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Welcome to our school

by Peter Melvyn

(June 02, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) It was one of those chance meetings when I sat next to a school principal on the early train to Colombo. He was also reading the early morning edition of of an English language newspaper, and from time to time we commented on items in the news. When he learnt that I was an educational consultant and advisor, an open invitation was offered to visit his school. In fact he would have been very disappointed had I refused and he stressed that my extensive educational experience and comments would be very valuable. I accepted his invitation on the condition that I would arrive without advance warning, so as to see the school in its normal operation.

Some three weeks later, and after making several enquiries about direction, I drove into the school situated in a delightful and peaceful rural environment. No traffic; No pollution; No noise, and a safer place would be difficult to find. The time was just before seven-thirty and children from grade five to grade 11 were assembled in orderly lines participating in the morning worship followed by the deputy Principal speaking about the need for good behaviour in school and at home. A 20 minute lecture at that time has little value and it is doubtful if many students were actively listening or even interested in this sermon. There was no invitation to comment or question and fidgeting, especially from the younger students, seem to negate the importance of the expressed values. He did, however, introduce me to the assembled students as a form of welcome. The assembly concluded with singing the National Anthem and it was admirable to see the rows of boys neatly dressed in blue short trousers or white long trousers and girls in clean white frocks. There was an immediate feeling of a well run school where students and teachers took pride in their appearance and surroundings.

The Principal suggested that I visit any classrooms in the school and meet teachers and students. The time was now 8.30am and it appeared that lessons were only just starting. On the field in front of the school a teacher was conducting a daily P.E. class for grades 3, 4 and 5 and with an average of fifteen students in each class. The students were standing in a closed circle and passing a ball around from hand to hand. Hardly an invigorating exercise although they seemed to enjoy it. A run to the end of the field and back completed the activities. I would have liked to have demonstrated some more suitable activities more beneficial and fun.

With the first period halfway through, I made my way to watch a grade 10 English class. In many schools, several grades occupy a hall with no partitions for either visual or sound separation. This particular hall housed grades 8 to 11.The students were reading from a textbook following the teacher. The standard seemed impressive, and possibly better than some students of a similar age in the U.K. whose native language is English. This idea was quickly dispelled when the teacher translated the passage to Sinhala, advising me that the English was far too difficult for any of her students to understand. Following the explanation in Sinhala, students copied it into their exercise books. A quick look into several of these books showed page after page of neat writing with some words underlined and the equivalents written in the vernacular. During the 20 minutes I was present, not a word had been said by any student, and not a question asked in English by the teacher. At the end of the period I informally tried some simple conversation with several students. The most I could elicit were their names and ages. This was most disappointing and I followed the teacher to her next class; grade 9 at the other end of the hall.

The level of English in the textbook did not seem much different from the grade 10. With the agreement of the teacher I tried a few active language games. "Boys put one hand on your head and one hand on your shoulder" No response. Try again. I ask the teacher to repeat it but not to do any actions. A couple of boys have hands on heads, but the rest look totally bewildered. I demonstrate the action. Next. "Girls stand in front of your desks". Two girls understand and the rest copy. I recite a simple 4 line poem, suitable for pre-school. We do the actions and repeat it several times until it is learnt. I write it on the blackboard and we all read it. I quickly erase it and ask the students to write it in their books. The first line is "An elephant is large and a monkey is small". Only a few students are able to complete this task with any accuracy. I ask the teacher to tell her students to ask me any question about myself or family. Nothing. At the conclusion of the lesson the teacher explains to me that she must teach all units in the textbook and has been advised to concentrate on reading and writing as these are the skills that are tested.

A grade 3 maths lesson is in progress and students are busy completing page after page of addition and subtraction "sums" . I can’t see any apparatus for measuring, weighing or any practical application of number. Where are the bar charts, graphs, number lines, units for measurement? I ask the teacher to tell the children in Sinhala to write the number "one thousand and one". Over half the class have little concept of place value and get it wrong. The children are asked to estimate my height and I end up being either a giant or dwarf. The concept of sharing a cake equally among four children, is not understood as to how much each receives. The textbook does include various maths ideas but few have a real grasp of the application of maths to the real world.

Literacy in Sri Lanka is well over 90%, though what is literacy has not been defined. In none of the classes from grade 1 to 5 did I see a range of story books for children to look at or read. Tucked away in one or two cupboards were some rather old and well-worn reading books with small print and single colour pictures. Reading is mainly confined to the textbook and reading a variety of stories in other books does not seem to be a regular activity. (A survey of 500 teachers carried out several years ago found that only a minority read books at home.)
A later discussion indicated that a daily story time is not a feature of the primary classes and a lost opportunity for sharing language, ideas and imagination. So much of what I was witnessing involved passive students with teachers dominating the lessons. Even in science and social studies in the upper grades, copying from textbooks or the blackboard to fill endless exercise books, seemed to be the norm. Most of these exercise books eventually end up as paper bags for small shops.

Only in the primary classrooms was there any attempt at wall displays, but nothing of the quality or interest normally seen in U.K. classrooms. Every student was allocated a wall space to add his or her most recent drawing or art work over the previous one. The thick piles of twenty or more papers would be taken home at the end of term though by that time they have scant value to either student or parent, and most end up as fuel for cooking.

The day was interesting and students well-behaved. Teachers were taking their work seriously and conscientiously. But so much of the teaching lacked interest or creativity and relied almost 100% on textbooks. The only map of the world was hanging in the Principal’s office near to a glass-fronted cupboard containing an impressive display of silver trophies and shields awarded at the annual sports meet. What about Physical Education? This comes under Health in the curriculum and seems mainly confined to theory rather than practice. However, the school does excel in dancing and drumming and I was treated to a very enjoyable short display.

Most teachers arrive at 7.30am and leave at 1.30pm with the students. Homework is minimal and generally involves revising for a test. Lesson plans simply follow the next chapter or page in textbooks. I was keen to get a better understanding of education in the lives of students. In three classes that I questioned, almost all attended private tuition classes after school or at weekends. Had I asked if they enjoyed school I am sure the response would have been positive. The school is well maintained, discipline is good and parents very supportive both financially and with their time. So what are the criticisms?

I declined an offer to meet all teachers after school for several reasons, the main one being that most had a very poor standard of English. The Principal himself spoke good English but admitted that his deputy would not be able to follow our conversation. The school will soon be given some computers, but at this point not a single teacher is competent to teach IT or for that matter even computer literate. It would have been ill-advised for me to delve into the numerous aspects of good education so lacking in the school. By Sri Lanka standards this is a good school and no doubt school inspectors give complementary reports.

What really concerned me was the lack of encouragement or opportunity for students to question, comment and criticise. So much learning was rote with correct answers and little understanding or insight. Had the students discussed the twin tragedies of the cyclone and earthquake? Apparently it had not even been mentioned. Were students learning any practical skills such as woodwork, gardening, cooking, sewing etc.? A half-hearted attempt to grow vegetables was in evidence but probably only done to satisfy a school inspector. Eleven years of English and hardly a student (or teacher) who could participate in a basic conversation. No attempt had been made to build moveable partitions between the five classes in the school hall. Yet the noise level and distractions were obvious.

The principal attends weekly meetings held at the divisional educational office. Do these improve education or follow the usual pattern of chalk and talk, but without the chalk. Teachers attend seminars that add another line or two to their CV, but little else. But compared with much education in the developing world, the Sri Lankan educational system is doing well. But the very fact that so-called International schools (which are simply private, English medium schools) are rapidly expanding, and tuition classes are necessary for examination success, means that something is not quite right. Neither school Principals or teachers can be held responsible for an education system that needs an overhaul. Quality has been sacrificed to quantity. The army of civil servants working at the Ministry of Education, the N.I.E and many other government education departments, lack vision and political clout to really make a difference. Many harbour a vision of Sri Lanka as an industrial or IT heavyweight. Fortunately, President Rajapaksa recognises that Sri Lanka must retain a rural identity and community also an agricultural economy, but at the same time needs to modernise.

Several years ago a Principal of a large semi-urban primary school, visited the U.K. and see for himself some typical primary schools. These were village schools and often better than their counterparts in towns and cities. The children at these schools, for the most part come from local villages, and many walk or cycle to school. The contrast with his own school was so great that a comparison would be unfair. Right from grade one, children attend school for a full day, and either bring their lunch or buy a lunch at school. There are no half days. Teachers value verbal interaction and talk with children as an educational process. In this way they encourage children to respond, and participate in creative, independent and critical thinking. It has been well researched that active verbal participation in teaching is crucial to understanding and problem solving. In a silent class or a noisy class, real learning is diminished.
- Sri Lanka Guardian

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