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Keynote address by Prof Rajiva Wijesinha

Delivered at 2.30 pm, November 26th

at the National RESC Conference – 2013

On the theme ‘Supplementing ELT Through Language Arts & Theater


I do not tend these days to accept invitations to speak in the fields of Education and English Language Teaching, but I was pleased to accept this one, largely because of the theme of your Conference. I feel in a sense out of touch with the subject, but this has been deliberate, because I must admit to some sadness at the manner in which the Ministry of Education failed to build on the foundation we had laid there for better English Teaching, and for better syllabuses for all subjects, during the years in which I advised on English, and also chaired the Academic Affairs Board of the National Institute of Education.

We had also made plans for better use of the Regional English Support Centres to upgrade English Teacher Training, and provide ready access to degrees that would improve the professional capacities of English teachers. But all this was reversed, largely because of lethargy, and the incapacity to think and plan coherently which has so adversely affected our education system over the years. And in addition there is I fear also continuing suspicion of English, and a determination on the part of decision makers to prevent our rural populations from having access to the language which is the only way of ensuring equity and equality of opportunity in the current age. In short, English continues to be the possession of the privileged, and in particular those in authority who use the language of nationalism to keep the less privileged in check, whilst of course ensuring that their own children have English, and English medium education, and often foreign degrees.


How do we break through this stranglehold? I am once again hopeful, with the appointment of the Hon Mohanlal Grero as Deputy Minister of Education, given his idealism and his practical capacity. There is an excellent new Secretary in place, and the Minister, who is I believe positive about progress but was not provided previously with enough ideas, will not I think prove a barrier to progress. But on the negative side I believe there is no time to waste, for disparities are increasing, and we must ensure not only the development of skills, but also attitudinal change that will enable our youngsters to think and learn for themselves instead of being stuck in dependency.

For this purpose the use of Language Arts and Theatre is ideal. I should note that, though I have long appreciated the importance and interest of drama and dramatizations, it was only when I began work on the pre-University General English Language Training programme that I fully understood the impact of these on both learning of the language, and confidence building. For this I am indebted to my fellow coordinator of the programme, Oranee Jansz, who was full of innovative ideas.

Let me quote then from an article she wrote about our work together for ‘The Care of Children’, my recently published book on the protection of children and also on empowering them through better policies and practices in Education. The latter part of the book has essays on some of the innovations I introduced in various positions, and I hope the record will inspire others concerned with social change to replicate whatever is appropriate in the current context.

Oranee wrote about one of our significant innovations – ‘As the situation in the country was slowly getting back to normal during the mid nineties, in the middle of our tenure as National Coordinators of the GELT programme, the POP was losing its momentum and we decided to channel the money set aside for it into student projects. This was a new initiative in which students were required to undertake group projects in which they would investigate or study a problem or phenomenon in the areas in the vicinity of their GELT centres. A report on it had to be written in English and presented orally in English. The previous POP allowance to students was used for travelling, producing the final project report and any other expenses incurred in the project effort. Competitions to select the best project at class level and then at centre level and at inter-centre to find district level winners were held. All district winners presented themselves at the UGC where the 1st three projects All Island were selected. A sum of money was set aside for the prizes of the All Island winners. Later on, we converted the oral presentation of projects into dramatization of the information gathered by the students, where they could use music, song, dance, costumes and sets in the dramatizations. We witnessed some extremely innovative and startling dramatizations through this initiative. Above all it proved the efficacy of group action when channeled correctly to generate creative energy. The vision of giving maximum opportunities for rural students to read, speak and use the English language in creative and innovative ways was achieved in the GELT programme during our tenure as National Coordinators.’

I still remember some of those projects, and the fact that we had them presented at the UGC was a way of making the students feel the UGC was theirs too, and not a place where they would come only to protest. I should note that more ideas Oranee had for handing over the initiative to students can be found in ‘Explorations’, published by Cambridge University Press in India as a companion to my ‘Handbook of English Grammar’. They have been prescribed in a couple of Indian universities, but of course no Sri Lankan institute would dream of using them. I used to think this was part of the general Sri Lankan incapacity to appreciate what our own people do, but I realize now that the so-called preparation of materials is a lucrative exercise, and an education system which lives on rent seeking naturally multiplies opportunities of making money on services. So, instead of ordering good books from elsewhere, we prepare our own, at vast expense, choosing writers by favour – and we are then astonished when the textbooks contain mistakes.

The same thing, I should note, goes for the practice of preparing term test papers in education offices, instead of allowing them to be the responsibility of schools, which is what used to happen when our system was more effective. Not only are small but deeply desired payments made for these term tests – which adds to administrative responsibilities and authority, while more productive aspects of administration are forgotten – but, in addition, those who set them get a reputation which increases their appeal as tuition masters. Since tuition is now the guiding principle of our education system, this is an important consideration,

Oranee’s approach, as the passage I cited makes clear, incorporates a vital principle of learning, to which we pay lip service, but which we do not really understand. I refer to group work, which should be a means of setting students free, to produce on their own and benefit from the input others make. Sadly we tend to see group work as a means of ensuring uniformity, as I have noted when Role Plays are implemented through groups being required to repeat together what is given in the book. The idea of giving them themes, and then requiring that these be expanded on with lively interactions, is not one many teachers understand or internalize.

The type of group work Oranee introduced included brain-storming, with many people sitting together and making plans. Then they had to implement those plans, making use of the resources they had or could generate. They had to divide up responsibilities, and rehearse so that the roles of each contributed to the whole. In short they worked in the way they should do as adults – except this is not the way things happen in Sri Lanka, which managed to abolish the Ministry of Policy and Plan Implementation, and thinks that checking on whether objectives are being achieved should be done precisely by those implementing, or not implementing as the case might be, those objectives. The synergy – one of Oranee’s favourite words – that a productive society requires is not encouraged here, given that, as His Excellency the President put it when I wondered about blockages in the system, people tend to grasp for themselves everything in sight, tasks as well as resources (both going together being an obvious reason for this possessiveness on all counts) and refuse to accept systems of accountability to other institutions.

Oranee’s view was that synergy is essential for maximum creativity and effectiveness, but she also knew that, given the restrictive and competitive nature of the examination system in which students had been stuck in the preceding years, she had to make the process enjoyable. Hence the use of drama, with freedom to choose subjects which the students felt were relevant to their lives. So we had performances which threw up bright ideas with regard to problems that still dog us, foreign employment, environmental degradation, drug abuse, and many more.

Can we replicate some of her ideas in classrooms too? Or rather, can we aim for the results she targeted, using the syllabuses we have, and the materials? The short answer is that I do not know, since I do not know what materials you use – and, to be quite honest, I have not for the reasons I have given earlier sought these out, having been quite disappointed when I last looked at a prescribed textbook. But I cannot imagine that a good teacher would have difficulty in developing exercises that allow students to be creative and practice language productively and with enjoyment.

And of course you can always introduce supplementary materials too, since there is no barrier to using these, provided you cover the syllabus. Unfortunately this has turned into drudgery in some instances, because the syllabus is interpreted narrowly, with reference to specific subject matter rather than skills and competencies. That is why it would be good if the Ministry allowed teachers one period a week to engage in supplementary activity in fulfillment of a sensible syllabus. I still recall perhaps the best English teacher I had, certainly the only one whose work I still remember with respect, reading Chaucer to us when we were 12, in the Coghill version rather than the tedious original, acting out the tales as they were meant to be conveyed to an audience in an age in which reading skills were limited, and story telling was oral. Indeed, it is a pity that, if old practices have not changed, our school texts have little that can be read aloud entertainingly.

I should note that what I am talking about here is using Language Arts and dramatizations in the classroom. Often when I ask educationists about such activities, they tell me about the competitions that are organized at Provincial and Zonal level, with emphasis on prize winners. Such information I find both tedious and uninformative. Just as one should judge a school not on how many students got 8 or 9 or whatever number of As are thought to prove excellence at Ordinary Level, but rather on the percentage that passed, including in Maths, so too one judges the level of English not by a few prize winners but on the percentages of those willing and able to speak in English. Competitions, on the other hand, like the annual sports meet which is a pitiful substitute for extra-curricular activities, are devices created by the Ministry of Education to limit actual productive work for all during the period in which such competitions and meets are prepared for and held.

This is why the latest educational reforms, which took three long years to be finalized and have still not been put into the Act that we were promised when this Parliament was first convened, include the provision that extra-curricular activities should be compulsory. When we were discussing this, we defined three areas in which such activities should be organized, namely sports, cultural activities and social service activities. Sports means games, and in particular team games, which should be practiced after school. Social service referred to scouting and guiding and cadetting and St. John’s Ambulance Brigades and Disaster Management Clubs and even the gardening that every school should encourage, if only to promote appreciation of attractive premises.

For our purposes what is important is cultural activity, and every school should have drama and music and art societies. We had suggested that students must take part in at least two activities of different sorts, and we would expect good principals to ensure that teachers take charge of such activities, instead of seeing schools and schooling as ceasing to exist at 1.30. Schools should be lively centres of activity in the afternoon too – as you can see from the fact that the few schools to enter which parents bribe and cajole excessively function until evening. It is of course precisely because of extra-curricular activities that their products find it so easy to gain employment even if they do not get high proportions of As in their public examinations.

I would suggest then that you try to develop a culture in which teachers set up societies through which their students can develop their English skills, and their confidence, through drama and debating. This may be difficult in a context in which, when I have suggested that RESCs should function in the afternoons and on Saturdays and in the holidays, I am met with strong protests by the RESC staff I know. Unfortunately Sri Lanka has sunk into a state in which teachers believe that they are entitled to holidays far in excess of those teachers in any other country in the world have. As a result of this, professional development can only take place during school times, so children have to do without their teachers if RESCs or Teacher Centres have training programmes.

This will take a long time to change. Perhaps it can only be done incrementally, which is why I hope government recognizes the importance of treating education as a devolved subject and allowing administrative decisions to be taken at Provincial level, with the central government being responsible only for National Policy and for Public Examinations on the strength of which selections are made for jobs or for further studies. They will of course need to monitor activity nationally, to ensure that policies are being implemented effectively, but they should allow for different systems of delivery provided standards are maintained.

The current determination to cling onto everything, as His Excellency described our national tendency, to make policy and implement it and make all appointments regardless of crashing ignorance of where actual needs are, and then to pretend to monitor what is going on, will only lead us to greater and greater disaster. We have long prided ourselves on our high standards of literacy, but we achieved those long ago, and other countries in Asia – though not in South Asia – have overtaken us in the last few decades. And meanwhile our success rates in Maths and Science and English are pitiful, while we are not producing enough graduates in subjects that will ensure economic growth.

Thinking skills, decision making skills, initiative and enterprise are in short supply. This is not surprising given that the education system seems designed to kill these. It is a tribute to the native wit and resilience of our youngsters that so many of them blossom when their abilities are given full play. But English teachers can help more of them to perform better, if you liberate them in the classroom and outside through allowing them to work together and develop their talents, their self-confidence and their social commitment.

With regard to a very different matter, Mr Speaker, I was pleased with the mention in the budget speech renewable energy generation has increased up to 422 Megawatts. However, while I can understand the stress on coal power given the prohibitive cost of oil, I am sorry that the commitment to encourage new investments that would increase the production of renewable energy has not been spelled out. We need to move swiftly to develop solar and wind and dendro energy, and we should not allow those who have been involved in the importation of oil and even of coal to stand in the way of new plants. In addition to helping with protection of the environment, such initiatives will also enhance the incomes of farmers and herdsmen. The renewable energy authority has prepared plans for a gliricidia plant, and farmers and plantations too should be encouraged to grow gliricidia on a large scale, since this can be done along with their traditional crops. But given the scale of production that would be needed, it is vital that government encourages such initiatives.