What Are We Teaching?


This piece has been inspired by articles by The Guardian’s Ben Tarnoff and The Atlantic’s Melinda D. Anderson.


Who decides which skills are necessary for the workforce? This is a question that people the world over are trying to answer. This is especially pertinent to Sri Lankan youth, as the market is shifting, new investment comes in, and global forces are stronger.  The model of education has remained fairly static since Independence, and efforts to bring in new technologies and innovative teaching practices have largely been on a very small scale. One of the bigger education interventions in Sri Lanka been computer coding, a skill that promises class and geographic mobility. But does it?

A recent article by Ben Tarnoff in The Guardian, entitled “Tech’s push to teach coding isn’t about kids’ success – it’s about cutting wages,”[1] criticises the efforts of Silicon Valley entrepreneurs and policymakers to make coding a part of school curriculums, pushing it as a skill necessary for youth to find high status jobs in the ever-growing tech industry and beyond. Tarnoff argues that their advocacy is not due to the value of learning coding, but that an influx of coders will enable employers to hire cheap labor and thus pay less.  In areas like the Global South, outsourcing tech and support jobs, is the norm. Once tech support and customer service was outsourced to places like India, Sri Lanka, and the Philippines, the onus of education shifted to create employees for these global companies. Technical skills were taught to supply the needs of tech support, and English was taught to the level needed for customer service.

A piece by Melinda D. Anderson in The Atlantic[2] notes that from a computer science standpoint, coding is “insufficient” to guarantee high status jobs in the tech industry, since it must be combined with emphases on design and computational knowledge. As such, projects that support minority communities to learn how to code may not be preparing them to innovate or work at a high-level position if the curriculum is too limited.[3] Simplistic teaching of basic coding also leaves out the various other skills needed to create innovators and highly skilled employees. On a basic level, teaching students how to get a job – creating a CV, being interviewed, how to find a job that suits a person, and not just a skill set. Moreover, this practice ignores talent and passion. When these skills are sold as a fool-proof way to Silicon Valley or tech mogul-dom, it does a huge disservice to the young people who, with few to no other prospects, turn to programs and projects like simple skills courses to provide them with employable skills.

The articles by Tarnoff and Anderson provide pertinent ideas to consider when we seek to make sense of attitudes towards education, education policies, and other singular-skill programs. ‘Skills’ must not be viewed as existing in some sort of vacuum. Just look at the highly successful people doing TEDTalks, publishing management and leadership books, and discussing their personal journey to the tops of their respective fields. They may have a singular focus like Elon Musk, but that singular goal is attained through creative means that take into account many failures, pivots, and restarts. Success in any career necessitates the ability to problem solve, simultaneously observe the big picture and more minute details, and, however cliché, ‘think outside the box.’ If an understanding of design and innovation is important for careers in programming, for example, then a holistic education, which encompasses a focus on the arts and other creative components is important.

In working with young people in the Batticaloa area, Sunayra has been mindful of encouraging them to utilise what they learn from our various sessions, from drawing, to creative writing, to acting, in order to expand their understandings of their own aspirations and potential. Our fundamental belief is that kids must be exposed to a variety of different subjects, ideas, challenges, and opportunities, not simply because this is inherently valuable for them but also because it sets them up for more success in the future.


[1] Tarnoff, B. (2016). “Tech’s push to teach coding isn’t about kids’ success – it’s about cutting wages.”  https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2017/sep/21/coding-education-teaching-silicon-valley-wages

[2] Anderson, M.D. (2016). “Will the Push for Coding Lead to Technical Ghettos?” https://www.theatlantic.com/education/archive/2016/02/will-the-push-for-coding-lead-to-technical-ghettos/471300/

[3] Anderson 2016

Further Reading

1. Mann, G. (2008) ‘The social production of skill’, in R. Fletcher Beyond resistance: The future of freedom. New York: Nova Science Publishers; Steinberg, R. (1990). “Social Construction of Skill: Gender, Power and Comparable Worth,” Work and Occupations, 17(4): 449-482.

2. Steinberg, R. (1990). “Social Construction of Skill: Gender, Power and Comparable Worth,” Work and Occupations, 17(4): 449-482.

3. Gunasekara, V, Philips, M, Nagaraj, V. (2016). “Hospitality and Exclusion: A study about post-war tourism in Passikudah.” Secure Livelihood Research Consortium.