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.

Who Owns a Narrative?

When translating my field notes for a research report, I noticed something - there was staleness in how I was writing. I was referring to people by numbers, not names. Of course anonymity is required to protect sources, but even after instituting pseudonyms, the way I described people who had been interviewed for our research was robotic. The complicated stories detailing how they survived through war, dealt with the death & disappearances of loved ones, and continued to grapple with issues in the post-war aftermath became evidentiary support for our report’s claims. One person’s story illustrated how the upending of gender roles resulted in tension between men and women, while another’s highlighted the problems of debt in a context of unstable livelihoods. While these are important points to make, there is a danger in divorcing people from their stories and using them instrumentally. Part of this had to do with my novice as a researcher. I had, until then, never written about people I sat down with, had tea with; people who told me their story first-hand.

I don’t mean to speak for all researchers but I think it can be easy to fall into this trap - creating distance between your work and the real people who you have studied. Part of it may be because when you’re in the throes of writing, you focus on certain goals for the sake of efficiency: getting this section out of the way and moving onto the next; making sure you have evidence; trying to find the exact quote from the woman discussing corruption; worrying about the peer review; trying not to ‘be political’ but ‘objective’ (though it’s highly doubtful if that is even possible). Part of this may be inexperience, as in my case. Another factor may be using what is necessary to further your own agenda. Do you want to emphasize sexual violence in a post-war setting because you think that will obtain interest and funding? Ambika Satkunanathan, a researcher and lawyer in Sri Lanka, wrote an excellent piece[1] about how various actors will often utilize women’s harrowing experiences with violence, and spin them to reveal what they want them to reveal.

This all sounds incredibly cynical. Of course, not all research and writing is like this. But it happens. And at what cost? Women and young people, specifically, are often the targets of research and development interventions on conflict and poverty. Studies and reports on gender-based sexual violence, encouraging entrepreneurism amongst women and youth, and getting women ‘more’ involved in development are published regularly. The problem is that these are not homogenous groups. Yet the tendency to use these studies to perpetuate certain narratives about ‘victimisation’ or ‘empowerment’ persists. What does this mean for those who do not 'fit' easily into one of these categories? What do we gloss over when we view people from a single lens?

As Satkunanathan argues, the effectiveness of transitional justice processes for groups such as women depends on them being able to decide what they want to share and how they want to share it. My desire for Sunayra is exactly this: to give traditionally "disenfranchised" groups the opportunity to become, as Satkunanathan says, “change agents.” Sunayra hopes to eventually foster the skills in expressive writing and storytelling amongst youth in post-war areas of Sri Lanka, so they can work through their experiences without the pressure of discussing one particular thing, fitting into a certain narrative, and without the constraints of a set of questions that the researcher needs to get through in an hour.

This level of agency is inherently important, but in terms of how we, as outsiders, make sense of other people’s lives, it enables us to see just how nuanced, complicated and unique the human experience is. This is sometimes forgotten in contexts such as war and poverty, where research and news stories tend to propagate one simple image. Sunayra aims to be part of a larger movement to foster a deeper understanding of how young people negotiate their lives in times of trauma, and move past the tendency to utilise a ‘single lens.’

[1] Ambika Satkunanathan, “What is Represented and what is made invisible: Women and Transitional Justice Processes in Sri Lanka.” Groundviews 6 March 2015. http://groundviews.org/2015/06/03/what-is-represented-and-what-is-made-invisible-women-and-transitional-justice-processes-in-sri-lanka/



Mira Philips heads up Sunayra's Research & Operations, and is currently pursuing her MSc at London School of Economics. Mira, and Sunayra, believe that critical analysis of current research attitudes is necessary to create long-lasting and sustainable change.