Goolbai Gunasekara cautions against rushing into reforms

An overhaul of the education system that’s been long overdue was announced by the prime minister at a recent school prize giving somewhere in the outstations. It was also announced to the press that the Singapore model would be used as a guide and that at the time of the announcement, a Singaporean official was visiting (for discussions, I presume).

However, I wasn’t unduly pleased.

Our education system leaves much to be desired but to copy a country that formerly used ‘Ceylon’ as its model doesn’t seem so great. It’s true that education in Singapore has risen to being one of the best in the world particularly when it comes to its universities, which are world-class.

To imagine that the Sri Lankan student has the same drive and energy that the Singaporean has is being a trifle naive. The psyche of a Singaporean is totally different to that of a Sri Lankan. Its system will not work too well in our country.

Singapore has a sizeable Indian population, which is known to be hardworking and very much in pursuit of arming itself with a good education. Then there’s the Chinese majority, which has a solid reputation as being highly motivated about work. The Malays and others presumably fall in line with the work ethic set by the Chinese.

It’s a highly successful system for them but not for us…

In the first place, the overhaul will take months to roll out. New syllabuses in line with world trends will have to be worked out. The present piecemeal improvements are simply experimental at the moment.

Parents of Colombo’s sophisticated youngsters are well aware of the dangers of putting a computer in the hands of a schoolchild. No parent imagines that his son or daughter is using his computer only to gain knowledge. One or two may but the majority regard the computer as a plaything. Witness what happened recently when social media had to be restricted on more than one occasion.

Placing computers in the hands of comparatively unsophisticated children in the outstations will not end well. I can assure parents that learning from a computer will be the last thing on the minds of the modern child unless he or she is guided and restricted.

So what would I suggest when education is being overhauled?

First, we must take into account something that’s being done in developed countries. A new term for education is ‘whole brain transformation’ and it involves a new direction in the training of young minds.

To this end, let’s introduce the new study of mindfulness that’s very popular these days in both the business and education sectors. Educationist Dr. Tara de Mel has already started this in one or two schools, and the suggestion is that every class uses the first five minutes to be silent, concentrate on breathing and meditate in a small way.

It’s not difficult to train teachers to do this and it does so much good to the child. This is reported by countries already implementing mindfulness in their curriculums.

My second suggestion is to stop teaching religion separately. There’s an idea among educationists that all four religions should be taught to all students in the same class. Also, an education in values should be included once the children reach the higher grades and can appreciate more complex ideas.

Experts on this subject tell me that it should operate like this: one teacher takes the class teaching Buddhism for two months, and the same length of time is allocated for Christianity, Hinduism and Islam by different teachers. This would be done year after year with sensible syllabuses organised for each class.

Imagine a group of students 10 years hence whose religious interests were both eclectic and widespread? It will be left to the parents to instil personal family religious beliefs in their children’s minds.

Intolerance is often the result of ignorance of other religions. That ignorance must be addressed if we are to build a united country with all religious faiths being respected and honoured.

Sounds easy, doesn’t it? And like all solutions, the simple solutions are best. But this will require the input of experts who aren’t simply pundits of the present dreary system.

Naturally, other subjects need to be overhauled too. Technical education as well as science and the humanities need to be part of this outreach but all this takes time. If the prime minister is really talking about kick-starting an overhaul at this time, he should be stopped in his tracks.

We are presumably looking at elections in the near future. There is no time for a perfectly thought out and meticulously planned system of education, to be formulated and put into practice. Training teachers will in itself be quite an undertaking.

And one last necessity is that politics must be removed from education.