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Ending teacher-centric learning in South Asia’s schools

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ECONOMYNEXT – In an era where technological advances make access to knowledge easy, current classroom settings and teacher-centric learning are failing to equip youth with the soft skills required in the workplace. This is especially so in South Asian nations where education systems continue to impart knowledge solely through textbooks and rote learning.

What we have today is a ‘factory education system’ hemmed in within a ‘bell, break and test’ says Heminda Jayaweera, Serial Innovator and Entrepreneur.

Jayaweera was sharing his thoughts during a webinar on the ‘Gap between Schools and Practical Education’ organised by the Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom, South Asia in collaboration with the Centre for Civil Society, on December 7th. Joining him on the panel were Aakriti Parashar, an aspiring Public Policy enthusiast and writer from India, Susil Premjayantha, Sri Lanka’s Minister of Education and Suresh Gautam, Head, Department of Development Education, Kathmandu University, Nepal.  The session was moderated by Roshan Gandhi, CEO of City Montessori School, India.

Workplaces require critical thinkers capable of solving complex problems and working collaboratively, Jayaweera says, adding that the Maria Montessori method should be taken to the ‘next level.’  Entrepreneurs, he says must have a broad knowledge and skill set, rather than a single focus with boundaries which limit their field of study.  Gone are the days when copying was considered a crime, ‘today it is known as collaboration,’ states Jayaweera, explaining that Japan copied technological development from the United Kingdom, and South Korea from Japan.

The future will be about collaborative skills and for that, it is important to ‘interconnect the creative with the sciences’ he says, explaining that a musician or artist for instance could be taught some coding, which would expand their knowledge and abilities.

When youth lack soft skills, it takes 6 to 7 months to adjust to their work environment, he adds.

Suresh Gautam agrees and points out that a change in mindset at all levels is required to move teaching from a classroom-centred one to a system that includes field trips, projects and internships. It is time to discern whether education systems are producing ‘puppets or humans’ he says. There have been some initiatives, and the ministry of labour is working on developing apprenticeships, yet more needs to be done. Science and math teach reasoning, but not life skills.

Training must be planned keeping in mind what skills are being imparted and to whom, Gautam states, adding that Nepal has around 380 short-term training courses, yet there is youth unemployment. The issue is that training is not locality-specific or ones that lead to income-generating employment. Landlocked Nepal which engages mostly in agriculture is experiencing migration from rural areas leaving farmlands abandoned. A once thriving fishing industry is dead, leading to imports from India. Most youth headed to Qatar to build the FIFA Stadium, he says.

Following his participation at the UNESCO Education Summit in Paris, Minister Susil Premajayantha is working on transforming instead of reforming education policies. Plans are afoot to introduce a pilot project in 2023 where technical and vocational training will run parallel to general education. The new module will be introduced to Grade 1 students, who will also be exposed to practical English. Training of Trainers has begun and in the first three months of 2023 13,000 Grade 1 teachers will also be trained.  IT education which was previously an optional subject in the Ordinary Level curriculum has now been included as a core subject.

The Minister adds that depending on the locality they live in, students will be exposed to the intricacies of the tea, rubber or gem industry for instance, with the hope that they would be motivated to pick careers in those sectors.

Under the new scheme, at Grade 9, students will have the option of deciding between continuing on to higher studies or taking up vocational training.

He is also in consultation with the Ocean University of Sri Lanka and other professional bodies to prepare course content in keeping with job market trends.   Academics both in Sri Lanka and overseas too are collaborating with the Ministry to bring university courses on par with those of developed countries.

While most parliamentarians are on board, he states that administrative reforms are critical for the successful implementation of the changes envisaged. As well, a change of mindset amongst educators, parents and the public is essential.

Aakriti Parashar describes herself as one who was solely focussed on academics, only to realise that textbook-centred learning under-equipped her for the skills desired in the job market.  Teaching methods at school and university were the same, she says, adding that both lacked training in life skills. She overcame that handicap by involving herself in extra-curricular activities.

Though she concentrated on Science and computer education at school, Parashar found that when seeking a career, she was better suited for one connected to the Arts.

Explaining that at one stage entrepreneurship had been introduced into the curriculum of government schools in Delhi, she adds that it could be taught to students of Grade 11 and also at the undergraduate level.

Keynote speaker Kathrin Junken, CEO of the Nepal Secretariat of Skills and Training (NSST) states that German youth have the option for vocational training and over 350 courses to choose from. Fifty-five per cent of school leavers take up vocational training, which is between two and a half to three and a half years long. Twenty per cent of companies provide training to the youth, who spend 70 per cent of the time with a trainer on site, and only 30 per cent at a vocational training school.  Youth are paid while in training, and the programmes contribute to the economic growth of participating companies.

In Nepal, NSST conducts job orientation and prepares youth for apprenticeships in Germany. That programme, she explains is fully funded by Nepali businesses.

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