Need for an education revolution: Future of our kids and the nation is at risk – Part I

Wednesday, 26 June 2019 00:47 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

The need for analytical minds


Democratic process

It is said that a country is only good as her people. A country belongs to her people. In a democratic country, people elect the leaders to manage the country on their behalf. Hence, to be hailed as a progressive country, it is paramount for a country to have wise and disciplined people. This is what Sri Lanka is certainly lacking.

Dhammika Perera is a practical economist. We all have to be practical economists to survive in this world

In the present global context, a country cannot survive standalone as it would continually be subjected to the external political and economic forces, prompting wise strategic responses from the leaders. Hence, the prosperity of a country depends on the wise decisions taken by the leaders and the wise behaviour of the people.


Logical mind of Dhammika

Recently, I noted a comment made by the Sri Lankan business tycoon Dhammika Perera on the alarming rate of student dropouts from the primary school system before reaching the GCE (O/L). He estimated it as 32,000 annually. 

Also, there was another news article that the Government is planning to reduce the number of subjects on offer for students at the G.C.E. Ordinary Level (O/L) Examination from nine to six, for the purposes of qualifying for the GCE (Advanced Level). The reason for this change was the complaints from the parents and the teachers alike about the heavy workload for primary school students.

I am an engineer, practising advanced physical asset management. This engineering sub-branch is yet to be popularised in Sri Lanka. When I did technical presentations at two Sri Lankan public sector organisations, the engineers in the audience lamented, not having asset management engineers in Sri Lankan public sector. This is one of the reasons that the Sri Lankan public sector service organisations perform poorly. This is an issue for a future discussion. What I am trying to say is that the data collection and analysis is a major component of asset management discipline and the asset management engineers would impart this important requirement across the public sector organisation.

Dhammika often makes decisions based on numbers, data and trends of data fluctuation. So, I understand the basis of his assessments and proposals. By the way, Dhammika had his higher education from the same university (apparently went to the same high school) I attended which is renowned for high quality technical education. He got a good technical foundation to stand upon. He proved technical skills is a transferable skill for all fields. 

Numbers don’t lie as long as the numbers are accurate and relevant. However, he has to make a few important assumptions here. Basic assumptions are to be on the accuracy, the timeliness and the relevancy of data. If data are inaccurate, the data confidence level becomes low. Such data would produce analytical erroneous outcomes. The data could be outdated by the time of the use as any data set is a snapshot at the time of collection. 

Further, we have to rely on the expertise of the people who collected and analysed raw data. Also, the data must be relevant. It must also be reminded that the same data can be presented to paint different pictures. Usually, medical drug manufacturers and doctors use same set of data to come up with completely opposite determinations. 

I can safely declare that Dhammika takes all these aspects seriously and this is why he is so successful in his business decisions. What I most like about him is that he is practical and down-to-earth mannerism. I noticed he is adamant to question the people who propose new projects to prove where in the world such proposals were implemented before and proof of intended results. I like his global approach and his zest to follow and learn from the other successful players. I don’t know him personally and I rely on publically available information of his approach.


Producing logical minds

Dhammika is a practical economist. We all have to be practical economists to survive in this world. 

I would like to make a personal note here. In Australia, there are a few big departmental chain stores which sell furniture, communication, electrical and electronic items. What I realised, by observing and analysing the advertised and periodic “on sale” prices over a significant period, is that the two big players among the lot generally mark prices 30% on top of the prices of the items already accounted for the overhead costs and a reasonable profit margins. This 30% was the room for marketing play. 

As these players have big buying powers, the smaller players cannot set competitive prices even with low overheads. So, I began negotiating with them on prices of certain expensive items. After a long bargaining process, highlighting I was a frequent customer and also showing my intention of not buying if not discounted, the sales person finally offered me 20% less than the advertised prices. The sales person confidently said that it was the best his store could do. 

As I knew, 30% was their profit fluctuation margin, I insisted to have a chat with the store manager because only the manager could see the master database showing how many items of a particular category had been originally acquired by the whole store chain and how many items had already been sold. The sales persons normally do not have access to this database and they only operate on the basis of offering a fixed percentage discount to the customers below the advertised price. The manager could determine how much each of the remaining items could be sold, without suffering any loss. 

It should also be remembered that not every buyer bargains and some would have already bought the products at the advertised price. What matters is the overall profit. It is a fact that no store will sell a product at a loss. Hence, the manager could offer me an overall 30% discount as I expected. 

If I was lucky to buy a last few items of their stock, even I could have gone down to half of the advertised price because the keeping of last few products at the warehouse or on a shop floor would prevent them trying a highly-demanded new product and unlocking of money spent on the original purchase. What I am trying to emphasise is that everyone should be ready to collect and analyse publically available data and make decisions on facts rather than relying on guesses.

I like Dhammika’s approach in resolving national issues. However, I have a bigger issue to worry about. To make his grand proposals successful, we need an intelligent human capital. Basically, we need thousands of people who think and act like Dhammika. Otherwise, the plans would fail during the operational stage. We can only gain this human capital by giving due place to Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics (STEM), Finance and English in our education system. Believe me, there is no other way.

Don’t get the message wrong. This is not to make all are technocrats. This is about developing analytical skills and make it second nature. The ultimate aim is to teach kids how to learn and how to think critically. It is not about giving them subject materials to remember and pushing them to acquire paper qualifications like diplomas, degrees, masters, and PhDs. Formal qualifications would come automatically. It is about inspiring them to be open minded, analytical and innovative. 

Learning and decision making is a lifelong activity. Nowadays, the subject materials are available everywhere, not just in schools or on printed books. When one keeps learning, he or she would realise the limits of own knowledge. That makes them to keep learning. So, the purpose of real education is for kids to teach how to learn and apply what has been learnt on novel situations.

A cursory glance at the Facebook or Twitter would provide enough ammunition to prove the low intelligence level of our younger generation. The material they promote, distribute and the comments they make, reflect their narrow span of intelligence, poor analytical skills and also the lack of holistic understanding of geo-political, social and economic affairs. It even highlights their poor communication skills and inability to express ideas even through their mother tongue. It is a showcase of their blind allegiance to ideologies, preventing open-minded critical expressions. It is not their fault because they have been brought up this way. It is a system fault. Having formal qualifications is not a measure of intelligence although Sri Lankan society judge people’s ability through such measures. What matters is not what we know but how we use it. Australians don’t give a damn about my post-graduate paper qualifications. What they want to see from me is my ability to apply my knowledge to think laterally to solve issues. 

I know PhD qualified people who cannot do simple tasks or make a public speech to suit the audience. I dismally watch so many educated people who still believe in scientifically unproven divine interventions to resolve their problems. I don’t have any arguments with people who are having unscientific religious or any other beliefs. What I am worried about is its impact to the kids due to forceful implantation of these beliefs on them. 

I strongly believe that there is science behind every activity and phenomena in this world. Some have already been explained by the scientists and a lot is yet to be explained. Not being able to unravel the rest scientifically does not mean that the science has limitations. It is a reflection of the limitation of the human mind. It is the adults who are not letting the kids to expand their minds and unravel the hidden scientific explanations.

One cannot attempt to reveal the unknown, unless one starts thinking critically and taking decisions based on facts. As adults, our task is to prepare our kids for this challenge. I really worry about Sri Lankan kids. Not only the adults look at the world through obscured lenses but also they pass the lenses to their kids and force them to wear when exploring the world. To me, this is a crime against humanity. These lenses are already opaque with the adults’ unscientific beliefs. In essence, adults are killing our kid’s future, eventually the nation’s future. 

I am a Sinhalese Buddhist only because my parents were Sinhalese Buddhists. My parents followed social customs. They sent me to a Sinhala school and let me learn Sinhala and Buddhism and go to a Buddhist temple to worship Lord Buddha. I sincerely believe that real Buddhism is a philosophical religion (the best in the world, in my opinion) and Sinhala is a rich and artistic language. This is why I believe in Buddhist principles and also love the Sinhala language, prompting me to use it effectively to produce literary works, via printed media. 

However, I wish I was taught Tamil as an official language, English as a link language, history of all ethnicities and also the principles of other religions to understand other cultures, to tolerate other customs and to respect them without prejudice, of course, while keeping my cultural identity as a Sinhala Buddhist. The education system I followed did not allow this. I don’t see much change in approach now either. Our kids follow our path and they will end up like us who are racially blind and deaf. I blame all politicians as well for actively promoting this.

Sri Lankan educational authorities often boast about the high level education in Sri Lanka. Is it the right education? Is it high compared to that of the rest of the world? I have my doubts. There is only one way to know it. Test it. By whom? 

If Sri Lanka can contact the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) Testing Authorities of The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) and join their assessment program to subject assessment of our primary school students (15 years old), Sri Lanka would definitely know where we stand, in terms of the educational level. 

PISA is a triennial international survey in which the students are assessed in reading, mathematics, science and collaborative problem-solving. This is the path Singapore followed. This is what Brazil did. It is reminded that there is no need to publish assessment outcomes, if Sri Lanka does not want others to know the results. However, that would deny us knowing where we sit among the others. Obviously, the assessment outcomes could be used to reform our educational system.


PISA shock

A word of caution. If the results come out unfavourable and if Sri Lanka expects to argue, the testing method is wrong, I insist Sri Lanka should not even bother to follow this path. Otherwise, Sri Lanka must be ready to face the ‘PISA shock’ as the term coined by PISA authorities (ref: How to build a 21st century school system – Andreas Schleicher, OECD). 

When the original PISA test was conducted in the year 2000, some developed countries such as Germany, USA and France performed at a lower level than expected. So they immediately argued that the test was wrong, declaring their education systems were among the best in the world. Later, they accepted the reality and transformed their education system. 

No developed country stops reforming its education system. It is a work in progress. Vietnam is now on par with a top rated nation like Finland. India first participated in this test in 2009 and was rated as Rank 72 out of 74. India was furious and declared testing was unreasonable and even withdrew from the testing. No surprises here. This is a typical South East Asian response.

Sri Lanka possibly would do the same. We are very good at denying our failures and blaming others for our failures. There is no need to go further than looking at our National Cricket Team and the administrators at the 2019 Cricket World Cup. When they started getting beaten, they blamed poor facilities and green pitches rather than accepting our cricketers have low skills. Not stopping there, they boycotted a mandatory media briefing and denied ICC officials accessing them after a defeat. It was like a boy who refused to eat dinner by locking himself in a room, when parents asked him to study without playing in the backyard. It was a childish play. 

This is what I said before that our adults are poor role models for the kids. The team went to this tournament for a purpose. It was to play to their potential by training hard. If the given facilities and services were not up to the mark, the officials should have spent own funds which are openly wasted to find alternative facilities and services to ensure the team is ready for the matches, while protesting officially on mistreatment. That would have embarrassed ICC to the core. 

May be the money spent could be covered from the winnings. Even the expenditure could have been recuperated first via the insurance cover and then the insurers could have gone behind the ICC asking it to pay back the cost, as the ICC failed to treat all equally, if that was the case. Money will flow into coffers if we become the champions. Ultimate aim was to give the best shot by the well-prepared team. This is how professionals should have acted in such a situation, not behaving like the street fighters at Vanaathamulla.

Anyway, by now, India has conceded the reality and recovered from the PISA shock. It has hard on its education systems during last few years and re-joined the testing process this year to face the PISA test in 2021. One may say, if India failed nine years ago, we are also bound to fail. It could really be, but it is better to get Sri Lankan education system tested to understand which areas in the system are to be improved.


Problem solving – Scientific vs. Unscientific

Problem solving is a logical process. I am an engineer. Engineers follow the process of collecting data, taking measurements and carrying out tests as preparatory works. Often engineers have a difficult diagnosis process as the subject matter, the machines and the materials cannot talk or answer the questions. However, by observing and analysing the behaviour and the performance of machines and materials, an engineer can comprehend the cause of the defect or the problem. Hence, there is a scientific process to develop a solution to a technical problem. 

In a similar manner, a doctor records temperature of a patient, observes symptoms, asks probing questions and carries out a series of tests to diagnose the medical causes of the symptoms and subsequently develop medical treatments. Again, it is a scientific process. 

This process is universally practised to resolve problems, except by the typical education authorities. They do treatments before observing the symptoms. They develop a subject curriculum and ask the teachers to adopt it as teaching material. That could be termed as the educational treatment. Subsequently, the students sit for the examinations. That is the ‘testing’. The examination results are the measurements of the symptoms observed after the treatment process. This is the reverse of the scientific approach. 

The veteran writer Victor Ivan once wrote in an article to Daily FT how Sri Lankan educational authorities lowered the pass mark of a subject of GCE (O/L) to show satisfactory testing results. They knew no symptoms meant no ailment. Good try. No wonder our kids are not ready to take up present social challenges.

Every child is different and unique. It is perfectly understandable that educationalists cannot tailor syllabuses to each child and teach each kid individually. So, what is the alternative action? The approach should be the allowing of kids to learn own way and at own pace, through a facilitation process. 

The educational treatment should prompt different individuals to think differently. That means, different kids do different levels of activities to reach common targets. It is no longer a traditional teaching process of heavy subject materials within a short period. It is a facilitation process for kids to develop learning skills. Kids should be taught how to learn. This learning process occurs during and after the school. Parents are to be a part of this learning process. In the modern world, the subject material could be found in printed and digital forms. 

The Asian academic giants like Singapore, Japan and Vietnam follow novel teaching methods to inspire kids to find own solutions to the problems and encourage them to work as groups to develop solutions by observing and questioning each other. These teachers ask kids to defend their solutions in front of the group, encouraging others to question the proposed solutions. Do we have this kind of education system and such teachers in Sri Lanka? I dare to say “no”. 

This is why I insist that the Sri Lankan education system should be tested by PISA to find out the cause for the massive number of student dropout, why they can’t think out of box. Then, we should reform the system by incorporating long term corrective measures. There should be a bi-partisan agreement (better to be legislative) among the politicians, not to fiddle with the education system and leave it to the experts to handle it.


Proposed subjects and missing subjects 

The Government has proposed the subjects Religion and Value Education, First Language, Mathematics, Science, English, Civics and History for the GCE (O/L) Examination. The subject selection must be made after careful the consideration of the skills our kids need to develop to face social challenges. 

Have we done an analysis on social challenges and what we need to in education system to face these challenges? I am not aware. However, what I know is that the science and technology development is taking over our lives at a tremendous pace and we are tangled in a capitalist economic and marketing web struggling to free ourselves. 

For anyone to survive in this world, knowledge in Science, Technology, Finance and Mathematics is essential. A society needs ethical, disciplined and less-stressed human beings who are restrained enough not to behave like animals. The education system should support this need. Hence, the subject selection must be decided accordingly.

Mathematics and Science: There is no question that Mathematics and Science should be in the syllabus. However, these two subjects should be made compulsory for all to be declared to obtain GCE (O/L) satisfactory level certificate. Science and Mathematics should be taught in English, giving supplementary lessons in Sinhala. This is not to make all scientists or mathematicians. This is to teach all analytical skills. Teaching in English would allow children to use textbooks available all over the world. 

Digital technology: On what basis, did they drop Digital Technology from the subjects list? The whole world is living in a digital jungle. Are our educationalists still living in a cave? To survive and to use the best of the technologies available in the world for national advantage, our kids should have the knowledge on the principles of digital technology. In the future all repetitive tasks will be automated and people would have to use digital devices to manage those tasks. Hence, their emotional intelligence and subject matter knowledge will need to be applied to develop digital systems rather than for manual operations. Technology will never replace people but it will only change the type of tasks and types of decision making human would make. Our kids must be ready for this. 

Again, having Digital Technology as a subject would give them the ability to explore current technologies, understand the basics and use. It is true that by the time kids finish primary education, there will be new technology in place, but they will have to ability to understand emerging technologies. 

Basic Finance and Economics: How did they exclude Basic Finance and Economics as a subject? Managing own finances is a basic requirement for every citizen. One day, our kids will earn money, buy products and services, open up a bank account, use a credit card, and apply for a personal bank loan. If they work for the private sector, they will pay taxes to the government. They may even invest money on assets and shares. There is a possibility some would end up as small business owners. 

Kids should be exposed to the basic financial terminology and the theories on basic financial and economic management techniques, early in their life. This is what USA does. Well, we pretend, we are better than them and we are born with these skills. Look in front of the world mirror to understand how economically ugly we are.

Languages: Sri Lanka is a country with a multicultural society and in terms of education, all ethnicities must be treated equally. Hence, I suggest the subject language must be a single subject teaching both official languages Sinhala and Tamil from Year 1 of school. Hence, at GCE (O/L), it should be a test paper with two parts to cover Sinhala and Tamil. I propose offering of individual languages Sinhala and Tamil literature as optional subjects for people who want in-depth learning.

English language is important for all to reach out to the world and learn. It must be made compulsory to pass at GCE (OL). It is better to start teaching English from year 1 because it is easy for kids to grab language skills at a younger age.

Religion: In South East Asian societies, religions act as both pacifiers and agitators. Religious beliefs and associated customs should be confined to own minds of each ethnic groups, without promoting in public on the non-believers of a particular religion. Freedom of choice must be legislated and encouraged. This is a matter of appreciation of the rights of others to be different. This only can be truly achieved by mutual understanding and respect. 

Hence, the subject Religion must be named as ‘The Studies of Religion’ and kids must be taught basic principles of all religions as a single subject, without heavy emphasis on one religion. I don’t mind having optional subjects such as Buddhism, Hinduism, Christianity and Islam if anyone wants to do in-depth studies. These individual subjects should not be within the core subjects list. 

History: History is another contentious subject. There is no argument that it should be a core subject. In my view, the subject content must be on both local and world history. However, we have a massive problem. Sri Lanka does not have a comprehensive local history text book. The learned readers can name if there is one. 

History is usually documented by the biased academics who are subjected to the whims and wishes of the rulers of a country. Hence, the real historical accounts are submerged among the propaganda material of the rulers of a country and emerge as the documented history. Hence, our kids are forced to learn the distorted history. Parents contribute to this by instilling own view on our history into kids’ minds. Parents are role models for kids. Kids believe their parents’ words and views without questioning. Basically, we all unwittingly poison our kids’ minds.

History is what really happened. One cannot change it afterwards. Some incident we may like over the others. Our children deserve to know the real history of our country to shape their own future. There are so many professionals in Sri Lanka who have in-depth knowledge on our nation’s history. I would like to find three competent Sinhala, Tamil and Muslim historians and request them to write a history textbook for our kids, referring to all Sinhala, Tamil and Muslim historical records. I want them to record all conflicting historical records on each event without expressing their judgemental views. 

The usual mistake of the historians is that they make comparisons of historical actions with the current social norms and practices and record the events as good or bad. What historians don’t know is the actual ground conditions and the influences the performers had to encounter at that time. Simply you were not there in the historical theatre. Hence, it is not right to assign a moral value to historical actions after the event. This is why I don’t want them to record their moral opinions on historical events. Those judgements are for the readers to make. I don’t want them to name who our heroes were and who our traitors were; and also, who the callous lot was or the righteous bunch. The kids would make up their own mind while reading the history text book.

Art, Music and Sports: Although the subjects on the art, music and sports are to be optional, the knowledge and skills gained through such studies are of immense value to produce well rounded citizens. The private sector institutions should be encouraged to establish partnership with the government to offer suitable study courses for school children at subsidised fees and through scholarship programs for financially disadvantaged students. The knowledge on these subjects must be considered when offering employment. 

In my view, Government schools should not directly facilitate these courses as the private sector institutions have a wide range of resources to do this. Hence, all limited Government resources should be directed to teach key subjects.

(To be continued.)


(Eng. Janaka Seneviratne is a Chartered Professional Engineer, a Fellow and an International Professional Engineer of both the Institution of Engineers, Sri Lanka and Australia. He has dual Masters Degrees in Local Government Engineering and Engineering Management. He is contactable via [email protected].)

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