Holidays will soon be  over and it will be back to the wonders or the drudgery of school. Friends, cricket, cramped classrooms, difficult transport and the preparation for more exams. The great exam crescendo is over  for now, but it’s all about to start again.This monotonous, predictable routine is interminable; a never ending cycle. I [...]


It’s time that Sri Lanka takes a 21st century approach to learning


Holidays will soon be  over and it will be back to the wonders or the drudgery of school. Friends, cricket, cramped classrooms, difficult transport and the preparation for more exams.

The great exam crescendo is over  for now, but it’s all about to start again.This monotonous, predictable routine is interminable; a never ending cycle.

I don’t mean to be facetious about such serious matters, but has anyone asked who this benefits or why this is happening?   How this term by term, year by year ritual relates to the needs of our society in this unpredictable vastly changed and constantly changing world; or whether we are setting up our children to succeed or fail. Do we have any idea what the needs of the world of work will look like in a year, let alone in ten?  By adhering to this notion of rewarding the right answer and following directions to find only one right answer, are we not preparing students for jobs that will no longer exist by the time they graduate?

The process that is more important than the product and surely it is through using knowledge in a variety of different situations is the test of whether a student has really learnt, not through a curriculum where narrow assessment mandates the learning. A student may be able to recite the periodic table backwards, but who will ever ask her to do this?

We are definitively out of the industrial era and firmly rooted in the ICT and information era.  Vast amounts of information are at the touch of a keyboard, so learning to manage this is more pertinent than educating our children to compete with a computer or machine; preparing them for a competition they can never win.

To prepare young people for a modern economy, schools must become places where pupils have a sense of responsibility, on a basic level, they should learn how and when to take initiative; in sum be exposed to life skills. In a typical classroom, I am often amazed to see students with excellent communication skills; the vocal ones, the risk takers, the leaders, even the class clowns; many young people with extraordinary skills who often fail miserably academically. Talents squandered or overlooked.  Such children often feel that by failing exams theyhave disappointed their parents and enter into a vicious circle. They may try to retake examinations under great pressure or they may be sent off to do a business management, accountancy or an IT course. These are all quite respectable, useful courses, but they are often considered the poor relations to academia.  And by the way, there’s nothing wrong with academia.  University can be an incredibly rewarding experience but it’s time we realised it’s not the only great learning experience.  Making furniture, setting up an IT business, being a chef in a hotel, a plumber, working in construction are all options too and these jobs require more than a strong back. They require maths, organisational and numerous other skills.

In a wonderful‘TED’ talk, Dananjaya Hettiarachchi, the speaker entertainingly though poignantly highlights the very real problem of exam failure in Sri Lanka and what he sees as the subsequent depression, alienation, relegation that young people face. He draws on his own experiences and admits with great humour to not getting A, a B, a C or even an S in his A Levels. However, through positive encounters and an ability to channel his talent Hettiarachchi went on to be a world-renowned speaker; he also learnt to dance, which stood him in good stead of becoming a social and sociable being.

In his case it was the power of association which seemed to supersede academic skills. His talk, entitled ‘I see something in you’ is moving because there is always something in us, in our young people even if that something is not necessarily recognised by the examination board. It’s interesting too that art, music and dance are at the bottom of the hierarchy of school subjects everywhere in the world and as Sir Ken Robinson asks (Do schools kill creativity?) ‘are we educating our children from the neck up?’

The well known adage that learning and doing are intimately connected is entirely true, yet, where can children learn about the work world?  It seems to me that by keeping them in the dark we are creating dangerously unworldly individuals.

So what are these skills that our future society and future work world would require and how can our young people tap into them? Firstly, it’s worth noting that many of the greatest entrepreneurs of our time did not complete their academic studies but even so they have been phenomenally successful due to their talent for creative thinking, resilience and problem solving.The work world of the future will be flatter, less hierarchical and responsibility, leadership and yes, problem solving will be a must. The capacity for resilience, persistence, growth and curiosity and more than anything the need to be adaptive will be at least as important as the ability to recall answers in tests.

Examinations are virtually always isolating experiences, yet people rarely work in isolation, so collaboration will be vital and cross-cultural understanding will be a must; we are beginning to see an international work force where teams may often be composed of people from several continents, often with English as a link language.

What we need to understand too, is that jobs are becoming less routine, predictable, and stable and whereas finding a job for life was the norm a decade or so ago,  it’s likely that changing jobs and retraining will be necessary for survival and in order to sustain a decent lifestyle. We need to learn to manage our career, to engage in training outside the classroom.  Self-sufficiency and even self-employment will be increasingly conceivable.  For sustainable success both on the job and in their personal lives, workers of the future must also better learn how to apply what they learn in subjects to deal with real world challenges, rather than simply “reproduce” the information on tests.It is distressingly evident that students, who may know how to get 96% in a test, fail in many ways when faced with the real-world skills, particularly communication and interview skills.Skills that can seem more like learning to swim or ride a bike. Education should be about learning, unlearning and relearning, should present possibilities for self-criticism, redoing,  making first second even third drafts…this is possible in the real world but rarely in school.

Students urgently need to learn when to talk, when to interact and when not to, difficult concepts in the somewhat self-conscious adolescent world where many of our young examinees reside.   The need to give students responsibility, teach themhow and when to take initiative and offer them a modicum of choice is not easy in our crowded classrooms where assessment generally mandates learning. These skills are however essential and even small changes such as making test questions more open ended could be a beginning.

Not just individuals but many global organisations are aware of the lacuna between school learning and the needs of the work world.  In the UK, the RSA (Society of Arts, Manufacture and Commerce) has led the way with the ‘opening of minds’ curriculum and the LEGO foundation promotes ‘hands on, minds on;’early learning to develop soft skills learnt through structured play. The Asia Society, the Hewlett Foundation the centre for curriculum redesign at Harvard as well as UNESCO is promoting transversal competencies which cut across the subject knowledge taught in school.

The time is right to adhere to a 21st century approach to learning.

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