Can Sri Lanka produce Nobel prize winners?

| by Dr. Ruwantissa Abeyratne

( October 22, Montreal, Sri Lanka Guardian) Some time ago, Higher Education Minister S B Dissanayake said that he would endeavour to make ground for university students to win Nobel prizes by being best Scientists, Researchers, Inventors and Literati in the world. The Minister is reported to have made this statement at the signing of a Memorandum of Understanding between the Open University and the Higher Education Ministry on Pre Orientation of developing English, IT and other skills. By any standards of education this is a noble goal and an honourable pursuit befitting no less than a statesman. Curiously, this wonderful thought brings hope to a nation which has so far not produced a single Nobel Prize, although we have had our crop of intellectuals who have demonstrated that they are no less superior to the best in the world.
No one could argue with the sense and practicality of this approach. In fact one would accept that it as the cornerstone of wisdom if one were to forge access to education. But there is more to it than that.
Today, we face a bewildering array of problems – global warming, deforestation, pollution, famine, environmental degradation, just to name a few. Winning a Nobel Prize in whatever field does not solely depend on the quality of education one receives; rather it is the mindset of the winner that matters most. He must think globally and act locally. In the will and testament drawn up by Alfred Bernhard Nobel on November 27, 1895, he laid down the conditions to be fulfilled by a recipient of the Nobel Prize. Paragraph One states, inter alia, that the award of the prize shall be made to the person who, during the preceding year, “shall have conferred the greatest benefit on mankind”. This seemingly recognizes a person who improves the quality of grain, or identifies key DNA structures that could someday lead the world to eradicate cancer and HIV.
Of course one could argue, contrary to the views and aspirations of Minister Dissanayake, that Mother Theresa, Aung San Suu Kyi and Liu Xiaobo who was awarded the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize for his long and non-violent struggle for fundamental human rights in China ,did not get their prizes for PhDs earned. Nor for that matter did some winners of the Nobel Prize for literature over the years. But here we are talking about peace and literary writing. In the overall scheme of things, the Nobel Prize for physics, chemistry, economics and other scientific subjects are usually won by highly erudite researchers who have obtained the highest academic qualifications from universities. In this sense, the Minister is absolutely right.
If one aspires to the Nobel Prize, one has to start from scratch. The basic premise is that lack of education must be approached with the fundamental objective of equipping people with the range of competencies which should include cognitive and non-cognitive skills as well as knowledge and attitudes. In order to achieve this goal, there must be a coherent, general, positive theory of government action. The start in this process should be the vision of the leader of the nation. President Rajapaksa in his Mahinda Chintanaya of 2005 says inter alia`: “all maha vidyalayas and central colleges will be fully developed with all modern facilities. Science laboratories for advanced level students…computer laboratories, library and sports among such facilities…”. The President goes on to say that his policy would increase the number of entrants to universities, introduce distance learning and establish “university villages”.
No one could argue with the sense and practicality of this approach. In fact one would accept that it as the cornerstone of wisdom if one were to forge access to education. But there is more to it than that. Education must not only be provided to all citizens with the most sophisticated equipment but those who provide it must see to it that there is assurance of learning. Assurance of learning does not only mean that the thoughts of the teacher should successfully penetrate the mind of the student, but there must also be perspective instilled in the student as to what to do with that knowledge acquired and how she could assist her society with that knowledge. This requires a combination of knowledge, virtue and service. We live in an age of information overload, which is a deterrent to attention. Universities must be institutions of knowledge, not just information. Higher educational institutions must focus both on relevance and quality.
Teachers must recognize the importance of assurance of learning and its application in demonstrating student learning. There is a growing trend in the university educational process in North America towards a shift of focus in evaluating the effectiveness of education. This shift is from the traditional mode of measuring the success of teaching techniques per se to the level of assurance a university has that the student has learnt what was expected before that student graduates and seeks employment. Basically, the university attains this objective by using well documented systematic processes to develop, monitor, evaluate and revise the substance and delivery of the curricula of degree programs and to assess the impact of the curricula on learning. In turn, this process of evaluation requires the university or faculty concerned to develop a systematic process for curriculum management; a systematic process for assuring learning; and a process to include the university’s stakeholders in the evaluation process. Major determinants in AOL are communication, ethics, analytical skills, and the ability to use information technology, multiculturalism and reflective thinking.
Future Nobel Prize winners must have a solid grounding on leadership, communication, empathy, teamwork, reflective ability and multiculturalism. They must adapt expectations to the school’s mission and cultural circumstances by specifying learning goals and demonstrating achievement of learning goals for key management-specific and or appropriate discipline-specific knowledge and skills that its students achieve in each undergraduate degree program. In other words, the bachelor’s or undergraduate level degree programs must provide sufficient time, coverage, student efforts and student-faculty interaction to assure that the learning goals are accomplished. At the master’s level, the Faculty should adapt expectations to the university’s mission and cultural circumstances, and specify learning goals and demonstrates master’s level achievement of learning goals for key management specific knowledge and skills in each master’s level general management program.
The learning goals of the 21st Century must essentially be: leadership in organizational situations; application of knowledge in novel circumstances; and adaptation and innovation to solve problems. The goals should enable the student to cope with unanticipated events and manage an unpredictable environment. The master’s degree program must also, as in the bachelor’s program, provide sufficient time, coverage, student efforts and student-faculty interaction to assure that the learning goals are accomplished. In addition to the abovementioned general management learning goals, the successful master’s graduate should be capable of critical analysis and questioning of knowledge claims. At the doctoral level, students must demonstrate the ability to create knowledge through original research in their areas of specialization. Doctoral programs must include: acquisition of advanced knowledge in specialization; development of advanced theoretical and practical skills; specialization in managerial and organizational contexts; preparation for teaching; and dissertation demonstrating creativity, integration and original work.
Nobel prizes are awarded, whatever the field might be, for creativity and innovation. Therefore, a modern educational policy and structure must be attuned to bringing out creativity in the student, which would never emerge in the parry and thrust of competition to enter a university or in the monotony of note taking. There is a quote attributed to Enrico Fermi, father of the nuclear reactor, on what characteristics were common to Nobel Prize winners: “I can’t think of a single one. Not even intelligence”.
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Author: Sri Lanka Guardian

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