Why our schools have failed us
Learning, a two way process for both student and teacher
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.