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Shifting Sri Lankan Educational Paradigms – one step at a time

“Education is vital for development”. This statement has been made famous over the years, and Sri Lanka now has the best opportunity to put this notion into action. Education will be key in order to keep up with the global pace as a country

An industrialization strategy which requires uneducated labor, repetitive tasks and exports seem out of date. China followed this path and emerged successful however this doesn’t seem to be an option for countries anymore, especially for small developing countries. This double standard is due to the changes that have come forth in the international political economy. So what does a country like Sri Lanka need to focus on to emerge as a significant ‘node’ in this international system? Dani Rodrik, a professor of International Political Economy states the following three elements are vital; an educated workforce, effective institutions of governance and a structural transformation from low productivity to high productivity tasks. This article focuses on the first mentioned element.

With the end of the Second World War, Sri Lanka was the second strongest economy in Asia. But we have failed to capitalize on that fact and convert that to development. Countries such as South Korea and China developed at staggering double figures in few decades and today play vital roles in the global political economy. Singapore is another obtrusive example for development success. It’s true that Sri Lanka is a success in the South Asian region, but in order to grow as a country we should not settle with that fact. Asia is home to the world’s best education systems. As per 2014 the top four rankings were awarded to South Korea, Japan, Singapore and Hong Kong.

Vietnam’s schooling standards are rising with Vietnamese students performing better than many developing countries in the last PISA tests. Three factors contributed for this result, leadership by authorities, effective curriculum and investment in teachers. Close to 21% of government expenditure was channeled to the education sector, one of the highest figures in the world. This financial support by the government is to facilitate the long term plans by the ministry of education to learn from the top performing countries and implement new strategies to strengthen the education system.

On the bright side, the model in Hong Kong and South Korea is not a total contrast from the Sri Lankan approach. Both countries stress on examination based education systems and 70% of the secondary school children in Hong Kong have private tuition (as per 2013). Both societies are dedicated towards performing in these examinations. The entire public engages during examinations with traffic being stopped and planes are diverted to minimize noise in South Korea.

Another important factor to consider is the dedication of teachers for the cause of educating a child. Finland is known for their education system and their effective teaching methods. Teachers follow a “whatever it takes” stance towards helping children and they are dedicated towards preparing children for “life”. Many schools are small enough so student teacher interactions are maximized and more personalized strategies are implemented by teachers to get through to students. Even though this seems a bit too hard to achieve in the near Sri Lankan future, it certainly has to be pursued. Teachers play a lead role for education standards in Vietnam as well, with them following effective classroom behavior and activities. As a society the Vietnamese respect teachers for their service which signifies the impact teachers have on children. In most leading education systems, the teachers are given autonomy to follow strategies formulated by them personally.

South Korea and Hong Kong dedicate a large part of its curriculum to teach math, science and English. This brings us to one of the main problems in the Sri Lankan education system; underrating the importance of English. 50% of the candidates of the GCE O Level examination failed English last year. Out of the 50% that passed, the western province account for the best results which translates that the performance is highly unequal. When breaking down this fact we can reveal an array of problems that need to be addressed. Lack of awareness about the importance of English, lack of teachers with a fine English knowledge and inability of children to practice what they study are some of these issues.

Apart from English, the curriculum has to capture the vital core concepts in each subject. The examinations should be able to bring out one’s knowledge rather than the memorizing ability. Subject material should be focused on two important questions; what is taught? Why is it taught? It is understood that the each dynamic of a subject cannot be captured by the curriculum but it is important that children are taught the core concepts and then introduced to the vast options in further studies that subject entail.

Education and progress

Thomas Jefferson called for “a system of general instruction” which would be accessible by both the rich and the poor. This is a corner stone in the American education institution which is responsible for the nation’s global dominance. As the world shifts towards a highly knowledge based economy, education acts as the key out for a small developing country. An ‘education only’ approach however could prove ineffective as proper macroeconomic management coupled with strong political institutions are vital to reap benefits of an educated labor force. Sri Lankan politics have been turbulent and with the general elections concluding in August 2015 the country now has a clear road for change. Economic stability in the country is important to retain the outflow of professionals and students to foreign countries, resulting in a loss of potential. Education indeed should be considered as a merit good with long term benefits. Perhaps it’s easier than we think; Sri Lanka does have a state sponsored education system which spans across the island. Even though issues exist, it would take less time to correct them than introduce a whole new system that covers even the most vulnerable. A double action program is needed. New implementations should be introduced to the system in parallel to a debugging process which would address the exiting issues.

The government should introduce practical reforms which are inclusive to the most rural areas in the country. Steps then need to be taken to provide appealing incentives to teachers followed up with proper training. With countries now moving away from orthodox industrialization processes it seems that we Sri Lankans are just entering the arena. The highways are coming up, new foreign projects are approved and the labor force is sensing new opportunities. To facilitate this further, the county’s education system needs to be brought “in line” with the global requirements and standards.

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