Midweek Review
New education reforms: Some ‘hands-on’ issues

children.jpg (24379 bytes)by Vijaya Jayasuriya
The recently launched package of education reforms has apparently introduced a kind of unprecedented dynamism into the teaching - learning process in our school system. This change is mainly seen what with sundry committees operating within as well as outside schools and more or less regular feedback sessions being held with personnel involved in it at the periphery summoned to the centre. A substantial orientation towards as ‘novel’ type of active learning experience is clearly evident in certain primary as well as ‘A’ level classes - This much can be called positive signs, the middle school being in a muddle as it were, for it is mostly a phoney show of a few apparently businesslike graphs, sketches and charts displayed as class profiles whose credibility is largely suspect.

The most apt metaphor to describe the phenomenon therefore is ‘Dekona Vilakkuwa’ - a traditional type of cloth torch set ablaze at both ends and held in the middle by the devil-dancer in his mouth in a ritualistic orgy - ‘orgy’ very fitting here as it has a dictionary meaning of a ‘a succession of pleasant activities’!

This appraisal about the primary school and the ‘A’ level classes is also not an all-embracing statement, for the good work is only restricted to certain settings. The middle is the real miasma, the region held by the devil’s gruesome teeth, literally the bad pedagogic culture that tends to defeat all well-meaning intentions of the planners.

At a time when a change of goals in our system of education with a view to orientating the school towards pragmatic national needs as well as those of the future generation happens to be a long-felt need, a radical departure from the stereotyped model has been felt to be vital in any vision about development. The havoc made of the student population by the former systems is patently seen if one bothers to ponder over the thousands of school-leavers having little hope of a future with the type of skills and knowledge they have secured spending the most precious years of their life ultimately turning out to be ‘unemployable’ nonentities in the context of a rapidly changing world. What is envisaged in the reforms and the strategies introduced to make the learning process a more learner-centred one with small group work, activity-based learning, projects and assignments at higher levels and basic oral skills in English at primary level etc., etc. are therefore most welcome, yet there are problems in spite of the initial euphoria and the resultant smug optimism that belies the true situation.

Heavy odds

Going ahead with a plan in face of heavy odds, like attempting to paint a soiled cloth becomes counter-productive in a sphere like education, unlike in the case of a factory producing an artificial item, where the outcome in terms of human performance is an extremely elusive one to assess unless viewed by highly trained professionals which is just a pipe dream in our context today. Thus the programmes planned under the New Reforms have left much to be desired in spite of complacent admissions of success on the part of those involved in it. Students apparently work in groups, there are progress charts, observation sheets, polargrams and very businesslike student profiles, yet in view of the quality of teaching stagnating in the usual rut there are serious doubts about the reliability of the whole show. Despite tantalising presentations what actually happens within the classroom which is only visible to one trained in the complexities of classroom dynamics gives little reason for optimism.

It is indeed a vital question to ask why as a whole the primary and ‘A’ levels show a better inclination to absorb new reforms. In the absence of a formal study a conclusion drawn from our field experience is that the primary children are more pliable and unspoilt and with typical mother’s instinctive skills they are better handled by lady teachers using more and more ‘play like’ activities while at ‘A’ levels the students by sheer conscious need work hard if the goals are made clear to them. As regards English the tots in the primary would greet you as you enter the class and also respond to commands in English, yet the ‘A’ Levels book produced at a huge cost is not even to be seen in the class to say the least!

Quite clearly the teacher is the most vital factor - the catalyst that determines the success or otherwise of the enterprise. There are critical problems that underlie the sordid teaching culture that obtains in our schools threatening to paralyse the whole system beyond recovery. Factors that are responsible for this culture lie invariably outside the school, namely in policy planning, training modes, administration and supervision spheres which we shall take severally for discussion.

The teacher who plays a vital role in the whole process should have an optimally stable morale without professional frustrations in order that the programmes are carried out with utmost efficiency. This does not, unfortunately happen to be the case in our phalanxes of teachers in spite of the much-vaunted "Teachers’ service" introduced avowedly to alleviate their long-standing suffering as the underdog in the system.

Reinforcing of favourable behaviour on the part of students being an important tenet in educational psychology equally applies to teachers as well. Certain preposterous anomalies in the Teachers’ service has turned out to be a source of agony for many teachers in the actual implementation of it - promoting teachers with the mere basic training certificate from class III to class I just on account of completing 50 years of age strangely overlooking a young yet veteran set of teachers with very much higher educational and professional qualifications together with a distinctive track record of getting very much higher percentages of examination passes for their students. Small wonder this very capable set of teachers are not adequately motivated to put in their optimal contribution to the School-Based Assessment or other reforms. Miserable service conditions adversely affect teacher efficiency. There are teachers who have to travel more than 50 miles every morning on three bus routes to reach school where they have been appointed after having served 20 years in most uncongenial areas like the Eastern Province. There are females who are not allowed to return to their native places even after 11 years of service in difficult areas. These are not isolated instances, but the field is replete with such cases. Whatever ingenious scheme comes there are unscrupulous transgressions of laws with the connivance of the authorities - a most blatant one being the great number of ‘school vans’ transporting hordes of students living within a radius of 40 miles to Colombo schools making a travesty of the 2 mile rule!

Tactless classroom teaching is yet another factor that stands in the way of any proper realization of the new reforms. Teaching unfortunately happens to be the most elusive job any nitwit can do without getting discovered owing to reasons that are intrinsically involved in it. As students naturally tend to obey teacher’s authority in the class they sit out lessons no matter the style of teaching in any significant way tells on them or not, and a novice without an iota of training in specific skills can just talk it away without fully achieving lesson objectives. The result is large numbers of students who just scrape through public exams while the stars - the gifted ones congregating in popular urban schools pass with flying colours!

The New Reforms make provisions to fill this vacuum getting teachers to guide their charges step by step towards attaining higher scales of learning - literally from black through yellow and green to red colour blobs in the progress charts - yet, in actual practice this becomes a myth if the teacher does not know the strategies to increase student attainment - hence the black and yellow throughout the charts against the names of the majority of students in many classes. The problem gets more complicated if the incapable teacher is artificially forced to get better colours for backward students in which case the reliability of the marks will be lost. Even as it is, the high subjectivity of marking in this teaching/assessing scenario, however much informed and lesson-based it may be, the dire need to indicate upward mobility of student attainment tends to defeat the well-meaning objectives of the SBA.

Pedagogic dilemma

What is at the base of this pedagogic dilemma is the methodological crisis that has affected the whole school system. Except for a handful of practitioners who know what they are doing with their students, the vast majority of English teachers today have never mastered even the very basic skills and techniques of classroom teaching, let alone having a grasp of more complex classroom dynamics that are the prerogative of the maestri of the profession although, unfortunately, we keep reiterating that there is no mystique about what good teaching is. From the simplest tactic like introducing a vocabulary item up to a comparatively more demanding strategy such as withholding feedback - continuing elicitation of varying student responses without in any way betraying acknowledgment of the correct answer - there is a vast repertoire of pedagogic skills that constitute the stock-in-trade of a properly trained teacher if she is to succeed in her task. Unfortunately most of our teachers today are in a way mere stonewallers who have confused the role of teaching with that of a pavement hawker who keep haranguing to the passers-by.

In an attempt to ascertain the extent of the problem a random sample of English teachers were once asked to put down below their lesson plans for a selected class the names of students who could clearly demonstrate achievement of lesson objectives (observable, behavioural objectives). Not a single teacher was able to improve beyond 05 per cent of students in the class in really difficult skills like composition and speaking while a few more scored around 10 percent in comparatively simpler exercises such as matching and identifying which are very much lower-order skills. Even in the case of classes where a few students could show desired performance, their number remained static with time showing little improvement in teaching strategies.

Two major problems underlie this sordid state of affairs: A serious breakdown in our institutional training courses for teachers and an absence of a systematic scheme to assess teachers according to their actual performance leading on to their attainment of professional advances.

As for training the NIE is running a TESL course for teachers of English that gives them a more or less comprehensive knowledge of the orthodox theoretical underpinning of the craft, yet what the majority of teachers at grassroots levels badly need is a thorough hands-on training in the very basic skills broken down into minute units and practised in strategies like micro-teaching so that they are equipped with the mastery of handing their lessons with sufficient aplomb. It is this type of broad-based lower-level courses that are badly required currently more than the middle level TESL or the higher-level BED or MEDs that happen to be at a premium among teachers today mainly for the sake of prestige attached to such courses both at the NIE and at universities.

Rather than experts in doctrinaire orthodoxies what we are more and more pressed for at school level is teachers with pragmatic teaching skills - reflective practitioners who possess, on top of basic classroom skills, a capacity for intellectual analysis of their craft. It is in this kind of thrashing out of one’s own act of teaching whittled down to subtle niceties with the help of an observer with a ‘clinical’ type of approach to discussion that the real essence of the pedagogic craft should be mastered and also practised in our institutional training courses which are, as a matter of fact, far behind in such insight today.

The Colleges of Education were the quintessence of teacher education for a few years since their inception in 1985, yet malfeasance and a resultant non-work-psyche engulfed most of the places as in many other systems in Sri Lanka today. The English course in particular has suffered an insuperable setback as the veteran pioneers there who produced excellent teachers were systematically ousted and their successors today even at management levels happen to be without language skills necessary for the task. A place where foreign aid worth millions of rupees is dumped on various projects, it is indeed a pity that authorities have let it waste away at the whims and vagaries of irresponsible panjandrums.

Provisions have been made under the New Reforms to teach English from very early stages of the primary school while a special syllabus has been planned for the hitherto neglected ‘A’ levels to gain necessary skills in this world language. The new challenge that teachers face with this set of books is not so much its new orientation as the need in the students to master it in order to face the General English paper. Teachers without the basic skills to teach English are clearly rejected by ‘A’ level students who have no time to waste on fruitless enterprises. Proper training for teachers to do their job effectively can only be provided if the currently malfunctioning institutional training courses are restructured and streamlined on lines of modern thinking in teacher education.

Monitoring the process is an indispensable part of the reforms in operation at schools level and this is invariably the duty of the middle-level supervisory staff attached to the peripheral stations - the zones etc. A considerable amount of the onus of implementing of reforms is shouldered by these personnel, yet unfortunately their lot is pathetically neglected by the authorities. In many cases these officials have come into the administrative service by competitive examinations and mostly happen to be experts in their respective subjects in the school curriculum. Although principals and teachers have already been placed on very much enhanced salary scales under their newly established cadres, the officials supervising school subjects are given an extremely raw deal having been left to survive on a mere pittance. It was indeed a faux pas on the part of the authorities not to have spared a thought for these personnel within whose purview the process of New Reforms mostly lie.

The proposed ‘Guru Upahara’ is a commendable step in providing a boost to teachers’ sagging morale, yet rather than being a haphazard one this should have happened following a regular scheme of scientific appraisal of teachers according to their performance at school level so that it may not be another "Teachers’ Service" to marginalise part of the hierarchy.

Owing to above problems the new education reforms at their locale - the school currently appear to be moving ahead with just a lukewarm interest, with part of the teachers disgruntled over the grave anomalies in Teachers’ service while an even larger portion of them are languishing due to lack of professionalism and the supervisory staff unhappy owing to being neglected. The planners of the new schemes might take up the smug stance that they have nothing to do with these administrative matters, yet a broader perspective should have been adopted persuading the political authority to take into account all aspects involved taking the cue from the destiny of education reforms in Sri Lanka since forties. Only elimination of the problems would now ensure a smooth flow of the process of the reforms that would bring about the envisaged effects and the desired El Dorado as it were.