Learning in schools today is based on a system of memorisation and rote learning based on repetition. While this system may have been effective in the past, it does not nurture the creative thinking needed for students to compete in a growing economy – Pic by Shehan Gunasekara
By Maya Karunaratne
Sri Lanka boasts remarkable progress in terms of basic education indicators including free education since 1947 and an above 90% literacy rate. Unfortunately, take a deeper dive, and the system wreaks of an obsolete, exam-oriented approach to learning influenced by colonialism. This, not to mention, directly and indirectly contributes to the alarming skills mismatch and unemployed youth idling in the country today. With an ageing population, Sri Lanka’s economy cannot afford to have an unproductive youth population and ignore these needed reforms in education.
Learning in schools today is based on a system of memorisation and rote learning based on repetition. While this system may have been effective in the past, it does not nurture the creative thinking needed for students to compete in a growing economy. Further, learning in this manner does not allow students to go beyond mere knowledge and develop the relevant attitudes, problem-solving capacity and interpersonal skills that are needed to lead a productive life.
Even a report by the National Education Commission (NEC)1 recognises the youth leaving our schools today demonstrate weaknesses in both critical and creative thinking. They lack social skills of working in groups, communicating with others, listening empathetically to others, caring for and sharing with others, and taking leadership and followership as necessary in group situations. Emotional balance, stress management, initiative, orientation to change, responsibility, accountability, commitment and self-discipline are some personnel skills that our youth has failed to develop while in school.
While teachers are the backbone of the education system and should be revered for their commitments; it is important to acknowledge the need for certain attitudinal changes. Any lack of capacity is no fault of their own, but teachers must create a child-friendly environment, be willing to be challenged by their students and encourage questioning and critical thinking. Curious students should be perceived as a testament to their ability rather than a disciplinary call. Many schools without realising the instructional problems that make the students misbehave use punishment to maintain student discipline, causing stress and anxiety detrimental to their productivity.
The ability to innovate is critical to survive in today’s technology-driven world and education needs to adjust to equip students for fast adaptation and self-learning by promoting creative and critical thinking from a young age. Educational activities can be project and research based, leaving room for students to ask questions and figure out solutions for themselves. The emphasis on exams and the resulting tuition culture needs to slow down if we are to facilitate creative thinking and learning. It has also become the plight of free education in Sri Lanka today. The system can be easily exploited for personal financial gain. Not to mention, the lack of regulation and governance of this booming industry
The ability to innovate is critical to survive in today’s technology-driven world and education needs to adjust to equip students for fast adaptation and self-learning by promoting creative and critical thinking from a young age. Educational activities can be project and research based, leaving room for students to ask questions and figure out solutions for themselves.
The emphasis on exams and the resulting tuition culture needs to slow down if we are to facilitate creative thinking and learning. It has also become the plight of free education in Sri Lanka today. The system can be easily exploited for personal financial gain. Not to mention, the lack of regulation and governance of this booming industry. This warrants reforms in not only curricula but in teacher capacity building and teacher compensation. New approaches to learning and teaching are required to bring the learners to a different platform where they would generate their own knowledge and meaning to revise the known, explore the undetermined and construct what is, as preparation for constructing what might be.2 Further, the state of technology today allows students to access tools such as apps, the internet, YouTube, etc. for self-learning, which is proven effective.
Career guidance and TVET
Rote learning and tuition culture spreads as far as higher education which begs to question whether graduates from these institutions are equipped with tangible skills or knowledge that potentially makes them employable. The number of unemployed graduates is alarming and manifests in frustration and social unrest. There is a clear mismatch between employers’ expectations and the quality of graduates. A stark contrast from high primary education achievements; Sri Lanka is the lowest achieving country in higher education in the region. There is an unrealistic expectation that graduates from higher education are guaranteed a top or mid-level job in a professional position.
This is why, from an early age, availability and accessibility to career information for students is essential. It is the foundation for the provision of career guidance services which needs to be more inclusive (not presenting the traditional doctor, lawyer, engineer jobs as the only options to lead a valuable life). It should assist students to make educational, training and occupational choices throughout their school lives. Understanding the potential of various sectors and industries opens up possibilities for students. This encourages practical skills development to be competitive in areas other than mere academics and gears them to be productive adults.
Further, the stigma around Technical and Vocational Education and Training (TVET) must be dissolved, recognising that jobs in these sectors are skilled, competitive and valued. It’s encouraging that employment-oriented subjects such as Entrepreneurial Studies are now in the curriculum together with the Technical Subjects of the past. These help children to construct knowledge that supports them in selecting a career path of their choice, entering it, and performing successfully in it.
Awareness of gender and reproductive health
By far, the foundation for autonomous, free-thinking, and productive adults is awareness of gender equality and reproductive rights from a young age. Promoting sexual and reproductive health education gives young people autonomy over their bodies and their lives, instilling the needed confidence to become productive young people. For women especially, having control over their bodies and life choices not only provides for increased economic participation, but for healthier family structures when they do decide to engage in marriage and childbearing. While respecting cultural values, emphasis must be put on creating awareness of sexual and reproductive health and confronting taboos which have detrimental long-term impacts on inclusivity.
In conclusion, addressing the issues mentioned above are fundamental for promoting a productive economy in Sri Lanka. By 2030, one in five people will be above the age of 60 and engaging youth into the economy is a priority if the country wants to sustain its growth.
In order to accommodate these changing demographics and rapid globalisation, there needs to be a shift in education from rote learning to constructive knowledge and creative thinking to help equip young people with employable skills. This must be coupled with career guidance and counselling allowing students to make informed career choices, leading to happier and more productive adults.
Finally, the aspect of gender and reproductive health cannot be ignored as this is the foundation of a confident, free-thinking adult. Women’s economic participation is key; therefore, changes in attitudes and gender awareness must be instilled from a young age for a sustainable future.
The writer a specialist in social policy and development with an MSc from the London School of Economics, UK and currently contracted by the United Nations.