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Serving Sri Lanka

This web log is a news and views blog. The primary aim is to provide an avenue for the expression and collection of ideas on sustainable, fair, and just, grassroot level development. Some of the topics that the blog will specifically address are: poverty reduction, rural development, educational issues, social empowerment, post-Tsunami relief and reconstruction, livelihood development, environmental conservation and bio-diversity. 

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Why our schools have failed us

Daily News: 13/12/2005"

SELECT extracts of speech delivered by Dr. Deepthi Attygalle at the prize giving of Ladies' College, Colombo. Dr. Attygalle retired as Senior Consutlant Anaesthesiologist at the National Hospital Colombo and was the Chairperson of the Board of Study in Anaesthesiology and later member of the Board of Management of the Post Graduate Institute of Medicine, Sri Lanka. She was also the Vice President of the World Federation of the Societies of Anaesthesiologists.

Today, I would like to share a few thoughts with you, on what one learns in school which helps to make a success of one's life, and one's career.

DURING the last 35 years as a consultant Anaesthesiologist, and teacher of undergraduates and post graduates, I've noticed with much concern and distress, the increasing deterioration in the work ethic, among both students and professionals in Sri Lanka.

Manifested as a lack of discipline and a lack of objective thinking. Despite the fact that the medical faculties are supposed to get the cream of the A levels, I've found, that most of the students are unable to discuss a problem, or demonstrate a mind of their own.

The ability to take emergency decisions, and justify their actions, which, are so necessary in the practice of medicine, are difficult to develop at the late stage of undergraduate and post graduate studies.

This inability to take a considered objective decision, which is not influenced by emotion and personal loyalties, has become a problem not only for doctors, but a problem at all levels of society, for politicians, for professionals, down to the blue collar workers.

Why is it that our schools have failed us?

In the present system of education there is a central control of curriculum, objectives, targets and a stress on examinations with extensive syllabuses. The questions in our public examinations do not encourage independent critical thinking.

Memory is what counts. The regurgitation of knowledge, rather than discussion, is what is required to pass examinations. All of which leaves little time or inclination on the part of teachers to develop the child in any other way.

The public, judges schools essentially on how many 4As at A levels, how many 8 Ds at O levels. How many passes at Grade 6 scholarship examinations? How many entrants to the university especially to the medical and engineering faculties?

Are these the only criteria by which we should judge school performance? In the words of Albert Einstein "Our whole educational system suffers from this evil. An exaggerated competitive attitude is inculcated into the student, who is trained to worship acquisitive success as a preparation for his future career."

The ideal school must focus on each and every child. On their strengths and on their weaknesses, so that every child may be given the opportunity of developing her potential to a maximum.

However, the focus of education in most schools is obtaining good results in examinations. This is done by concentrating on the brightest and best which accounts for only 10% of the class, How many schools actually worry about the other 90% who have to more or less, fend for themselves?

Passing examinations help us to be eligible for a job but to be successful in the job we need much more than that.

Self discipline, objective critical thinking, the ability to listen to others and respect their points of view, to communicate with people at all levels without appearing to be superior, to be critical of oneself before criticizing others, to be compassionate, honest and accountable for one's actions. Cultivating these qualities should begin at home and school.

We are all aware that it is becoming increasingly difficult to nurture discipline in the children of today, because they feel that discipline limits their independence.

Many of them do not appreciate the value of discipline. They do not realize that discipline is the bridge between setting goals and accomplishing them.

The cooperation of both the school and the parent are essential to establish a level of discipline. If the school does not insist on rules and regulations, parents often find it difficult to control their children because of peer pressure.

For example, if the school allows their students to go to night clubs, it is difficult for the parent to stop their child from joining the gang. If the teacher does not insist on letters of excuse when the child is absent, and follow it up. it leaves room for playing truant.

On the other hand parents must also play a large part in instilling self discipline and must not delegate their responsibility to others.

One parent I know was told by the school that the child had misbehaved, and her reply was, why do I pay you school fees, discipline is your responsibility! It is well to remember the old Danish proverb which says "Give to a pig when it grunts and a child when it cries, and you will have a fine pig and a bad child."

Excessive control which insists on order without freedom, and no choices, in other words "you do it because I say so because I know best" is the easy way out, but only leads to indiscipline when the child is free of school and home.

The important goal is to develop self discipline and a sense of responsibility in a child, which, she will exercise even when the parent and teacher are not looking over her shoulder.

To achieve this, both teachers and parents have to exert firmness, but, with dignity and respect for a child's intelligence, so that the child desires to cooperate.

This type of discipline allows freedom with order where behavior is always constrained by social responsibility and respect for others. Nurturing self discipline is not an easy task, and requires constant communication and understanding, between child and parent, and between child and teacher.

How can a school nurture self discipline?

Let us take the example of time management. This is one of the important constituents of self discipline as it is essential for career success and social responsibility.

This can be taught from a very young age. Punctuality is an important aspect of time management. I know that punctuality is an important rule in Ladies College. Even in our time children who came late lost house points.

The parent and teacher must ensure however, that the child will carry this training into later life, when there are no house points to be lost.

The child herself has to realize the importance of punctuality in all her activities, how punctuality ensures respect for others and how punctuality improves her own performance.

If your children get late for class, either the class cannot start, in which case all suffer, or if the class has started, you suffer.

When you are an adult and in a position of responsibility, if you keep people waiting for a meeting whether it be 10 minutes or 3 hours, you have shown no respect for your colleagues.

You have disrupted not only the meeting but their work schedule as well. Unpunctual people are disorganized. They are a nuisance in society and not tolerated in an efficient workplace.

Children think that self discipline is not cool as they say. This is not so. It is simply doing what you're supposed to do, as well as you can, when you're supposed to do it.

The school and parent have to ensure that the child understands that this axiom must pervade all day to day activities be it work, sport, drama, or organization of events and in the home.

The Sri Lankan work ethic consists of doing minimum work and getting the maximum salary. When things go wrong and the head of the institute does not want to take the blame. They shape things up rather than rectify the mistake.

You go to a government department. The workers are either eating breakfast, having tea or having a private chat over the telephone.

Even when they do deal with you, you find that you cannot complete your business with one visit and there is no assurance that the next visit will be more fruitful. In Sri Lanka the easy way out is to resort to influence or bribery to get things done.

What about professionals? A doctor may be brilliant but does he always think of satisfying the patient? A patient went to see a doctor friend of mine and at end of the consultation he said, "you know doctor I made an appointment to see you and I was taken in on time, you listened patiently to my complaint, you examined me thoroughly, you explained to me what was wrong with me in a language that I understood. You explained to me what drugs you have prescribed and their possible side effects.

You wrote a prescription which I could actually read. You are not like the other doctors I have been to. Are you quite sure you are a real doctor?".

Our aim should be to produce disciplined workers in varied walks of life, who are innovative and practical with a willingness to learn. Who are able to think independently and make objective decisions.

Such persons are hard to come by in Sri Lanka but are pearls of great price in whatever institution they work in.

Our students do not have the confidence to ask a question, or answer in front of an audience. When I asked my students why they don't question me after my lecture, I was told that they were never encouraged to ask questions in school, for most teachers consider it a lack of respect rather than recognize it as a desire to learn.

This is due to misconceptions on the part of both students and teachers. Many children do not like to get up in class and say they cannot understand, because they are afraid they will look foolish in front of the class and it may upset the teacher.

The child thinks that the teacher should know every thing and if she doesn't, she should not be teaching. The teacher feels it is a loss of face if she has to admit that she does not know and therefore discourages all questions.

All these ideas stem from our culture, where the guru is somebody up there being all knowing and always right. This is a belief we have to shed, if we are to inculcate a desire to want to know.

I always tell my students " Don't be embarrassed to ask for further explanations. If you did not understand, I am sure at least half the class is in the same boat, though they pretend to look knowledgeable. If you do not agree with me, don't be afraid to say so, but you must be able to justify your stand.

Nothing is more upsetting to me than an audience which looks blankly at me at the end of my lecture, for I do not know whether they have understood or misunderstood what I have said.

There should always be a question time at the end of a class so that pupils will develop self confidence and a desire to learn.

If a student asks me for further explanations, it helps her to understand better, and it helps me to realize, that my explanation has been inadequate. Learning will then be a two way process for both student and teacher.

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