Nanda Wanninayaka – The Founder

Nanda Wanninayaka hails from the rural village of Mahawilachchiya in Anuradhapura district in the North Central Province of Sri Lanka. His young life was continuously challenged with limited educational opportunities at primary and secondary school levels by lack of innovative teachers and proper teaching facilities for rural children, very similar to that found in rural areas of Sri Lanka. However, his “never-say-die attitude” did not allow himself to let the negative aspects to dampen his spirits academically. He kept on fighting for every single opportunity he had to better his education.

Nanda Wanninayaka
Nanda Wanninayaka at the inauguration of the new Horizon Lanka building in February 2006

Like him, most of the students in rural Sri Lanka are at a competitive disadvantage in today’s economy for two reasons: They lack the training in English education skills usually provided by urban schools, and the low levels of infrastructure throughout rural areas discourage business investment. Recognizing that the educational system in Sri Lanka is failing to keep pace with the requirements of the job market, he hopes to make a difference in the country’s education system, especially in the rural areas. 

Mr. Nanda Wanninayaka, Mr. Nuwan Indika with the students
Mr. Nanda Wanninayaka, Mr. Nuwan Indika and Mr. Neel Wijeweera at the computer lab

While the world changes at an unprecedented pace, education systems in rural areas of Sri Lanka remain decades old, with today’s schools closely resembling those attended by our parents and grandparents. The changing job landscape, automation, and technology mean that students need to be prepared for jobs that might not yet exist, but most schools are struggling to stay up-to-date. But some schools are continuously raising the bar when it comes to innovation. Some of the most innovative schools in the world are breaking all the rules of traditional education, and are achieving incredible results. That is my dream.

Nanda Wanninayaka teaching computers
Nanda Wanninayaka teaching computers

Here, we take a look at some of the concepts behind these innovative school and what we can learn from them.

Horizon Lanka school encourages children to find their passions through learning and exploration. Learning is self-guided, the children are encouraged to choose what they want to learn and when. This approach has shown to increase attention, motivation, and improve learning. But not all learning is computer-based. Social skills are also honed through collaborative projects with other children. This revolutionary school system is based on the principle of complete equality and aims to avoid any type of discrimination, including age, skill, class, race, disability, and gender. The aim of this system is to teach children to judge each other by their actions and personality instead of pre-conceived gender roles. He believes that a good self-belief is a basis for learning and development. Instead of being separated into different classes by skill, students are each met at their own individual level. Each student learns at their own pace using their computers in an open plan classroom. This means that they can accelerate or slow their learning without being held back or falling behind. In addition to the software-based curriculum, they also work on team projects with other students and teachers in a more traditional classroom setting. Much of this involves research-based learning, where students are encouraged to make and learn from their mistakes every day. The students get opportunities to work directly with local schools, community organizations, and real businesses to solve real-world problems. Innovative doesn’t always have to mean high-tech. Imagine a school without walls, nestled between the jungle and rice fields, built solely from local materials and powered by the sun, its mission to educate students on sustainability, using a holistic approach. Traditional topics, like mathematics and languages, are combined with experiential classes and sports. The teachers are as diverse as the students, coming from all around the world to teach at Horizon Schools and learn about its mission and values. All subjects are taught using creativity, arts, games, projects, and exploration. For example, languages are practiced during games, and storytelling plays a central role.

Mr Nanda Wanninayaka and Miss Jeewani Shanika Dissanayaka
Mr. Nanda Wanninayaka and Miss Jeewani Shanika Dissanayaka

Over the years he has created a parallel system of education through the Horizon Lanka Foundation which he founded in his own rural village of Mahawilachchiya 21 years ago. Through the Foundation he tries to better prepare rural children to face the competitive outside world in terms equipping the children of rural Sri Lanka with English language skills and also other world languages, Technology, Fine Arts, and also improve Sporting Talent. His model relies on innovative teaching methods that combine English with Computer training skills, and the simultaneous development of community-wide Internet connectivity. Extensively deploying local and foreign volunteers’ contribution which is the key to the success of his low-cost educational model that could be replicated anywhere in Sri Lanka, even with basic facilities, exactly how ” Horizon Lanka school” was inaugurated in 1998 in the village of Mahawilachchiya. 

Nanda Wanninayaka at the inauguration of the new Horizon Lanka building in February 2006

English skills serve little purpose if jobs remain unavailable. He supplements his teaching efforts with the development of a technological infrastructure designed to attract communication, training, and employment opportunities that would otherwise exist only in the cities. He turned his village into an “e-village,” equipping it with household computers and free, unlimited Internet access as early as 2004. Using a combination of soft loans, subsidies, and gifts, he provided over 400 desktop computers and over 100 tablets & laptops, over the past 20 years to families and public schools in the area. These were connected to the Internet via an affordable “mesh” Wi-Fi internet network (technology) in 2006, 10 years prior to the government provided limited free Wi-Fi to urban hotspots in Sri Lanka.

Nanda Wanninayaka
Nanda Wanninayaka

Thanks to these efforts, he helped start a leading blue-chip company to start a Business Process Operation (BPO) in the village and now the successful model is being replicated in other villages. Nanda is creating a powerful model that is attracting the attention of local communities, the national government, the national and international business community, and multi-lateral institutions.

At the present time, Horizon Lanka Foundation has branched out to 10 rural villages in 6 districts in 4 provinces in Sri Lanka. By launching 5 Horizon Academies islandwide, he tries to educate children of Sinhalese, Tamil and Muslim communities. He has also introduced a ‘franchise system’ for any individual, community, government, non-governmental or commercial entity to purchase Horizon Academy franchises and run them with the same quality standards of the initial Horizon Academies that are already operating by creating an opportunity to sustain the existing academies with the royalty fee coming from the new franchises.

Mr. Nanda Wanninayaka, the Chairman & CEO of Horizon Lanka Foundation addressing the gathering.
Mr. Nanda Wanninayaka, the Chairman & CEO of Horizon Lanka Foundation addressing the gathering.

His way of teaching is “edutainment” and the tagline of the Horizon Academy is – “The Edutainment Academy of Sri Lanka.” All disciplines are imparted to the students using a lot of entertainment without the students getting bored during outdoor classroom activities.

He believes, through these academies, not only academic but, vocational and professional achievements, that the students will have a better understanding and interaction with all ethnic, religious and cultural backgrounds of Sri Lanka without the overused and abused word “reconciliation” being even mentioned. 

Mr. Nanda Wanninayaka with the students
Mr. Nanda Wanninayaka with the students of Horizon Academy – Kirimetiya, Nanu Oya, Nuwara Eliya

While these schools take a different approach to classroom innovation, they all aim to equip students with skills to navigate a fast-changing future. A focus on personalized learning teaches them to take an active role in their own education. Project and team-based learning will allow them to apply their skills to new and evolving job roles in the future. Hopefully, other schools will follow suit to take these innovations to the mainstream.

Nanda is an Ashoka Fellow since 2007. See his profile at https://www.ashoka.org/fellow/nandasiri-wanninayaka