Educating the educators

“In the coming years, India can thrive because of its young. Or it can implode. Or both. There’s little time left.”

The End of Karma, Somini Sengupta

Sengupta, the New Delhi bureau chief of the New York Times from 2005 to 2009, places education in India centre and forward in how the country will deal with challenges around democracy and development. Her book deals with characters from across India and often at the margins of society. Varsha, from Gurgaon and Anupam, from Patna are two of the book’s best drawn portraits, with each of their lives anchored to education. Sengupta’s meticulous research in these two chapters clearly highlights what is a seriously dysfunctional education system – from primary to tertiary – and far removed from the ‘India Shining’ narrative that would have most believe everything was fine.

I had Varsha and Anupam’s stories in mind as I listened to three persuasive presentations by Sunil Hettiarachchi, Secretary at the Ministry of Education, Murtaza Esufally, a Director at Hemas and Dr. Jithangi Wanigasinghe, Consultant Paediatric Neurologist from the College of Paediatricians. The presentations were made at, of all places, a meeting of business persons and industry leaders I found myself invited to by a senior editor, with whom I was at a meeting recently brainstorming ways to strengthen innovation, entrepreneurship through new and old media.

Over ten years, I have regularly lectured at the Bandaranaike Centre for International Studies, the Sri Lanka College of Journalism, various universities in Europe and the US and am at present a visiting lecturer at the Faculty of English, University of Colombo. With every single new cohort I’ve taught in Sri Lanka, I’ve had to begin by asking them to close their notebooks, put down their pens and engage with me as I speak. There have been more than a few occasions when I’ve stood in somewhat stunned silence as students – mid-career journalists, those at Masters level, industry professionals, servicemen and women from the armed forces and school teachers, amongst others – have struggled to formulate a single coherent, critical question based on what I had just said in class. It is a remarkable stunting of critical thinking, fuelled by a primary, secondary and tertiary education system (and pedagogy) that teaches best to learn by rote and regurgitate mindlessly at an exam in pursuit of the highest possible marks. This stands in stark contrast to the quality of students in European and US universities I’ve taught at, with whom the lecture is more an exploratory conversation based on lateral, critical thinking. A lecture in these Universities is a point of departure for a deep dive into the topic being discussed. In Sri Lanka, a class lecture is often an end point, the mere dumping of one person’s understanding and framing of a topic on to a passive, silent class. It is little more than a podcast, delivered in person by a human.

The presentations by Hettiarachchi, Esufally and Wanigasinghe were collectively interesting because in calling for deep, systemic and urgent reform, they all challenged the education system as it presently stands. Individually, there were revealing differences in what each person chose to stress. Though Hettiarachchi didn’t focus on it, one of the slides showcasing official Ministry of Education data flagged a significant increase in what parents invested in tuition, over the past couple of years – comparatively far more than, for example, what they spent on school supplies, and indeed, school fees. This isn’t entirely surprising – in Nugegoda, where I lived for around seven years, there is now a new bus stop adjacent to the location of a multi-storied tuition centre, that in one go conducts lessons for hundreds of students spread over multiple floors through a PA system so loud it allowed me, and others in the vicinity, to listen into some of the finer details of A/L Chemistry and Accounts on a Sunday morning. Tuition is an industry, and a lucrative one at that. And even when I was in school, over 20 years ago, there were cases where teachers were reprimanded for teaching in their private tuition class what they were supposed to impart to students in school. It is unclear what the Ministry of Education is doing, by way of revising syllabi and improving pedagogy, to stem this growth of an industry that is deeply detrimental to the mental health and development of youth and children.

Wanigasinghe’s presentation focussed on aspects Hettiarachchi did not even briefly broach – on the importance of play time within the school timetable, the value of reading – beyond textbooks, the stress on child and parent by the massive amounts of homework, the psychological effects caused by the stress around exams and things you don’t often think about, including the sheer weight of a school bag, which is a physical burden on children. She also focussed far more on pedagogy, noting that how subjects were taught mattered just as much as what subjects were taught. Listening to her was depressing, especially as a parent. And though she invoked laughter by the sheer absurdity of some of what is taught in schools as part of the official curriculum, the lesson was a simple one – the numbers the Ministry worked with and showcased were almost entirely disconnected from the nature, quality and delivery of education, which is basically, the pits. She also made another point – that politicians and bureaucrats, with scant regard for continuity and progress from what was already achieved, often changed and with no real basis policies around education, impacting adversely years of advocacy around and measures towards vital reform. This was underscored by other speakers as well, and raised the question around how in a country like Sri Lanka, meaningful, sustainable education reform would actually take root given the fact that every new Minister, in every government, brought in changes that rarely take into consideration what was done and achieved in the past. Esufally, speaking last focussed on the deep disconnect between what industry, the private sector in particular and increasingly, even government required by way of skills and knowledge, and what kind of citizen Sri Lanka’s education system was actually producing.

Curiously, no one spoke about need to incorporate into the syllabus, or classrooms in general, issues like bullying, including cyber-bullying, age appropriate HIV, sexual and reproductive health, relationship, sexuality and gender awareness. These are still issues and areas we don’t want to talk about openly and by not doing so, we are exposing children and youth, especially girls, to a world of negative body and self-image, violence, grief, hurt and harm that is normalised.

When often asked what I teach and how, I say that whatever I lecture on in Sri Lanka, I have to frequently start by teaching my students how to learn. In doing so, I have to help them unlearn what is already ingrained by years, if not decades, of the worst sort of education. This has in the past angered others in the same institution, department or faculty, who think that changing their pedagogy adds unnecessary work, in addition to having to deal with students who question them openly, often leading to very quickly ascertaining the limits of their teacher’s own grasp of the subject. It’s heartening however that a few at the Ministry, others affiliated to or giving input to it and those in private industry are giving serious thought to rebooting an education system that has for too long, simply produced supine subjects instead of informed, engaged citizens.

We need to get this right.


First published in The Sunday Island, 30 October 2016.


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