By Thahira Cader and Shilohni Sumanthiran –
According to Bloom’s taxonomy, a comprehensive education should encompass three key aspects: knowledge, skills and attitudes. A person’s knowledge is reflected in his desire to constantly seek information, and in the way he reflects on and responds to his discoveries. Simple skills such as analytical skills and teamwork should be developed to enhance individual character and personality; enabling people to think on their feet and tackle the challenges of the twentieth century.
Yet, in a world that is obsessed with ‘educational qualifications’, we have lost sight of the fundamental purpose of education itself. Common perceptions are that education ends when a person transits from childhood to adulthood and begins to work. We view education as a means to an end. The reality however, is that the process of learning is a continuous one. A progressive education demands that we stay up to date with the views and methodologies of our rapidly evolving world. It should ceaselessly challenge intellect and curiosity, and drive people to push at its boundaries; innovate; create; imagine.
A Glance at Sri Lanka
Sri Lanka is partially steeped in a system of Free Education that was introduced in the 1940s. Its fundamental aim was to ensure that every child had an opportunity to learn, irrespective of their social and economic backgrounds.
Regrettably, as Sri Lankans, we have applauded this feat and in our complacency overlooked the need to review and question the relevance of such a system in the modern world. The average gross enrollment rate for primary and secondary education in the world is 87.4% (World Bank). Sri Lanka surpasses other Asian nations such as Malaysia (83.9%) and India (87.2%) with a percentage of 98.9%.[i] Evidently, our focus on achieving the Millennium Development target of universal primary education has laid predominant emphasis on ‘quantitative’ targets. Unfortunately, this has overshadowed the significance of a qualitative education. It has created a society that learns about climate change and pollution, yet does not think twice before casually dropping their used plastic cups on the ground while they walk at Galle Face. The escalating rates of crime and corruption in the country further showcase this.
The Big Syllabus Problem
Many teachers and students expressed that one of the main problems with secondary education, especially Advanced Levels (A’levels), is the exhaustive curriculum. The presumption is that the larger the syllabus, the more difficult the exam, and that a higher degree of difficulty translates to a more enhanced education.
The workload confines some students to their books and discourages many from engaging in extra-curricular activities that contribute to personal development. When students have so much content to absorb within a limited timeframe, their ability to think critically about what they are learning is stifled. Instead, they resort to cram, memorize and regurgitate knowledge as they practice past papers just to pass an exam.
The local system leaves little room for practical learning. Chemistry teachers have told us that there is no time to do experiments and language teachers expressed that subjects like French are lacking a spoken dimension. Moreover, in a fast digitalizing world where a basic knowledge of computer operations is vital, General IT is not compulsory and computer practicals are excluded.
In contrast, the London A’levels, which is broken up into units, covers the same themes as the Sri Lankan A’levels without burdening students with unnecessary content that cannot be applied. These exams tests a different kind of skill; the ability to reason, to use common sense, to apply knowledge gained from textbooks to practical situations and they include open-book examinations for subjects like literature that involve the need for verbatim reproduction of study material.
The Exam Problem: What are they testing?
Undoubtedly, the education system in Sri Lanka is exam-oriented. This affects the teaching-learning process in its entirety.
The Advanced Level Examination (A’Level) is a case in point. For the past decade the Economics papers have followed a pattern of the ‘learn and reproduce’ type. However, last year’s paper posed questions such as “why is this theory true?” instead of ‘State the theory’. Many A’level students that we conversed with admitted that the paper was unusually difficult. This was reflected further when the ‘A’ percentage in a leading private school in Colombo, dropped from 50% in 2012 to 12.5% in 2013.
In the words of Margaret Mead, “Children must be taught how to think not what to think”.[ii] If everyone was programmed to think the same way, society would have stagnated decades ago. It is important that an education system nurtures creative thinking and debate, which will generate new ideas and propel the development of the country.
The Teaching-Learning Process: Changing the Mindset
These problems determine how teachers manage their classroom; often spoon-feeding students and rushing through the syllabus. The time factor sucks out the creativity in their teaching techniques. While the Student Based Assessment approach, introduced in 1999 (most recently revised in 2003),[iii] allows students to engage in creative learning, and has not been applied to full capacity.[iv]
Our cultural ideologies act as a significant barrier in this instance. From a young age students are taught in black and white and are discouraged from exploring the shades of grey. To question teachers and elders or to challenge authority is considered disrespectful. Thus the fear of being ‘wrong’ is ingrained in their minds.
While some students thrive in such an environment, others might feel constricted because there is no freedom to think out of the box. Ultimately it is the creative child: the late developer, the one who perceives situations differently who gets left behind because he or she would not conform or could not score that perfect ‘A’ grade. Einstein summed up in essence that schools kill creativity when he said, “Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.”[v]
‘Attitude is a little thing that makes a big difference.’ -Winston Churchill
On many occasions papers have included sections that are not in the curriculum; the Greek and Roman Civilization paper in 2012 had a question from the old syllabus, and according to French teachers, the Ordinary Level French paper is constantly testing A’ Level grammar. Further, the indifferent attitudes of the people setting papers were reflected in the 2013 A’level English Literature paper, which had grammatical errors that made questions incomprehensible.
The reluctance to invest in resources is another issue that unnecessarily burdens students and teachers alike. For instance, the grade 10 English History textbook lacks the content found in the Sinhala textbook and the A’level Geography teacher’s manual was published four years after the syllabus was designed.
Honesty is a forgotten virtue. Cheating at public examinations is now a norm. Many students have witnessed invigilators ignoring, and sometimes aiding the cheating process. Integrity is lacking even while setting papers, for example the 2011 O’Level Science paper that was leaked. What is the point of ‘educating’ the next generation if the system condones such malpractices?
Pushing for Reform:
Many of these problems have sensible solutions. Extracting outdated topics from large syllabuses and allowing students to pick specific modules that interest them, will serve to ease their burden. Likewise, the SATS (Scholastic Aptitude Test) and the Edexcel Advanced Levels are good formats to model when re-thinking our approach to examinations.
According to statistics released by the Department of Examinations, at the 2011 O’Level English exam 57% of the candidates scored less than 30% of marks. This rate of failure does not pertain to English alone – out of the 270,000 students who sat for the exam in 2011, 55,000 of them failed mathematics.[vi] While it is commendable that the State plans to include a spoken component at the O’Level English examination from 2015, steps need to be taken to make such strategies effective and to address the root of some of the problems first. For example, more time and money needs to be invested in teacher training, in the provision of resource materials, in the opening up of libraries to encourage reading, and by organizing workshops across the country. These efforts will make a significant difference to the quality of education a student receives.
Bangladesh, a developing country, has taken innovative strides to overcome obstacles that hinder their education process. This is demonstrated by the solar powered floating schools equipped with computer facilities that were put in place to combat floods. Similarly in Malaysia, the Deputy Prime Minister expressed that “In order to compete with the best in the world, our education system must develop young Malaysians who are knowledgeable, think critically and creatively, have leadership skills and are able to communicate with the rest of the world.”[vii] The country is making visible progress in this light, and their “Education Blue Print: 2013-2025”, elaborates these creative strategies and endeavors. Moving forward, we can learn from our counterparts in the developing world and tackle our own barriers through such similar approaches.
In Sri Lanka, education policies have been formulated based on quantitative data such as the number of students being enrolled in school, the percentage of ‘A’ grades etc. These statistics don’t reflect the qualitative problems within the system. For example, teachers lacking the qualifications required for the job; students cheating at exams; the blatant elimination motive of the A’level examination; and the obvious lack of parity between syllabus setters and those who set exam papers, although not captured in existing data, are issues that we know to be true. Students experience these trials on a daily basis. Thus in our attempt to re-imagine the education system, who better to turn to than the students themselves? Getting continuous feedback from them via surveys will help policy makers gain insight into the nature of these issues and take them into account when designing policies and educational reforms for the future.
Through education we have the power to forge our destiny. If children indeed are the future, shouldn’t they be a dynamic force in fashioning this transformation?
* This article was compiled by selecting facts from an array of sources: interviews with teachers and students, personal anecdotes and recent statistics. We have identified several structural problems in the Sri Lankan education system and highlighted the scope there is for improvement and reform. The ‘Reimagining’ series by the Centre for Poverty Analysis (CEPA)