to deal with drop outs.
Dr (Ms) Sujatha Gamage, former Director General, Tertiary and Vocational Education Commission and also involved in a civil society group called the Campaign for Better Education advocating a better education system, said that they had about 10 meetings of the campaign but by having their meeting only in Colombo, nothing happened. She said that there are about 200,000 students sitting for Advance Level Examination and only a small percentage gains university entrance. There would be around 60% dropouts at Ordinary Level and to deal with dropouts have to be started at that level.
The dropping out of these students, she said does not mean that they are stupid, but the system calls for going after to becoming doctors, engineers and accountants and said that now knowledge is very different and it is changing and the kind of knowledge should be understood. Knowledge and attitudes in the workplace is important, she said.
She said that with learning technology there are relevant new ideas coming up and said that in a survey conducted in South Africa, Spain and Taiwan it was shown that they obtain knowledge in industries from the customers and suppliers and that would be the new form of knowledge. She said that no matter whether one has Ordinary level or what school they attended, there are now different targets.
She said that four years of university education appears to be redundant as with new methods and with less time the same knowledge, skills and attitudes could be obtained. The same thing could be achieved with a two year diploma as there are new education, knowledge and technology. She said that there could be two levels - foundation and advanced level.
In mathematics there should be two levels. What is now needed is to bridge the now separate silos into one and the system should be adjusted to give the children not only one chance but a second and a third chance. She said that there are various opportunities and the examinations should be designed to offer flexibility.
Upali Chandrasiri, Chairperson of the Campaign for Better Education detailed their efforts to pursue the authorities to change the educational system in a campaign that began in 1998. He said another problem is that in 2030 the population would have more people aged 60 years where most of their children would be in other countries who have been sent there for studies and would have found jobs and settled down. They would not return to Sri Lanka to look after their parents.
He said that there should be national policies not only for education but for many other areas and to achieve these goals to change the educational system the intellectuals must take the lead and all the other people should join them to pursue the authorities to make the necessary changes.
Dr Lakshman Nonis, Consultant, National Science Commission and Teacher at De Mazenod College said that his system of teaching has been different from the conventional official system and it was time tested for success.
He said that a competency framework for teachers should be designed and there should be this competency framework for the teachers to practice. This process is about helping the students to learn with the teacher being a facilitator and guide in this process.
Brain development affected
Dr Gunasena also said brain development that there are absolutely wrong concepts followed in the educational system from the medical point of view and those who formulated the educational system seems to have had no knowledge of how the brain of a child functions. He said that the brain develops in stages. He said that upto the age of 12 years the brain of a child is equipped to solve his problems by getting information of what he sees, hears and feels and what is available in the environment.
He said that in today’s structure a grade six student is compelled to know a tremendous lot about biodiversity which should normally suffice when he begins an Advanced Level student. When comparing the same subject area in other countries, what the student of that grade learns is very little and only what is necessary compared to the Sri Lankan student.
Today’s learning develops a person only to be useful to himself. But he said that what is required is to learn how to be useful to the society while he (student) also being useful to himself. It should be in the order of first himself, then the community – the family and then social, environmental or universal level.
He said that for university selections the requirements necessary are inappropriate and as an example he said that to follow medicine in the University, just a physics ordinary pass would suffice. But the way the things are happening he wondered whether those doctors who pass out by another 15 years would be able to treat patients properly.
The talk of the experts was followed by a discussion where the Club members had a live interaction and also cited several examples of children affected by the educational system and on the overloading and overburdening the children with tons of homework. It also transpired that the homework workload is too heavy for the children to handle and in most instances it has been the parents who do the homework of their children.
The general conclusion from the discussion was that the curriculum for the students is too heavy, the examination competition and tuition culture is ruining the children who are increasingly becoming social misfits and end up like robots. The club is hosted by the Taj Samudra hotel and co-sponsored by Hameedias.