Learning for People and Planet | Daily News


Learning for People and Planet

Today (January 24), the world will mark the International Day of Education (IDE) for only the second time. Sri Lanka, which is one of the very few developing countries that offer free education all the way up to university level will be marking this important day in the United Nations calendar. The 2020 IDE theme is “Learning for People, Planet, Prosperity and Peace”, which is an apt theme in the context of the urgent need to address the Climate Crisis and resolve the world’s conflicts.

The right to education is enshrined in Article 26 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which calls for free and compulsory elementary education. The Convention on the Rights of the Child, adopted in 1989, stipulates that countries shall make higher education accessible to all. The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development recognizes that education is essential for the success of all 17 of its Goals.

Education offers children a ladder out of poverty and a path to a promising future. But some 265 million children and adolescents around the world do not have the opportunity to enter or complete school. More than a fifth of them are of primary school age. More than 600 million children and adolescents cannot read and do basic math; less than 40% of girls in sub-Saharan Africa complete lower secondary school and some four million children and youth refugees are out of school.

Thwarted by poverty, discrimination, armed conflict, emergencies and the effects of climate change, millions of children around the world are being denied a sound education.

The UN has identified many challenges facing education. Among these are the precipitate decline in the quality and standards of education, the failure to factor the work place’s skills requirements into learning processes, the widening knowledge gap between students in technically advanced societies and their counterparts in developing countries, the danger and the obstacles that learning faces in conflict zones and, the declining esteem of the teaching profession.

Improving education and teaching cannot be done overnight. Improving education systems requires a multi-faceted approach: children have to be ready to learn, teachers need to teach successfully, schools need to have the right infrastructure and equipment and school authorities have to provide leadership. Education policies need to be aligned with the goals outlined in the SDGs.

Clearly, textbook-only education is out of date. The jobs of the future will require a hybrid set of skills from a variety of subject areas that will change several times over during careers. This calls for modular learning and education, due to its ability to allow students to personalize skills and knowledge.

It is also important to offer education opportunities for those already employed. Workers expect to learn on-demand, getting the skills and knowledge they can apply as soon as possible. Moving between working and learning will become commonplace, thanks, partly, to a combination of in-person and online modes of learning.

There is also the rather alarming prospect that some of our jobs will be taken over by robots and Artificial Intelligence. The shelf life of hard skills will become shorter as technology advances more rapidly, and inputs become more automated. Soft skills or power skills, including collaboration, communication, critical thinking, intellectual originality and, the ability to make quick decisions will become essential. In other words, as robots take over many vocations, the tasks that only humans can perform (so far) will become more valuable.

Education should thus be geared towards these goals. We have seen a microcosm of this phenomenon in Sri Lanka, where thousands of job vacancies appear in the Sunday newspapers week after week with apparently no takers. The reason – school leaves and graduates are ill-equipped with the emerging skills actually needed by the marketplace. President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, in his Policy Statement delivered in Parliament on January 3, vowed to address this mismatch.

In Sri Lanka, where the education indices are almost on par with those of the developed world, the main challenge seems to be re-aligning the school and university classroom to face the realities of the modern world. It is vital to recognize new trends ranging from AI to the Internet of Things in re-formulating school and university curricula to face future requirements. It is also vital to address that perennial problem of school admissions by developing every school to the level of top schools in each province or district.

Textbooks themselves are likely to go the way of the Dodo as –computer-based interactive education slowly but surely finds its way into mainstream educational institutions. Virtual Reality, Virtual Classrooms, and online/remote learning will all become more important. This does not mean that the human teacher, still the most important pillar of education, will disappear. The human element in education will become more critical in the future even as it embraces cutting-edge technology.

All of this, however, can be true ‘learning’ only to the degree that we remain intelligent and knowledgeable enough to carefully nurture our Earthly habitat rather than destroy Humanity’s only home.

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