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Education and Employment in the 21st Century

Sri Lankan’s are fortunate in that we have enjoyed free education since 1945. Our leaders at the time, without a doubt in all sincerity believed that having provided an education to every citizen of the country we will be able to alleviate poverty, become a developed country and achieve prosperity. We achieved a very high literacy rate far above our neighbours. Certain social and economic indicators show that we have done well in the region. But on a global scale we are very much in the bottom half in most instances. Over the years our basket of exports have remained very small and unchanged. Globally technology has advanced by leaps and bounds. In terms of technological or other global achievements we have very little to show for the huge investment the country has made in terms of providing free education.

The question is where have we gone wrong and what can we do to put it right.

Looking back in addition to the monetary cost of the investment in free education we see there had been substantial waste of human capital. At the time of introducing free education the government was not in a position provide facilities to teach science at senior secondary and tertiary level to all who wanted to learn science. At the time there was a great demand for learning science and all the top students opted to study science, engineering and medicine. Due to lack of places in the universities many of the best students did not enter a university and this human capital was wasted and lost to the country.

We all accepted that it is important to have knowledge. To provide knowledge we introduced very extensive syllabuses but unfortunately there was very little effort made to provide practical training to suit. Also we have continued with archaic techniques and methods of testing and measuring knowledge. With advancement of technology, the concept of knowledge needs to be viewed in a different context. The graduates coming out of the universities expect the government to provide them employment. They are not trained to use the education received to generate employment.

In the 21st century new knowledge is taking over old knowledge at a pace never witnessed hitherto.  Having extensive knowledge now can be a waste of time and energy. There is a good possibility of this knowledge becoming redundant in the near future. Also the source of acquiring knowledge is being moved away from a Physical classroom to a Cyber classroom. Access to knowledge and information is readily available in Cyberspace. There is greater emphasis on acquiring knowledge through learning rather than through teaching. From very early years of a child’s development knowledge acquiring should be through learning and understanding real life situations. There is a very real relevance of this phenomena to modern work environment. New technologies are changing rapidly the way we do things. Software apps play a major role in this sense. Use of these apps have not only created new jobs but also replaced many old jobs. With the use of new technology we have seen new service jobs coming into the market such Uber, Pick Me, Airbnb as well as online shopping activities. Eventually these activities will eliminate not only the job of the sales person but even the supermarket and the corner shop. In the United States apps such as Legal Zoom and Turbo Tax are threatening the jobs of the Lawyer and the Tax Accountant.

In a global context having these skills has already become reality. In Sri Lanka we are still shielded from the impact of these developments to some extent. As a country we cannot go on without embracing new learning methodologies with open arms. In the 21st century to survive rapid technology onslaught the populace should be equipped with a sound knowledge in Science, Engineering Technology and Mathematics (STEM) coupled with creativity and entrepreneurial skills. Science, Engineering, Technology and Mathematics subjects are abbreviated as STEM subjects, adding Art to this group it is abbreviated as STEAM subjects. It is important to move away from memory based examinations. Examinations should be designed to test a student’s ability to solve problems and not test their memorizing capacity.    

In a global sense the countries that have achieved economic prosperity have understood the importance of providing a STEM and STEAM education to their populace. They also have embraced idea of getting students learn rather than being taught.

If Sri Lanka is to make headway in the world we need to take note of what is happening around us in the education sphere and embrace STEM and STEAM education and use of modern teaching and learning methodologies. We need to move away from memory based teaching and testing.  

Keerthi Jayasuriya
International Scholar Educational Services (Pvt) Ltd.