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English medium education: Misconceptions and inaccuracies

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By Dr Tara de Mel

(former Secretary, Ministry of Education)

Discussions on English medium education have surfaced, once again. Every few years, or if ever a government decides on touching this topic, rumblings begin, on the merits or demerits of such an initiative.

It’s perhaps pertinent to trace events from recent history.

Rewind to the Education Reforms of 1998.

The emphasis placed on improving English education was unambiguous and remained consistent.

In primary school the thrust was on Activity Based Oral English (ABOE) coupled with Conversational English. In the secondary school, it was to teach selected subjects in English whilst emphasising on Conversational and General English in the Advanced Level. In addition, there was the option to have English medium classes which allowed Sinhala, Tamil and Muslim students to learn in one class from young days, allowing greater integration between communities. A parallel initiative with the same aim was to initiate special Amity Schools for students of all three communities.

Criticisms and allowing Choice: One main criticism leveled against English medium education was that children should learn in the mother tongue during their formative years. This was an opinion of one section of people whilst others promoted exposure to two languages (mother tongue and a second language) during formative years based on newer neuroscientific discoveries on brain growth during early years. (https://www.idra.org/resource-center/brain-development-and-mastery-of-language-in-the-early-childhood-years/) .

The other objection raised was that the Constitution prohibited the use of English as a medium of instruction. This was while all international schools and some private and even Government schools had English medium instruction available as an option. What the Constitution actually says in Article 21. (1) : ‘A person shall be entitled to be educated through the medium of either of the National Languages’.

It doesn’t mean that the choice of being educated in another language is prohibited by the Constitution, i.e. there is no impediment to providing English medium instructions at the primary school. All that was proposed by enabling English medium education was allowing the choice of English medium education and establishing the resources to facilitate same. Nobody advocated making English medium education mandatory while jettisoning the national languages.

Despite the leadership the then President gave to the English education programme, and indeed to the entire Education Reform agenda, the obstacles posed by selected groups were largely political and often non-substantial. Meanwhile, the demand for English education from parents was growing apace. Large numbers of parents were left disappointed that their children couldn’t access English medium education, and therefore were considered not eligible for attractive employment opportunities after leaving school. Those with means applied to International Schools and some to private schools. But the large majority were left without options. Tuition masters swiftly began to supply what was in demand, since government schools didn’t offer what was sought. Meanwhile, International schools which were registered as BOI companies (and still are), began to mushroom. What began with a total of about 100 such schools, now stands at nearly 500, bearing ample testimony to this demand.

It’s interesting to recall how during 1998-1999 it became necessary to ‘prove’ that there was indeed such a demand for English education. This was done by administering a simple questionnaire to parents of students attending about 100 schools in about ten districts. They were asked if they were favourable if the option to study selected subjects in the English medium was offered to their children. The large majority said ‘Yes’. And when asked for reasons they gave the following : ability to face interviews confidently, converse with those in higher socio-economic brackets, to apply for overseas placements and to secure a ‘good job’ when leaving school.

Proof Concept:

Such ‘Proof of Concept’ became necessary to get the Cabinet of Ministers on board. Apart from about five Ministers the rest were either skeptical, critical or totally against the idea. Interestingly but not unexpectedly, some of the Ministers who opposed the idea already had children attending private or international schools which were teaching in English. And those children were destined to either seek jobs in the corporate sector or to head overseas for further education, eventually.

Looking back, what’s most interesting is that it took the daughter of a former Prime Minister who implemented a ‘Sinhala Only’ policy, to even start taking baby-steps towards undoing the harm done by her father decades before that. Recently Dr Mahim Mendis wrote ‘… Solomon West Ridgeway Dias Bandaranaike (SWRD), benefitted from the Western Protestant ethic at S. Thomas’ College, Mt Lavinia, and the University of Oxford. As a politician, SWRD became the father of the Sinhala Only Act, while knowing well that this policy would deprive the ordinary people, the model of education that made him a polished personality during that time..’ (https://island.lk/why-this-shamelessness/)

In promoting the policy, President Kumaratunge took a bold step and had the courage to face significant political opposition. The team entrusted with implementing the Policy had the determination to transcend multiple hurdles since there was backing by the Head of State.

The famous argument on why this proposal wouldn’t work was the issue of ‘lack of teachers’ proficient to teach English. There were even suggestions to bring trainers from overseas.

 

These poorly-thought-out suggestions were made whilst excellent teacher training institutions existed (and still exist) in Sri Lanka. The four National Colleges of Education dedicated for English education from which about 600 English teachers pass out annually, the 30 Regional English Support Centres (RESC) distributed across every district, University English Language Teaching Units (ELTU) affiliated to Departments of English in Universities, and of course the premier institution mandated to train teachers, the National Institute of Education (NIE). There was no credible way that an argument such as ‘where can we find trained teachers’ could hold. The Task Force for English at that time had experts on the subject and there was excellent support from university academics. But when governments changed in 2005 the enthusiasm dipped and gradually implementation slowed.

Fast forward to 2021. The same discussions are happening more than two decades later. More than 20 batches of students have left school since 1998. Political and other leaders have come and gone, and most of them have been able to give their own children an English medium education in school and university. They had the means and hence the choice. Private & International schools, and English tuition masters continue to flourish, levying fees from students who are denied English medium education in Government schools. Most of these international school teachers are also from Sri Lanka, but they receive intensive training from experienced trainers, again from Sri Lanka.

The current government which promised to renew English teaching and also English medium education, has again shelved plans. Once again, the same anti-English education lobby of two decades ago has won the battle. It’s interesting how the same wheel turns, 20 years later.

Today’s context : Although general enthusiasm on teacher training in English has lost its vigour, and there appears to be less energy, the same institutional arrangements remain. The current staff at the NIE and the Ministry still have interest to renew previous efforts. They too believe that the only way to leapfrog into a situation where English proficiency is accessible to ALL students and to not just a few children with means, is to keep training teachers over and over again, using modern material and audio-visual methods. Most of them believe that Sri Lanka has the capacity to train teachers in English teaching, on par with those with overseas experiences.

Emulating Singapore: Singapore’s founding father Lee Kuan Yew (LKY) transformed an insignificant port city into a model nation state. LKY’s actions were firmly grounded on the principle that he should share with the people of Singapore, what he himself benefited from, by creating a level playing field for all Singaporeans. Like SWRD who was educated at Oxford, LKY had his higher education at the University of Cambridge, albeit 24 years later. In his book, “My Lifelong Challenge: Singapore’s Bilingual Journey”, (https://corporate.sph.com.sg/system/assets/729/kfcFzfff_LKY%20bilingual%20book%20summary.pdf ), LKY mentions the challenges the Education Ministry faced in 1975. How Chinese-medium schools existed for a decade after the policy was introduced, and how teachers had to painfully switch from teaching in Chinese to teaching in English, and how students had to transit from a Chinese medium of instruction to English, almost overnight.

 

Dr Mahim Mendis’s recent article then reminds us, ‘…at the National Day Rally of 1986, LKY claimed that he was “.. a proud man that day”… For the first time since Singapore’s independence, 21 years earlier, the Master of Ceremonies for the event did not have to use three languages – Chinese, Malay and Tamil – to lead the audience, as finally, English had become a language understood by all Singaporeans..’

Referencing the success of that tiny nation state is intentional. Today it’s almost a fashion to want to emulate Singapore in every way. Leaders of our Governments are quoted as saying that Sri Lanka ‘must become another Singapore’. What we need to repeatedly remind ourselves is that, Singapore metamorphosised into what it is today, for one reason, i.e. that nation was built on a very solid and robust bedrock – namely the foundation of Education. The leaders of that country led by LKY invested heavily in making Education the most important currency of that country.

Any current or aspiring future leader of this country should always remember this.



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Features

English in Mathematics

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By R.N.A. de Silva

 

“Which subject did you have most difficulties with, having switched the medium of instruction from Sinhala to English?” I posed this question to a Sri Lankan student who was following a pre-University course in an educational institution in Hong Kong, having completed studies up to the GCE Ordinary Level programme in the Sinhala medium in a leading girls’ school in Colombo. “It is definitely mathematics,” she replied. Having served as a teacher for a long period of time at this educational institution with students from over 80 countries, I realised the above-mentioned view was shared by other students, too, who had to change the medium of instruction to English. This does not seem to make sense as one would have expected mathematics to be the easiest subject to follow as it has its own symbolic language. Why then has this situation arisen?

I would like to separate these difficulties into two categories:

1. Hastiness due to mindset

2. Vocabulary issues

Sometimes hastiness can automatically occur due to the mindset that mathematics should be easy to follow even if you change the medium of instruction as you are dealing with symbols. This attitude can cause enormous problems as students may skip instructions or avoid reading the question fully and concentrate only on the symbolic part of the problem

As an example, consider the following question.

The graphs of lines 3y = 5x + 1 and 2y = 7 – 3x intersect at point P. Find the coordinates of P.

Seeing the word ‘graphs’ and the two equations, a student maybe tempted to draw the graphs of the two lines and thereby find the point of intersection, which is a time-consuming affair. If it was read properly, the student could have noticed that the solution can be obtained by solving the two equations algebraically, which is much more efficient.

To a fast reader, obtaining the correct answer to the following question can be a problem as it may end up with just finding the value of x.

If 2x+3 = 5x-3, find the value of 2x+3.

The students need to be trained to read the question fully and understand what is required to be done, before attempting it.

The time spent to grasp the aim of the question is not wasted time.

Many children consider mathematics as an alien language consisting of symbols and expressions. Most of the difficulties that students encounter is related to vocabulary. The mathematical interpretation of the meaning of a word may differ from the meaning given to it in the English language. The word ‘find’ in mathematics means to obtain an answer showing the working while in the English language, it refers to discover or search. The following sketch shows the funny side of this difference.

Two of the words that has caused much confusion are ‘or’ and ‘and’.

In general usage, A or B is considered as either A or B but not both, as shown in picture.

However, in mathematics ‘A or B’ means ‘it can belong to A or B including intersection’. This is shown in picture.

The above, in normal usage is interpreted as ‘A and B’. However, in mathematics A and B refers to only what is common to A and B as shown in picture.

Here are the mathematical meanings of some of the other words which can have a different meaning with the English language definitions.

Determine

– Obtain the only possible answer

Plot

– Mark the position of points on a diagram

Write down

– Obtain the answer (Working need not be shown)

Constant

– A number that does not change

Similar

– Having the same shape but not the same size

Deduce

– To show a result using known information

Operation

– A procedure such as addition, subtraction, multiplication, etc.

Element

– A member of a set

Volume

– The extent of space occupied by a solid

The following illustrate some of the difficulties that the difference of meanings brings:

How odd these odd numbers are? The even numbers are even stranger.

Don’t be mean and help me to find the mean of these numbers.

Is right angle the right answer? Let me write it on the board.

The polysemous nature of some of the mathematical terms make it confusing for the students in the understanding of mathematical concepts. Mathematical terms have precise definitions to describe numerical relationships. At times these definitions resemble the everyday usage meaning but there are instances where the definitions notably differ. Consider ‘in general’ as an example. In mathematics there can be no exceptions to a result if it is considered to hold in general. However, in everyday usage, if a claim is said to be true in general, it would mean that it is true most of the time, but exceptions are possible.

To add to the problem, there are some terms such as ‘degree’ that can have many different meanings within mathematics while having a different meaning in everyday use. In mathematics, degree can refer to the measurement of an angle, the complexity of an algebraic equation and a unit of temperature.

Although mathematics deals essentially with symbols, it is taught through the medium of language which is the major means of communication. Students build understanding as they process ideas through language. It is important for students to give emphasis to the familiarisation with the mathematical vocabulary and at the same time understand the difference of meanings of terms mathematically and everyday usage. Teachers have an important role to play here in highlighting such terms and using them in different contexts for comfortable acclimatization. As Marcus Quintilianus quoted, “One should not aim at being possible to understand, but at being impossible to misunderstand.”

(The author is a senior mathematics examiner of the International Baccalaureate Organization and a member of the faculty of the Overseas School of Colombo.)

 

 

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Features

Success with debut single

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Fred-James Koch: Lots of airplay for ‘I’m Runnin’

 

Fred-James Koch seems to be more in the news, these days, than his illustrious father, Alston Koch.

The turning point in Fred-James career is, undoubtedly, the Hollywood film ‘Night Walk.’

His role in the film is two-fold – actor and singer.

It’s, in fact, his singing of the theme song, ‘I’m Runnin,’ that has generated quite a lot of excitement, among music lovers.

The song is now being heard, world-wide, over radio (in Sri Lanka, on Sun FM), while the video, too, has been seen by many, on social media.

An Australian magazine, ‘Music Injection,’ had this to say about Fred- James:

“Fred- James Koch has written an incredible theme song for the movie ‘Night Walk,’ called ‘I’m Runnin.’ Just released, this song is engaging and gives us a sense of urgency, as the song builds. Fred-James vocals have a unique tinge to them and with the video having scenes from ‘Night Walk,’ it encourages me to watch the movie. ‘I’m Runnin’ features AZ Sheriff.” – Jen.

Following the debut spin for ‘I’m Runnin,’ on The Music Director programme, on 88.3 Southern FM Melbourne, the track was also played on the All New Saturday Ausmosis programme.

And, guess what! It’s now No. 3 on the Australian Top 20 Download chart. and No. 2 on the Australian Top 20 Stream chart.

 

 

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Features

Inklings of change in national reconciliation policy

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By Jehan Perera

 

The government comfortably overcame a vote of no-confidence in one of its key ministers over the rise in the price of fuel.  Those who expected to have greater numbers supporting the no-confidence motion miscalculated that the apparent differences and rivalries within the government would be uppermost.  Any government, or institution for that matter, would have its internal differences.  The current government is better secured against these differences that might otherwise split it into different competing parts on account of the familial bonds that bind the leadership together.  The President, Prime Minister, newly appointed Finance Minister, as well as the former Speaker who is now Irrigation and Internal Security Minister, are closely knit brothers who have gone through trials and tribulations together. 

An iconic photograph of recent times would be the joy on (then) President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s face when he embraced his brother (then) Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa shortly after the latter survived a suicide bomb attack at the height of the war.  The brothers, however, have different strengths and constituencies.  They have different groups who follow and advise them, and each of these groups would prefer if their leader was the first among equals.  President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s comment that he has another eight years in which to achieve his goals has been widely discussed.  It would send a signal to others in the polity that it would be premature to gather around another member of the family at this time in anticipation that the baton would be passed on at the conclusion of the President’s current term in 2024.

On his part, the President has been promoting the institution he once served and to which most of his confidantes belonged or continue to belong.  The institution of the military is one where the closest of human bonds can be forged, because on the battlefield each depends on the other for their lives.  In his early period in office, the President has been promoting the military, both serving and retired, wherever he can, as ambassadors to foreign nations, as Covid health guideline monitors and as a supra grade of administrators in government departments.  It is often the case that those appointed to these positions are not the best suited to the tasks they have been set to do.  But the President evidently trusts them and they are his support base.  Unlike any other president in the past, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa is not a member of a political party.  Civil society organisations have periodically called for a non-party presidency who is non-partisan in decision making. 

 

CHALLENGE EXCESSSES

However, there is a need to challenge the excesses.  The president’s pardoning of a soldier who was held by several courts, including the Supreme Court, to have deliberately killed children and (adults, eight in all), outside of the battlefield may be due to his conviction that loyalty to the military counts most.  However, the President is expected to uphold the system of checks and balances, and if he favours one institution at the expense of the others, it leads to a weakening of the entire structure of governance.  Another looming challenge is that posed to the autonomy of institutions of higher education and specifically the universities.  The government decision to vest the Kotelawala Defence University with powers to accredit other institutions of higher education is a threat to the freedom of thought and expression.  The military hierarchy who will head the KDU can be expected to have values that are important to the military, but not to democracy which is based on human rights.

The KDU law needs to be opposed as indeed the Federation of University Teachers Associations (FUTA) has urged along with opposition political parties.  At the same time there are other issues on which civil society can consider giving constructive support to governmental initiatives.  For instance, they do not engage with NGOs who provide a variety of services complementing the work of the government. The most important of these is the national reconciliation process.  There are indications that the government is shifting its stance on the issues of post-war reconciliation.  President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s election victory on a highly nationalist platform won him a big majority of votes of the Sinhalese ethnic majority.  The government felt empowered to publicly declare its intention to withdraw from the post-war reconciliation process initiated by its predecessor government with support from the international community.  This was followed by withdrawal from UNHRC resolution 30/1 of 2015 co-sponsored by the previous government. 

However, the four subsequent internationally driven resolutions against Sri Lanka, emanating from Geneva (UNHRC), Ottawa (Ontario Parliament), Washington DC (US Congress) and Brussels (EU Parliament) seem to have led to a serious rethink within the government about its policy towards post-war reconciliation.  All four make human rights and the ethnic conflict their centerpiece.  Though not yet publicly commented upon, the signs of change are two-fold.  The first is the increased visibility of the US Embassy in meeting with the leaders of the Tamil and Muslim parties.  The media has reported that US Embassy officials discussed issues of post-war reconciliation efforts, devolution of power, rule of law and the Prevention of Terrorism Act with SLMC leader Rauff Hakeem. Recently, a US Embassy delegation, led by Ambassador Alaina B. Teplitz, held similar discussions with TNA leader R. Sampanthan where the focus was on the proposed new Constitution.

 

CHANGING WINDS

The second sign of a change is the statement from the Presidential Secretariat announcing a recommendation, emanating from the President Commission of Inquiry for Appraisal of the Findings of Previous Commissions and Committees on Human Rights and the Way Forward headed by Justice AHMD Nawaz.  This is with regard to the EU call for the abolishing of the Prevention of Terrorism Act long seen by those promoting national security as part of the country’s first line of defence.  The Commission said that it cannot agree with calls for repealing the PTA but Sri Lanka’s anti-terrorism law should be reformed in line with similar laws in other countries, including the UK.  This would be aimed at affirming Sri Lankan sovereignty and national security interests, which are important to the government’s voter base, while complying with the requirements of the EU parliament which has called for the repeal of the PTA on the grounds that it violated human rights. 

The Presidential Secretariat statement also contains a significant section in which it mentioned that “It is the policy of the Government to work with the United Nations and its agencies to ensure accountability and human resource development in order to achieve lasting peace and reconciliation. The Government is committed to providing solutions for the issues to be resolved within the democratic and legal process and to ensure justice and reconciliation by implementing necessary institutional reforms.”  This is the first official indication that the Government is reconsidering its earlier position that it would blaze is own path with an indigenously generated reconciliation model which would not require international assistance. In this context it would be useful if the government focused closer attention to the achievement of the UN Sustainable Goals.

Veteran Tamil political leader V Anandasangaree, who has championed Tamil rights for a long time, and whose son is a Canadian parliamentarian, has referred to these recent developments and said that the President who holds the defence portfolio, Prime Minister and Finance Minister being members of Rajapaksa family could ensure genuine post-war reconciliation.  He also urged President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s government not to leave the problem for a future administration to resolve, but address it now.  If the President is to successfully address the problem that has eluded a solution since independence, and been the biggest disaster to Sri Lanka’s development, he will need to broad base his support at multiple levels.  He will not only need the support of the ruling party, led by his brothers, as well as civil society, but also that of the ethnic minority parties and the opposition political parties.  This will require patience, dialogue and self-sacrifice, and the need to break from past and chart a reconciliatory course of action.

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