Why isn’t school very cool? Have we asked our kids yet?

Look what education is doing to me!
A few days ago, while cleaning the spare room in our home, I came across a piece of paper stuck on to the wall. These words were scribbled on it: “I was born brilliant – but education ruined me!” (see photo).

My daughter Dhara, 14, admitted authorship without any hesitation. It’s not her original line, of course — but a clear reflection of how she feels about schooling and formal education. When we think about it, these few innocent words become a severe indictment of a mass-scale system in which families, societies and countries invest so much money, time and hope.

She’s certainly not alone in her misgivings about the value of institutionalised education. As George Bernard Shaw once declared, “The only time I interrupted my education was in school.”

Although I had a happy school life, I can well appreciate how and why many people feel like this about school. Don’t take my word for it – do a quick, random sampling of those around you. How many of them will admit to having happy memories of their school days?

Let’s face it: the whole concept of a school is flawed. Education may be a great leveller among human beings, but schooling in most parts of the world operates at the lowest common denominator level. How can you group together 30 or 40 children at random, expose them to the same curriculum, imparted at the same pace, and expect all to thrive? Some will keep up; others will lag behind; and a few will be completely bored out of their minds – like I was, for a good part of my primary and secondary schooling.

Yet there is not much that even the most dedicated teacher could do under such trying circumstances. Oddly enough, no one in any self-respecting healthcare system would want to prescribe the same medicine for patients with very different ailments. Yet the one-size-fits-all approach is never questioned when it comes to education. Why?

A hapless school kid being primed for the Great Rat Race - cartoon by W R Wijesoma, 1994

One reason why this abuse has thrived is because no one listens to the most important voice in this debate: the average schoolgirl and schoolboy. The learner’s perspective is largely missing in most educational policies and plans. There is so much emphasis on teaching, infrastructure, performance and resources. The handful of men and women who decide what should be taught in our schools hardly ever pause to think how their decisions affect the last link in the chain: the hapless, overburdened, over-driven student. Over 4 million of them — like the one in the cartoon above.

Must things remain like this forever? Is there any hope that our much-tinkered (and much-maligned) education system could one day be more student friendly, more learning oriented and more responsive to the different needs of different students? Will those in charge of the system begin to treat students and teachers as something more than movable statistics? And most importantly, can we restore the joy of learning, the sense of wonder and fun of schooling?

I don’t have easy answers to these – nobody does. But these are worth asking, even if they are uncomfortable and unpopular questions to pose. For too long, the formal education sector has carried on with its business-as-usual with the typical self-righteousness and arrogance of a matronly school principal.

It’s time for us to storm the citadels of learning and make them more caring, accommodating and sensitive to the needs of the most important people in the system: the learners.

Nothing less than our children’s individual and collective futures are at stake.

Note: The views in this blog post are adapted from a longer essay I wrote in 2002, titled Let’s Restore the Joy of Learning.

Related blog post, March 2010: SOS from the Next Generation: “We need Good Parents!”

A perilous journey covering school, lessons, tuition classes, exams...Cartoon by W R Wijesoma, 1994

Updates from Tweet-land: Say it all in 140 characters…and why not?

Tweet, Tweet! Do you follow me yet?
I just passed the 500 mark in tweeting. That’s not a great number considering how some people tweet a dozen or more times every day. But I’m not into such high volume tweeting – the most I’ve done on a given day, I think, is half a dozen. So it took me several months to clock up 500.

I was a late-comer to Twitter. It was my friend David Brewer, new media activist, who persuaded me to sign up in late 2009. On his Media Helping Media website, he has been showcasing the new tools, platforms and opportunities for anyone to become a global media brand in just 100 minutes (he recently updated this quick guide, reducing the time to 60 minutes).

Since then, I’ve been learning the ropes and having fun. What started off as a way to share weblinks to my blog posts or other interesting online content has evolved – in just a few months – into an outlet where I can express my opinions on social, political or cultural topics of current interest. And as my regular readers know, I can be quite opinionated…

I don’t normally tweet about very personal experiences or impressions. But I do share insights from my frequent travels, and meetings with interesting people and ideas.

The past few months have provided me with ample material. I became single again in January, and am now trying to reboot my personal and professional lives, even as I raise a teen-aged daughter as a single parent. Meanwhile my country of anchor, Sri Lanka, is emerging from nearly three decades of civil war, and the trauma and militarisation that went with it, and is struggling to return to normal, peaceful days again. Both processes are fraught with many challenges, and the journey is also the destination.

Slowly but surely, I’ve realised that a good deal can be expressed in 140 characters or less that each tweet allows. The mandarins of verbosity may not agree, but as Shakespeare himself noted in Hamlet, ‘brevity is the soul of wit’. As a writer, I already knew the power of concise and precise expression, and Twitter has only challenged me to be compact, punchy and imaginative.

Looking back, I realise that my tweeting has come at some cost to my blogging. It’s not the only reason, or even the main one, but I’ve been blogging less in the past few months even as I tweeted more. Blogging entails more work, whereas tweeting is really micro-blogging on the run. I can tweet in under a minute whereas an average blog post – at the level of hotlinking and illustrating I like to do – can take between 30 mins to an hour.

As I juggle bread-and-butter with my multiple passions (or the ‘jam’ on top), I’ve had less time for more reflective and leisurely blogging this year. It doesn’t mean that my blog will go the way of the blogger in this cartoon – if anything, it serves me as a caution!

Cartoon courtesy Hugh MacLeod

I started tweeting as an occasional habit, but should have known better. It took me a while to realise that it’s become a habit. And then, when I spent a few days in Beijing in late May this year, I almost developed withdrawal symptoms (Twitter is officially blocked in China). My resulting blog post, Twitterless in Beijing, has been widely linked to and discussed.

On a technical note, I’m still quite old fashioned in that I don’t post new tweets from mobile phones or other hand-held devices – all my 500+ tweets so far have been posted from the web, using my regular browser. I have no immediate plans to go for a fancy new mobile phone or ipad or similar device. I know mobile internet is the new wave, but I don’t yet have the urge to be tweeting on the run – I can hold my ideas and communicative urges until I sit down at my laptop…

But who knows what changes would occur on the road to my 1,000th tweet?

Here’s a collection of spoofs on famous quotes, as they apply to Twitter and tweeting. Some are very funny!

Sri Lanka’s Sacred Cows and Orbital Dreams: Asking difficult questions

Holy cow! How does she do it?
Cows have been a part of South Asian cultures, economics and societies for millennia. Many among us are connected to cows in one way or another – some worship them while others feast on them. Even a secular vegetarian in South Asia – like myself – can’t avoid bumping into the occasional cow on our delightfully messy streets…

We probably gave the term ‘sacred cow’ to the English language. It means an object or practice which is considered immune from criticism, especially unreasonably so. As the Wikipedia explains, “The term is based on the popular understanding of the place of cows in Indian religions as objects that have to be treated with respect, no matter how inconvenient.”

Well, some of us beg to differ on modern-day sacred cows. My latest op ed essay, just published on Groundviews.org, is all about sacred cows in rapidly modernising South Asia. It starts with my experience as a young science journalist covering the impending launch of Pakistan’s first digital communications satellite, Badr 1, in early 1990.

At the time, Pakistan had recently returned to civilian rule after many years of dictatorship, and Benazir Bhutto was Prime Minister (in her first term). The political mood was generally upbeat. But I soon found out — from Pakistani journalists and independent scientists — that they weren’t allowed to ask critical questions about the country’s nuclear or space programmes.

In Sacred Cows and Orbital Dreams in Sri Lanka, I write: “The message was clear: democracy or not, some sacred cows always enjoy their privileged status! This has certainly been the case with both the space and nuclear programmes in India and Pakistan: they have been shielded from public and media scrutiny for decades.

What price for having our own?
“For the past few months, it seemed as if we too were following this South Asian tradition. Plans to build Sri Lanka’s own satellites were announced and pursued with little information disclosure and no public debate. The government wanted to launch our very own ‘sacred cows’ into orbit. We the public were to just applaud on cue, and then cough up the money for it…”

The essay is a critique of Sri Lanka’s much hyped plans to build its own satellites. The project was announced in February 2009 and appeared to gain momentum during the year. Going by official statements and media reports, the plan was to launch not one but two satellites.

Suddenly, there seems to be a change of heart. In a interview on 6 June 2010 covering a range of issues, head of the Telecom Regulatory Commission (TRC) disclosed that the government was not going ahead with the much-hyped project. At least not in its originally announced form. The reason: the very high cost, and the need to ‘explore other options such as hiring satellites’ instead of building our own.

Hmmm. Better to be wise later than never. This is the first time in over 15 months that the high costs of this high cost project have been acknowledged.

The satellite is not the only mega-science project being pursued in post-war Sri Lanka. In June 2009, the Ministry of Science and Technology directed the Atomic Energy Authority to set up a national committee to study technical and financial aspects of setting up a nuclear power plant.

Again, this mega project has not been opened up for public discussion and debate, in spite of a few citizens and activists expressing concern, highlighting safety and public health risks, high cost of construction and the unresolved problem of nuclear waste disposal.

I end the essay arguing that as long as public safety and public funds are involved, sacred cows – whether orbital or radioactive – can’t be allowed free range.

Read the full essay on Groundviews: Sacred Cows and Orbital Dreams in Sri Lanka

A compact version appeared in The Sunday Times, 13 June 2010: Sri Lanka’s Satellite: Lost in Space?

Palitha Lakshman de Silva (1959 – 2010): Animator, stilled.

Palitha Lakshman de Silva, 1959-2010
For the second time in just over three months, I went to the Colombo general cemetery to bid farewell to a fellow traveller. This is becoming a worrying habit.

Those of us who’ve opted for the path less travelled don’t expect crowds or accolades. At least we have each other for company and inspiration. Suddenly it’s getting a bit lonely: long-standing friends and colleagues are dropping dead in the prime of their lives.

First, it was environmentalist, journalist and public intellectual Piyal Parakrama who left in early March. Now, it’s Palitha Lakshman de Silva — journalist, photographer, cartoonist, puppet animator and television professional among other pursuits and talents.

Uncannily, what I wrote upon hearing Piyal’s death applies – word by word – to Palitha too. I just have to change the name and date: Palitha died so suddenly and unexpectedly on the evening of June 11 that it’s hard to believe that he is no longer among us. Another public-spirited individual has left the public space all too soon…

Both men had just passed 50, and were leading active, productive and busy lives. They had no known ailments, and were in apparent good health. Yet in the end, it was the unseen, gradual clogging of the heart’s arteries that struck them both down: the first heart attack was swift and fatal. Neither man reached the nearest hospital alive.

I had known Palitha for twice as long as I worked with him (in the past decade). Although we weren’t close friends, we shared a passionate, life-long interest in using broadcast television and narrowcast video to communicate public interest messages. Some call it non-formal education, but we avoided the e-word for it reminds some people of school that they didn’t enjoy. We believed – and demonstrated too – that the audio-visual medium can blend information with entertainment in ways that make learning effortless and painless.

Having started his career as a reporter and photojournalist at a leading newspaper, Palitha later moved on to TV, where he blazed new trails in cartoon animation, puppetry and documentary making. He was part of Sri Lanka’s first generation of television and video professionals who experimented with the medium, and found new ways of combining education, information and entertainment.

All this made Palitha a natural ally and partner in my work at TVE Asia Pacific. I just wrote a more official tribute tracing our collaborations over a decade, which the TVEAP website published: Tribute to Palitha Lakshman de Silva (1959 – 2010): Photojournalist and cartoon animator

I’ll write more reflectively once I recover from the shock of another colleague signing off for good. For now, I can only echo the lyrical sentiments in this leaflet distributed at Palitha’s funeral by his artistically-inclined friends. The English approximation (below) is mine, and not particularly good (though bilingual, I’m a lousy translator). I’m glad, however, that the original verse captures one intrinsic quality of Palitha: his gentle, soft-spoken nature which often concealed the creative genius inside him.

Goodbye, Palitha Lakshman de Silva

The day has arrived
Suddenly and shockingly
When you’ve gone away
Leaving us alone
All by ourselves
To write a verse
And choose an image
In your fond memory.

Flowers bloom and wither
Lakes flourish and drain
Such is the Circle of Life
Which your hasty exit
Once again reminds us
With a soft, little whisper.

We’ll travel to the end of time
If can we see, just once more,
Your gentle and soothing smile,
And listen to your stories
That you told us so gently.

Just once more…

WED 2010: Saving the Planet, one human mind at a time…

Race to save the Planetary Ark: How are we doing?

Today was World Environment Day (WED), and this year’s theme was biodiversity. The slogan read: Many Species, One Planet, One Future.

Different people observed the day in many and varied ways. Each one is valid, useful and purposeful.

I don’t believe in tokenistic tree planting. In fact, I’ve never planted more than a tree or two all my life – and honesty, I don’t know what happened to those hapless saplings after I deposited them gently and eagerly into a little hole in the ground…

Instead, I’m committed to a longer term effort: raising a single child as a single parent, trying to make her more caring for the planet, its limited natural resources and its people. I’m hoping that this would prove to be a lot more planet-friendly and worthwhile than a whole lot of trees planted and then abandoned…

As David Suzuki, the Canadian environmentalist and my favourite broadcaster, has said: “Our personal consumer choices have ecological, social, and spiritual consequences. It is time to re-examine some of our deeply held notions that underlie our lifestyles.”

This is precisely the premise of Saving the Planet, the six-part, pan-Asian TV series we at TVE Asia Pacific produced and released in late 2009. It was among the compilation of environmental films that we screened at the British Council Colombo today to mark WED.

Filmed in six countries in South and Southeast Asia, Saving the Planet profiles groups working quietly and relentlessly to spread knowledge, understanding and attitudes that inspire action that will help humans to live in harmony with the planet.

Here are two stories that have a particular focus on biodiversity – all others have also been featured on this blog over the past few months (just run a search for ‘Saving the Planet’).

Cambodia: Floating the Future

The people of Prek Toal have always known how closely their lives and jobs are linked to the ebb and flow of the Tonlé Sap lake, the largest in Cambodia and linked to the Mekong River. Now, the conservation group Osmose is showing how they can benefit from the lake’s fish and other natural resources without killing off the very ecosystem that sustains them. One strategy that works: to reach out to grown-ups through their children.

Thailand: Smile Again!

Tourists are astounded by the richness and diversity of Thailand’s natural heritage. But many Thai children and youth are not connected with Nature – they are not familiar with plants and animals even in their own backyard. Concerned, the Thai Education Foundation launched a programme that links schools with their local community to learn about Nature through exposure and experience. We travel to Phang Nga province in southern Thailand to find out this works.

When green stories make some see red: who protects the reporters?

Who says environment is a ‘safe’ subject for journalists and broadcasters to cover?

Journalist colleagues who work on conflict, security and political topics often have an illusion that environmental reporting is a ‘cosy and comfortable beat’ – one that allows reporters to travel to exotic locations, see cuddly animals, relax in pristine environments and generally take things easy.

That might have been the case some years ago, in another century that’s now receding in our memories. But not any longer: there’s as much conflict, intrigue and complexity in many of today’s environmental topics, and covering them can often be hazardous to the courageous journalists who go after them.

Ahmadi: Beaten up for expose
Just ask Ahmadi, a journalist working for Harian Aceh in Indonesia. Together with a fellow journalist, working for News Investigasi in Medan, he recently investigated a flood that had taken place in the Alapan district in April 2010. During their journey, they met some people cutting up logs. The journalists asked workers who owned these logs and were told that they belonged to the Alapan District Police Station and the Alapan Military Sub-District Command. Hmm…

When confronted with this information, a high ranking military officer reacted quickly and sharply: he wanted the whole story suppressed. In defiance, Harian Aceh published the story on 21 May 2010 — which resulted in Ahmadi being assaulted and threatened with death by the same officer.

“Ahmadi joins the long list of journalists who have been targeted for shedding light on deforestation, which is responsible for at least 18 per cent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions,” says Reporters Without Borders (RSF), the international watchdog on media freedom.

It says attacks on journalists and bloggers who try to cover any kind of environmental damage are growing steadily all over the world. Among them, those who investigate industrial pollution or the destruction of forests are particularly at risk.

No longer a cosy beat...
This week, on the eve of World Environment Day (5 June), RSF released a new report titled Deforestation and pollution: High-risk subjects. It makes grim reading for all of us who are committed to journalism as if the planet mattered.

It follows and echoes their call last year: “We must defend journalists who expose attacks on the environment”.

The new report, the second of its kind within just a few months from RSF, was prepared with the help of its worldwide network of correspondents. They gathered information about incidents in Indonesia, Argentina, El Salvador, Gabon, India, Azerbaijan, China and Morocco. Behind each of these threats and attacks, there were big corporations, criminal gangs or government officials who had been corrupted by money from mining or logging.

Asia features prominently in the report, which condemns the responsibility of the Vietnamese and Chinese governments in serious press freedom violations that deprive the public of crucial information about cases of pollution or deforestation.

The report describes, for example, the way the government in Hanoi has tried to suppress any debate about the environmental impact of bauxite mines being operated by a Chinese company. A field investigation in Argentina established that journalists are under pressure from both supporters and opponents of a mining project.

Mining companies (Aluminium Corp of China, China Metallurgical Group and the Canadian companies Yamana Gold and Pacific Rim), oil companies (Shell, Addax and Synopec), wood pulp companies (Sinar Mas and Riau Andalan Pulp and Paper) and two French multinationals (Bollor and Areva) are all identified in this report as having a direct or indirect role in cases of intimidation or censorship.

This is the second report that RSF has published on this subject. In September 2009, a report titled “The dangers for journalists who expose environmental issues.“, looked at 15 cases of journalists and bloggers who had been killed, attacked, jailed, threatened or censored for covering environmental problems in Russia, Cambodia, Bulgaria and Brazil.

RSF this week reiterated the appeal it launched during last December’s Copenhagen Summit: The media are needed to gather information and disseminate it to the public. Where climate change was concerned, it reminded everyone one, it was the media who helped to establish credible, independent diagnoses of the state of our planet. Their analyses continue to play a crucial role in helping decision-makers to adopt policies and rules that will lead to the desired changes.

On this blog, we have consistently highlighted the need for safeguarding journalists who pursue environmental stories that threaten vested interests within and across borders. For example:

September 2009: Who will protect journalists fighting for a better planet?

November 2007: Protect journalists who fight for social and environmental justice!

In April 2007, we asked: Can journalists save the planet? Yes, they can be front-runners in the world’s attempts to save species, habitats and entire ecosystems. But only if the rest of society protects and stands by them. When our planetary house is on fire, shooting the messenger isn’t going to save anyone.

7 ‘ups’: A rough guide to engaging social media in the public interest

Depictions of social media: Conversations Prism (left) and Social Media Starfish

As I wrote in an earlier blog post, in the of social media, we need to be as daring and adventurous as Sinbad. Like the legendary sailor of Baghdad, we have to take our chances and venture into unknown seas. Instead of maps or GPS or other tools, we must rely on our ingenuity, intuition and imagination.

During his seven voyages in the Indian Ocean, Sinbad had fantastic adventures going to magical places, surviving assorted monsters, and encountering a host of supernatural phenomena. Armed simply with his guts, wits and wanderlust, he sailed to places where no man had gone before, and certainly none had returned alive from!

Preparing for my Beijing session last week on using social media to communicate in the public interest, I did a good deal of web browsing and online reading. I came across many attempts to map or visually depict the social media (including two shown above). I also found some interesting lists and guidelines – my favourite so far is 10 Things Your Grandmother can Teach You about Social Media.

This inspired me to come up with my own rough guide to get you started and keep you going. As a salute to Sinbad’s seven voyages, I call it the 7-‘ups’.

Turn up. As Woody Allen famously remarked, eighty per cent of success is just…showing up. You won’t get anywhere by simply observing or critiquing from the sidelines. You have to wade in and set sail — for better or worse.

• Once we join the planetary conversation, we need to do some catch up. Find your feet – and niche – in the online world. The Internet turned 40 in 2009, and its graphical interface – the World Wide Web – is now 20. So much has happened in that time – and a lot has also been superseded. You need to know what’s on, and what’s not.

What's your winning combination?
• After catching up, we also need to keep up — at least with the mega trends. Large companies like Google – as well as hundreds of individual geeks – keep releasing new applications frequently, many for free use. Popular websites (such as Wired, Mashable and their local equivalents) help us navigate through these depths and currents.

• Next one is harder. We have to give up our baggage of old habits and attitudes picked up over the years. For many Digital Immigrants, leaving the comfort zone of paper was scary enough. How can we let go of complete control over our communication products and processes? But that’s just what the social media demand. It’s not a choice, but an imperative.

• It’s also helpful – though not quite essential – if we are less glum, prim, exacting and academic in how we relate to others in social media. In short, ease up, mate! There are some basic norms for online behaviour, but crusty intellectuals or matronly bureaucrats don’t gain much traction. Keep things short, focused and simple. And hey, it’s okay to be funny, cheeky and irreverent…

• Conversations in this realm can last for weeks, months or longer. Some topics and discussions tend to have ‘long tails’. When we start something online, we have to be clear when to engage whom and how. Equally important is knowing when to shut up. (A bore is a bore, offline or online!).

• And if all this is making you feel dizzy…just cheer up: there are no real experts in this field. No one is an authority. Everything is ‘in beta’. We are all learning by doing. Neither is there a definitive road map to the social media world. In fact, in this partly Undiscovered Country, there is plenty of scope to explore, innovate and be original.

Are you a land-lubber who doesn’t trust any seas? Let me then offer you another metaphor. Think of this as hitchhiking or back-packing online. Take your chances. Be adventurous. Discover a whole new world!

We have some advantages over Sinbad. The virtual world poses no real danger to our lives. But beware: social media can be very time-consuming and even addictive.

You have been warned.

Here, for some edu-tainment, is an interesting video on social media that I found on…YouTube:

A more compact version of the 7-Ups appears in MediaHelpingMedia