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Einstein , Churchill , Mark Twain


By Dr. UPATISSA PETHIYAGODA


It was Mark Twain who remarked "I never allowed my schooling to interfere with my education". Einstein declared, "Any fool can learn, but the point is to understand". As yet another had it, "Those who can – do, those who can’t - teach" and, then again, "wisdom is what remains after I have forgotten all what I was taught". Churchill once said "I love to learn but hate to be taught". These witticisms have on reflection, enormous lessons and reveal much about where our educational systems have failed. Rote learning and memory recall are out of fashion as indicators of excellence. Powerful tools have evolved to revolutionize teaching and learning. Has Sri Lanka used them well?


I will describe just two illustrative examples drawn from India and Israel that may be helpful. India has introduced a programme under the acronym STEM – standing for Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics. One underlying principle is that children learn better by co-operating in group activities than by competing. In all subjects, the idea is to make the learning process fun, co-operative and directly useful. Appropriate methods are introduced. For instance, Engineering is aided by dismantling and re-assembling machines of increasing complexity and Mathematics by participating in "Sudoku puzzles". Innovative planning will suggest many more possibilities of obvious relevance. Group activity replaces individual competition.


During a Training Programme in Israel (in 1986), a striking innovation was seen. In an elementary biology class, the students were engaged in their vegetable patch, where cabbage seedlings were planted in labeled rows. Weekly observations were recorded and brought to the class teacher. Individual notes were synthesized to explain growth, photosynthesis, leaf senescence, deficiency symptoms and so on, by the teacher. All things taught started from observations and the knowledge needed to understand and explain them and no more. It belonged to the higher classes to impart extra knowledge – and then too where possible by hands-on experimentation. Likewise, Chemistry began with the composition of Dead Sea Water and this in turn led to a study of the elements contained, their properties and those of their compounds. Such matters as rates of depletion, financial value and strategic importance were always in the forefront. Mendeleev’s Periodic Table came much later. This is almost a reverse system when it comes to our classrooms. The success of these innovative approaches, must account for their technological superiority and explains for one, how this nation fed by a single digit annual rainfall, could still manage to maintain domestic supplies and cope with virtually every single tree and all of its very productive agriculture, irrigated from a single source of water supply from the river Jordan, situated some 1000 meters below Sea Level !This was more than thirty years ago but the memory still remains deeply imprinted.


In contrast, I could not sense why the fruit and the colour shared "orange" until I first saw the fruit, at the greengrocer’s (why "green" you may well ask), nor "the deep blue sea "until on a ship rounding the Cape in an ink blue sea !I knew less about paddy diseases than about the European Wheat Rust, or the Irish Potato Blight! After a degree with Botany and Zoology, it was only a decade later that I learnt of the nematode pest afflicting our tea! I am confident (and hope) that matters have changed for the better since. There is still great improvement that we can inject into our school and university systems.


Two aspects that demand our attention are:- Optimizing electronic aids in education and the exaggerated value assigned to examinations. These are relevant to us although they represent a miniscule fraction of a vast subject.


Computers have recently and importantly figured in our plans. Thousands of Laptops are to be given to academically successful students at some examination. Is it not cynical irony to give students sophisticated electronics in schools which lack furniture, sometimes sit in classrooms without roofs, no drinking water, toilets and playgrounds? How many have electricity? How may a dozen computers be used if there are insufficient plug points in the room? Computers notoriously fail frequently. Whence the facilities for maintenance and repair? A wealth of information awaits the keen user. Most of it (nearly 100 %) is in English. Would not our "patriotism" that has driven Swabasha Policy, not severely deprive students of a vast store of knowledge for no fault of their own? No government has had the courage to allow parents or children to choose their medium of instruction because it would be a foregone conclusion – excepting the far-seeing Badiuddin Mohammed. Robbed of this ability, what alternative for students than to indulge in surfing triviality? Incidentally, many millions were lavished on the "Nenasela" Programme of the last Government. What has happened to these fraudulently- costed equipment?


We have learnt enough of the palpable abuse of Television and Smart Phones – that are now largely vehicles for triviality and a cause of rail-track deaths of "Selfie" addicts. Our present computer exercise too may be a case of "Pearls before Swine" or planting "Razors in the hands of Monkeys". Buffoonery has no place within Education Systems


Education is a field in which demand greatly exceeds supply. Therefore, we use means of reducing demand – the ‘area rule’ is one. But the easiest and most ineffective are Examinations. Perhaps we have no more imaginative or sensible tools to use instead. Sadly, examinations are more employed for "rejection" than for "selection". There must surely be better ways of filtering and streaming, through more effective, intelligent and meaningful criteria. This would of course mean more exertion by teachers and less revenue for tuition masters. Incidentally lazy examiners would set papers based on previous question papers – a bonanza for tuition master who, by "Revision Classes" garner a fortune and inherit a reputation for "good teaching". Examinations seem a very poor and iniquitous means of assessing potential and intelligence and sieving dross from essence. Our situation at ‘A’ level is further worsened by the controversial District Quota, standardization and "Z-score" devices. Competence is sacrificed in favour of "equity" – in reality an admission of inefficiency.


The "SAITM" Fiasco is a case in point. A rather idiotic situation is created by deliberately contrived issues that side-step good sense. This whole episode is a discredit in many respects,to all of us. Shorn of its slogans and posturings, there are two seminal issues – the question of the entry qualification and the adequacy of clinical training. The rest of the noise could be set aside. There maybe some truth in the claim that entry requirements for the state medical faculties are higher than those for SAITM. (The KDU rattles in the background). A dreadful scheme of admission – distorted by media and standardization raises severe doubts in respect of equity and quality. The two subject/three subject debate is sterile. More relevantly, a degree of sanctity is assigned to mere examination performance that is quite unmerited. A shortfall of a mark or two in a single script may decide the fate of a child’s future. This is a fateful throw of a dice! Given thousands of students sitting, hundreds of markers of scripts, complicated by three media of expression, reliable evaluation to the assumed precision is simply not possible. A bout of "marker fatigue", a bad mood or even reckless drunkenness, can grossly affect marking precision – and thus a child’s ambitions and future are damned. This is hardly the yardstick to rely on for any purposeful selection. Examinations, although not the best measure have perhaps to be accepted as an inescapable reality however flawed they may be. A better means of measuring aptitude, attitude and competence, can be partially achieved by an intelligent interview. If impractical for a massive number, a more reliably filtered few, has to be the best but partial adjunct. A product of even the best medical school could be a serious temperamental misfit. Admittedly, no perfect selection system can ever be found, but at least a less fortuitous system must be evolved, because all aspirants can never be accommodated.


Clinical training is vital for medical graduands. The position that the Neville Fernando Hospital cannot provide adequately in this respect has to be recognized. But then, what of the other State Medical Schools? Do they measure up to the standards sought? If present arrangements at SAITM are wanting, obviously, means should be provided to them to train at properly accredited hospitals. At the moment these hapless youngsters are said to be either barred or subjected to huge fees – exempt for the few. This is absurd.


If there still remain doubts, these may be cleared by subjecting the qualifying students to the same Qualifying Examination required of overseas qualified students for registration and absorption. One necessary safeguard to ensure equity is for an appropriate number of randomly selected students coming out of the State Schools should sit alongside, to provide a fair performance yardstick against which the disputed students could be matched. This will meet many of the present "flash points".


As it is, there are no winners, only all losers in the SAITM mess up. Poor patients faced empty hospitals, the GMOA who callously struck may have lost in stature what they may never regain. Medical students lost nearly an invaluable year of lectures and clinicals. Other University students were deceived into striking in sympathy of a cause meaningless to them. A private entrepreneur in the form of Dr Neville Fernando was cheesed off. The Banks possibly lost on the loans granted to him .The SLMC was bombed. The UGC showed in a poor light. No one gained from this pantomime. The taxpayers paid and cursed in traffic snarls and the Nation invited ridicule. Sad!


 


 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
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