Connect with us

Features

Let the Countdown Begin: Parliamentary Elections in March 2024

Published

on

by Rajan Philips

President Wickremesinghe has now made repeated assurances that the presidential and parliamentary elections will be held in 2024. Financial allocations for the two elections were also announced in parliament. Parliamentary elections are expected to come first, apparently in March 2024, according to news reports citing sources close to the President. Let us assume that the sources are correct and start the political countdown before the official call is made early in the new year. It is going to be a 100-day countdown.

A parliamentary election in March will be the first parliamentary election to be held before the presidential election since the twosome began their co-existence in 1982. In that year of disgrace, President Jayewardene conducted and won the country’s first presidential election, calling the election before his first, appointed, term was over, courtesy of the Third Amendment to the Constitution. He then went on to cancel the parliamentary elections that were due that year by staging an undemocratic referendum and doubled the life of an old parliament.

The purpose of advancing the presidential election was to give himself (JRJ) time to manipulate the timing of parliamentary election. This was on top of the arbitrary power that the constitution gave the executive to dissolve parliament any time after one year of its election. This power of dissolution is an unusual, if not unique, constitutional power vested in the executive over the legislature.

So much for the much vaunted separation of powers. The 19th and 20th Amendments have somewhat limited this power, but even what is left of it privileges the executive over the legislature.

President Wickremesinghe will be exercising the presidential power of dissolution to dissolve parliament and call for elections in March 2024, before they are due more than a year later in 2025. In 1982, President Jayewardene did not want to let go of the massive majority he had in the parliament elected in 1977. He kept it going through the referendum chicanery. No one wants this parliament to keep going except the Rajapaksa MPs. The prospect of its dissolution in March is as good as it can get in the circumstances.

Ranil’s Last Hurrah

So far, President Wickremesinghe has been refusing to use the power of dissolution – in order to delay elections. Not anymore, we hope. Now it makes sense for him to dissolve parliament and have parliamentary elections before the presidential election. If the presidential elections were to come first, Ranil Wickremesinghe would likely have faced two unwelcome choices: not to run as a candidate, or to run and lose. That will be the end of his presidency and he would be long gone by the time the next parliamentary elections are held, as they are due, in 2025.

By calling parliamentary elections in March, Mr. Wickremesinghe will have the opportunity and the power to first ‘preside’ over the election in whatever way he can, and then to appoint the Prime Minister and cabinet of Ministers from among the MPs of the newly elected parliament. Neither of which he would probably be able to do if the presidential elections were to go first. In the most likely situation of no single party winning by a clear majority in the next general elections, President Wickremesinghe will be well positioned to call the shots as he pleases, and all within his constitutional powers. But not quite every shot as he might please.

President Wickremesinghe

First, the President should not overplay his hand. For unlike in Thailand, it would be counterproductive to try to thwart the results of a popular parliamentary election through clever-by-half executive means. Second, he has a massive trust-deficit with practically every political party in parliament other than an insufficient number of Ministers and MPs who would like to see him continue as President for their own self-serving ends. It will all depend on how the President conducts himself during the parliamentary election.

If he were to take sides or take to machinating between MPs and Parties to forge a new alliance for the election, he had better make sure that such an alliance would be a winning alliance. Otherwise, and that is more likely to be the case, he would be a goner by the time his (really Gota’s) term is up. On the other hand, if he were to exercise enlightened selfishness and stay above the electoral fray, he may have a chance to form a consensus government in the new parliament and take yet another shot at extending his political life. But that will be quite a long shot even for a man who is known for playing the long game.

The revelations that TNA MP Sumanthiran recently made in parliament, about the manner in which Ranil Wickremesinghe broke opposition consensus and broke ranks to become Gotabaya’s crisis Prime Minister, are quite damaging. Add to that, President Wickremesinghe’s recent shenanigans with the Judiciary, the Constitutional Council, and with the appointment of the IGP, have left him thoroughly discredited and untrustworthy. Adding injury to insult, he has appointed the universally lampooned and reviled Deshabandu Tennakoon as the new IGP for a three month term. The upshot of all of this is that no one contesting the next parliamentary election would like to have anything to do with President Wickremesinghe. Other than the irrationally selfish.

Framing the Elections

At the same time, there is no shortage of irrationality or selfishness in Sri Lankan politics, and going by Mr. Wickremesinghe’s long past, he is not going to remain quiet or neutral as President in the next parliamentary election. He may even pull up the abolition card and play it one more time and tack a referendum question on abolition to the vote at the parliamentary election. Whatever Ranil Wickremesinghe may or may not do, the elections should not be about Ranil Wickremesinghe, and he should not be allowed to frame the election.

The elections should be about the possibilities and the potentialities for a Sri Lanka that is finally becoming free from two decades of Rajapaksa-Wickremesinghe political monopoly. The elections will also be about how Sri Lanka is going to be led out of the economic pits by those now vying for power. Then there are carryovers all the way from the twentieth century which have not been addressed but only aggravated during the Rajapaksa yugaya of this century.

The election will be framed by the dialectic of the contenders for power and/or parliamentary seats, and their positions on the manifold issues and problems that are preoccupying the people.

The SJB and the NPP have been calling for elections for almost two years and now they will get their chance to show what they are capable of. The remnants and rumps of the historically governing parties – the UNP, the SLFP and the SLPP will not have any significant identity of their own, but they may not all go into alliances with either the SJB or the NPP. Also, in a parliamentary election there is space for political parties and individuals to enter into multiple alliances.

It will be interesting to see who will be allying with the SJB, and if any of the recognized political parties will be joining the NPP/JVP formation. Any of the Sinhalese parties who are not part of either the SJB or NPP alliances, will not likely be significant players in the election, but may gain specific weights after the election as contributors to a governing majority in return for ministerial portfolios. If it were the first-past-the-post system, the Rajapaksas would probably be wiped off the electoral slate, but some of them could still manage to return because of proportional representation and preferential voting.

The political parties of the Sri Lankan Tamils, Muslims and the Indian Tamils will have their respective, and in some cases overlapping, universes, with their corresponding national overtones. The TNA will likely have to go through a leadership change before the election which may create internal rivalries even as it tries to ward off external rivals especially in the Northern Province. In the East, Sri Lankan plurality will be electorally reproduced with proportionate returns of Tamil, Sinhalese and Muslim MPs.

Political parties of the Indian Tamils, as well as Muslim political parties, have usually joined one or the other of the two main contending alliances. Where they will land this time remains to be seen. Some are with the SJB, while those who are with the current ‘government’ of President Wickremesinghe may have to find new suitors if they are to be relevant after the elections.

Again, it will be interesting to see if the JVP would be able to attract and accommodate any of the minority political parties under its NPP umbrella. It is known that the JVP and especially its leader Anura Kumara Dissanayake have excellent working relationship with many of the Tamil, Muslim and Indian Tamil political leaders, but whether the JVP would be able to draw them into a formal alliance is one of the crucial questions that will be answered during the countdown period.

Even a broadened NPP alliance will not be broad enough if it fails to include one or more of the minority political parties. On the other hand, an NPP alliance that includes minority political parties would send a powerful signal that the JVP/NPP has come of age electorally. Anything less would only mean that the JVP continues to immature in spite of age.

The countdown and the campaign will see shifting focuses around issues along with competing defenders and detractors. The main issues and those that matter are on people’s minds and in their still harrowing living and medical experiences. Then there are issues that preoccupy the pundits and elicit editorial commentaries. How will political parties and alliances respond to them? As well, the formation of political alliances and groupings will be implicated by their positions on the issues and problems facing the country, and will in turn implicate how different issues or privileged or prioritized.

The economic crisis will provide an arresting backdrop to the election campaign. President Wickremesinghe presented his budget on November 13, outlining his purported plan to take Sri Lanka out of the economic crisis. The very next day, the Supreme Court came down with its ruling on the fundamental rights applications against decision makers in the Gotabaya Rajapaksa Administration. The Court apportioned blame for decisions made wrongfully by elected and unelected officials that precipitated Sri Lanka’s worst and its only “man-made” economic crisis.

The voters deserve to know where the SJB, the NPP and everyone else running for election stand on the economy – the current crisis, its perpetrators, and a plausible way out. The upcoming election will also provide a new opportunity for the Catholic Church hierarchy to reiterate the yet unanswered questions about the perpetrators of the 2019 Easter Sunday tragedy. There are shortages of all kinds in Sri Lanka. But there is no shortage of election issues.



Continue Reading
Click to comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Features

Isn’t cleansing hearts a political issue?

Published

on

President Ranil Wickremesinghe presenting the government’s policy statement in Parliament on 07 Feb.

In his policy statement during the inauguration of the 5th session of the 9th parliament, President Ranil Wickremesinghe insists that the solution to the economic crisis lies in economic and scientific measures, not political ones. However, he draws inspiration from Confucius and urges citizens to introspect and cleanse their hearts, which can be seen as a political measure beyond being framed as moral or ethical. In the meantime, he has asserted that his government has achieved a significant transformation and provided a concise progress report, highlighting the remarkable recovery of the economy. President Wickremesinghe has emphasised that the economy, once in dire straits and requiring intensive care, has successfully emerged from its critical condition, exhibiting a robust V-shaped recovery. (See Table 1)

President Wickremesinghe claimed that this record-breaking breakthrough achievement in a brief span is truly a world record; he compared similar situations such as Greece, which took almost a decade to recover. Refuting allegations that he is engaging in secret agreements to conceal the true situation from the public, he has emphasised that every step taken was transparent, offering opportunities for discussion and debate both within and outside Parliament, with nothing hidden. The accuracy of this statement has to be verified by the concerned parties.

Going by confidence that people will eventually recognise and appreciate his decision-making, driven by the country’s growth rather than political gain, the President does not seem to have learnt from the defeat he experienced in the past including the last presidential election. Despite implementing relatively better governance with initiatives like increasing tax revenue and anti-corruption measures, the electorate prioritised different concerns, such as the “inna ratak” outcry. Consequently, they not only failed to acknowledge or appreciate these efforts but rejected the regime altogether, leading to the election of Gotabhaya Rajapaksa in 2019.

The President appears aware of the risk of truth manipulation, deceiving both the nation and its people, yet he seems to take insufficient action to effectively prevent such occurrences.

Facing opposition from major media institutions, the President should proactively direct his media unit to implement a robust awareness program. Relying solely on the passage of time for people to become aware of his administration’s achievements is not sufficient. To effectively communicate the positive initiatives, the President and his government must engage in proactive efforts to counter the negative narrative. Failing to take assertive action may lead to a repetition of mistakes, as people are less likely to recognise and appreciate the purported “good” work without an active and strategic communication strategy.

Accomplishments:

·  Recognition from international institutions.

·  “Urumaya” program for land rights to over two million people.

·  “Asvasuma” program improving living standards for 2.4 million poor individuals.

·  130% increase in tax network (from 437,547 to 1,000,029 registered taxpayers).

·  Successful debt restructuring.

·  Establishment of an economic commission.

Future Initiatives:

·  Eradication of corruption.

·  Simplification of the investment process by eliminating bureaucratic hurdles and corruption risks.

·  Social modernization.

·  Target of attracting 5 million tourists annually.

·  Emphasis on technological advancement, renewable energy, and establishing the International Climate Change University in Sri Lanka.

·  Increase productivity of agricultural land in the dry zone (double or triple).

·  Restructuring of foreign relations with non-aligned policies.

·  Pursuit of free trade agreements with China, Bangladesh, and Indonesia (Singapore agreement already in full operation).

·  Intent to join the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP).

·  Diversification of economic activities away from the Western Province to cities like Jaffna, Trincomalee, Bingiriya, Hambantota, and Kandy.

·  Plan to complete over 50,000 houses for low-income urban residents.

·  Positioning the country as a service center and economic hub in the Indian Ocean by developing three new ports.

·  Collaboration with India to develop Trincomalee as an economic hub.

Some of these objectives appear contradictory and need clarification. For instance, the goal of constructing 50,000 houses in urban areas, mainly in Colombo, seems to contradict the broader plan of expanding activities away from the Western Province. Additionally, there is a seeming contradiction in developing Trincomalee as an economic hub while simultaneously positioning the entire country as a service centre and an economic hub in the Indian Ocean.


The President has said that merely condemning and blaming the crisis without delving into its root causes is ineffective. However, this stance apparently runs counter to his plans for eradicating corruption and promoting social modernisation. The question is how he can conclude that addressing the economic crisis is solely dependent on economic solutions, and dismiss the relevance of political remedies. Many analysts argue that a political solution is primary, with economic solutions being secondary. Historical observations indicate that political changes, such as a regime change, precede the implementation of economic solutions by new political leaders. Without political change, the emergence of these economic solutions is challenging, if not impossible. These statements raise concerns about the possibility of individuals responsible for the crisis being absolved, despite the Supreme Court’s determination and punishment of those accountable and identification of root causes.

He has acknowledged the importance of addressing these issues but has not explicitly deemed them necessary. Perhaps, his emphasis on these matters is an attempt to garner support from the SLPP for his presidential campaign. However, it is crucial to note that he repeatedly emphasises the need to address root causes and hold those responsible accountable.

Finally, the President poses a series of questions: Why is it challenging to embrace an open perspective? Despite our diverse ideas, ethnic backgrounds, languages, provincial residencies, faiths, beliefs, and political affiliations, why can’t we unite in a shared vision for the country’s well-being and the future? Why can’t we collectively understand the benefits for our nation’s youth and join hands to reach great heights? The answers, for many, are not ambiguous. The rise to power by ultra-nationalists and corrupt politicians is often facilitated by divisive tactics. Many politicians faced imminent convictions, and without regime change, including Gotabaya Rajapaksa, several could have ended up in jail. We clearly witnessed manipulation of emotions to set different communities against each other as a route to political power. To counter such tactics, he should advocate for the implementation of strong laws and systems to prevent the propagation of manipulation through mass media.

In conclusion, vital statistics illustrate a remarkable turnaround in key economic indicators, signaling progress under his administration. However, certain contradictions and concerns arise, particularly regarding the alignment of various objectives and the perceived emphasis on economic solutions over political remedies.

The President’s call for heart cleansing and unity, inspired by Confucian principles, highlights the importance of fostering a shared vision for the nation’s well-being. Despite the accomplishments outlined, challenges remain in navigating political complexities, addressing root causes, and maintaining transparency to win public trust.

The proposed initiatives, including eradicating corruption, social modernization, and economic diversification, reflect the administration’s ambitious agenda. However, the potential contradictions warrant clarification.

The assertion that the economic crisis resolution lies predominantly in economic and scientific solutions contradicts the notion that political remedies are secondary. Analysts argue for a holistic approach where political and economic solutions complement each other, emphasizing the need for effective governance and accountability.

The President’s reluctance to name the people, who are responsible for the crisis, raises concerns. This ambiguity may stem from political considerations or an attempt to garner support from the SLPP.

The reference to manipulation of emotions for political gain highlights the need for strong laws and systems to counter divisive tactics through mass media.

Hence, the President should address the underlying political forces that contribute to the root causes of the crisis. Cleansing hearts is not an economic solution; it is fundamentally a political issue.

(The writer, a senior Chartered Accountant and professional banker, is Professor at SLIIT University, Malabe. He is also the author of the “Doing Social Research and Publishing Results”, a Springer publication (Singapore), and “Samaja Gaveshakaya (in Sinhala). The views and opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the institution he works for. He can be contacted at saliya.a@slit.lk and www.researcher.com)

Continue Reading

Features

President needs to take up challenge of leaving a legacy

Published

on

President Wickremesinghe

By Jehan Perera

Even as the date for the presidential elections approaches, there are increased speculations regarding those elections, not only who might win but also whether those elections will be held at all.  There is also a debate being generated whether the presidential elections ought to be held at all.  There are many who feel that President Ranil Wickremesinghe needs to be given more time to take the country to development. United States Assistant Secretary of State for South & Central Asian Affairs, Donald Lu, might be one such. He has described Sri Lanka’s economic recovery as one of the greatest comeback stories in the part of the world he deals with. On the other hand, there are others who argue in favour of abolishing the presidency as soon as possible.  This would also do away with the need for a presidential election to be held.

There is indeed a strong case for the abolishing of the presidency which is generally believed in the country to be an institution that is over-powerful and prone to abuse by those who are elected to it.  This argument has been made into an election campaign theme by some of the past presidential candidates at past presidential elections.  But after they won the elections those who promised to abolish the presidency failed to do so, and instead made strenuous efforts to stay on as long as they could, which explains why the presidency continues to this day. There being little faith that those who win the presidency will wish to abolish it, there is an opinion being formed that the presidency should be abolished before the presidential elections. The fact that the presidential form of government led the country to economic disaster is another reason for the hurry. There is, however, a question as to the practicability of this proposition.

The present system of government is called the executive presidential system on account of the central role in the constitution given to the presidency.  It can be imagined that cutting out this central institution will be like a fatal wound caused to the prevailing structure of governance. It may be argued that through skillful constitutional engineering that the hole caused by the excision of the presidency can be filled.  But the speed at which these reforms can be enacted is questionable in the absence of a political consensus that includes both government and opposition on the issue which is presently not to be seen. If there is to be an abolition of the executive presidency, it is very necessary for there to be consultation with the population and political parties about the new system that will replace the executive presidency. It must be one that meets the expectations and aspirations of the ethnic and religious minorities as well. There is no such consensus at the present time.

UNPOPULAR GOVERNMENT

There have been deliberations on a new constitution and on constitutional reform on many occasions. However, constitutional schemes from the past cannot substitute for the need to consult people and political parties at this time, when circumstances have changed so drastically, having experienced the Aragayala protests and economic bankruptcy. There is also need for recognition that where there is no consensus, as on the solution to the ethnic conflict and the inclusion of ethnic and religious minorities into governance, change proceeds painfully slowly.  This can be seen in the change of the electoral system to the provincial councils that commenced in 2017 and has still not been completed with the result that provincial council elections are overdue five years. It is also noteworthy that 36 years after being made part of the constitution, the provincial councils are in abeyance and there is a proposal pending to eliminate their police powers which, in any event, was never implemented. Fast tracking constitutional change does not seem to be an option especially when all eyes are focused on elections.

 Public opinion polls are repeatedly showing that the opposition candidates are ahead in the presidential race by significant margins. If these poll results are anywhere close to reality it can be surmised that the vast majority of people are looking for an election.  They would see that it is an election more than anything else that could dislodge the government which is entrenched in power under the leadership of President Wickremesinghe.  Two years ago the weakness of the government was such that its leading members dared not come into the public as they feared the wrath of the mob.  Some even faced heckling at weddings where people who had come for the happy occasion started hooting those whom they accused of bankrupting the country.  Now they are able to attend public functions without fear and with reasonable confidence that their security personnel can handle any eventuality.

The prospect of losing power is never a pleasing one to political leaders with their sights on power.  Even advanced countries such as the United States have faced this situation.  At the presidential election held in 2020, incumbent president Donald Trump refused to accept defeat and claimed the election was rigged.  The desire of those in power in developing countries would be as strong, perhaps even stronger, as losing power could make the incumbent vulnerable to revenge in which the system of checks and balances fails to protect them.  The prospect of facing an unknown future in the aftermath of electoral defeat would also be unnerving to those in government, especially if the new government is composed of those with a very different political ideology.

MOST INTRACTABLE

The present government is for the most part a continuation of the government that had to face down the protest movement in which tens of thousands of people from all parts of the country participated.  During those halcyon days, protestors young and old from far and near came on foot, on motorcycles, tractor trailers and improvised lorries to be part of a historic revolution they thought was near.  The vision of a “system change” that motivated them to make big sacrifices to come to the various protest sites still lives within them, as indeed it must within all who want to see Sri Lanka politically awaken and rise to its full economic potential which is still a distance away.  The main beneficiaries of the elections to come will be those who best hold out the hope of system change that will eradicate corruption and ensure a fairer distribution of the costs of getting out of bankruptcy.

The opportunity to effect governmental change will come in October when the constitutionally mandated presidential election falls due. Those in the government would prefer if those elections do not take place or are postponed for as long as possible.  In March 2022, the government ensured that local government elections were not held by denying the Election Commission the money to hold them.  The government’s determination not to hold those elections was high. It even disregarded the Supreme Court order to make the money available to the Election Commission to conduct the elections. This was a highhanded act that undermines the principles of democracy itself. There is concern that the presidential election will similarly be postponed on some ground or the other.

However, on this occasion, the President’s media unit has stated that the presidential election will be held within the mandated period and according to the current timeline. It added that the general election will be held next year and financial provisions will be provided for in the 2025 budget.  The government has also stated that the Election Commission is responsible for conducting the elections and the government will be communicating with the Commission as and when required. President Ranil Wickremesinghe has also reiterated to a group of MPs who met him recently that the presidential election would be held on time and there would be no abolition of the presidency. Speaking in a statesmanlike mode, the president said, “I have clearly stated several times that I have no intention to put off the presidential elections. Funds for that purpose are there. The talks about attempts to abolish the executive presidency were circulated by the main opposition.”

The president is also reported to have said that “People of this country know better than the opposition that the abolition of the executive presidency cannot be done in a hurry. There is a procedure to do that. We should not fall into their trap. Do not waste your time on this. You speak of the economic revival programme that we are carrying out.” Likewise, President Wickremesinghe can also seek to address the country’s most intractable problem, the ethnic conflict by ordering the full implementation of the 13th Amendment which would make it easier for the victor at the next election to find a mutually acceptable solution. Whether he succeeds or not he could feel contentment that he did what he had agreed and undertaken to do.

Continue Reading

Features

Silence in the classroom: Confronting the dynamics of ‘deficiency’

Published

on

by Ruth Surenthiraraj

I remember, with unusually vivid clarity, the first time I really noticed the presence of silence in the classroom. One of the lecturers, who was taking our undergraduate class, had assigned us reading to be done ahead of time, parts of which were quite tedious and had to be read twice/thrice over to be grasped. In true happy-go-lucky undergrad spirit, my classmates and I turned up having ‘skimmed’ the articles and nurturing the fervent hope that someone else would pick up the discussion in the event that any questions were raised. As you would imagine, it went horribly wrong. The lecturer posed a question that required some thinking, and we suddenly and silently went into panic-mode in a bid to offer something akin to an answer. A few of us tried to start things off by giving noncommittal responses in the general direction of the question and were kindly asked to explain ourselves further – at which point we fell silent once more because we felt that we hadn’t thought things through. The lecturer, instead of berating us for not reading adequately or making us feel like we were bad students, simply invited us to embrace the silence so that we could get our thoughts in order.

In recalling this incident, I remember the strong sense of discomfort that we felt as learners. It wasn’t, however, something that stemmed from the lecturer or their handling of what must have been a frustrating situation. Instead, I now read that feeling as the acute discomfort of learners who had been trained to view silence in the classroom as something negative. That incident – apart from giving me impetus to never turn up to my classes without completing my assigned reading – also invited me to begin exploring the role of silence and its presence (or absence) in our undergraduate classrooms.

Although silence in teaching and learning is still fairly under-researched and is rarely a nuanced consideration in mainstream conversations around the dynamics of a classroom, there are still broad arguments that have attempted to imbue silence with meaning. For one, our multiple religious traditions seem to have strong tendencies towards silence as a form of retreat to assist deeper reflection even though these traditions often sit in direct contrast with current trends to be constantly producing and documenting aspects of life. Conversely, there is often a ‘culture of silence’ (much bemoaned by Brazilian educator and philosopher Paulo Freire) that surrounds those who are socially, economically, and culturally vulnerable – a way in which socialisation teaches people to not interrogate their realities. Linguistically speaking, silence often assists us in distinguishing speech units (i.e., the silence that marks a pause in or completion of an idea/thought), but it can be further categorised as playing various functions in establishing relationships between participants in conversations. The possibilities of interpreting silence are myriad.

In the classroom, however, I think we are often limited to viewing silence as a negative indicator. As educators working with undergraduates, we assume that learners’ silence signals a disinterestedness or a disengagement from the critical approaches that should ideally frame undergraduate classroom discussions. At an even more basic level, we often consider silence to signify a lack of knowledge and we then attempt to fill that assumed void with speech that appears to address this lack of knowledge. As a result, we educators often view silence as a thing to be disliked at best and dreaded at worst. But what could silence really mean in a classroom of learners attempting to engage with new knowledge?

Firstly, it is very likely that the learners in our classrooms are expressing a deep-seated, culturally taught fear: the fear of giving the ‘wrong’ response. Sad as it is, it is still common to find educators who berate students for giving unacceptable answers. Instead of engaging with why the answer might not best reflect the desired response, we often shut students down when they don’t meet our (sometimes undefined) expectations. We rarely realise in the moment, though, that learning is a process in which ‘mistakes’ are as important as so-called successes. In fact, mistakes and errors often pave the way for deeper understanding of how what works and why. When learners begin to internalise the message that they don’t know enough to answer, they will simply opt to remain silent despite having a working knowledge of a subject. On the contrary, our classrooms should be safe spaces for ‘stupid’ or partial answers that encourage the students to reflect on why those responses require more thought.

In a constructivist view, learners are not blank slates which we fill with information: rather, they are intellects with existing knowledge structures (schemas) which are formed based on their experiences in life. When these existing schemas meet new knowledge in the classroom, the learner is required to make some adjustments in order to accommodate the new knowledge. This accommodation requires time and the capacity to be reflective, which in turn enables a more integrated worldview. Indeed, if education is meant to be transformative, repeated opportunities to integrate new and existing knowledge structures must be offered to learners within our classrooms. In short, I believe silence could also indicate an unspoken request for space and time to contemplate the significance of new knowledge. Sometimes, we give our students too little time to fully turn ideas around in their heads before requiring them to respond to us. I’ve observed many good educators allowing their frustration at silence to compel answers from students – resulting in responses that might be superficial rather than actual reflections of learning. A better way to undercut our impatience with silence would be to invite learners to hash out their fledgling ideas among themselves before attempting to articulate a holistic and/or individual response. This preliminary discussion often assists in integrating new and existing knowledge in the relatively safer space of peer groups.

Over centuries, educators have also played directly into the problem of sanitising education – separating theories and practices from the contexts in which they originated or detaching them from the sociocultural impacts they may cause. In turn, learners gain an ‘education’ that is removed from its everyday consequences. This also makes it difficult for learners to assimilate such unrelatable concepts, leading to more awkward silences in our classrooms as they attempt to collect seemingly detached pieces of knowledge.

Finally, silence is further compounded in classrooms where students are expected to respond in their second languages. With increasingly more undergraduate study programmes opting to shift wholesale (and almost overnight, in some cases) to the English medium instruction, many more undergraduates are going to be struggling to articulate their thoughts in a language that is not part of their repertoire. Educators (especially those other than language teachers) must be doubly attentive to these unspoken difficulties when interpreting silence. There are a heartbreakingly large number of stories where perfectly articulate and knowledgeable students are deprived of their classes (not to mention jobs) simply because they have not mastered the art of the second language yet. In wrongly categorising such students as ‘below par’ or not having the requisite ‘skills’, we relegate them as incompetent rather than critique our own skewed standards. I have often admired a student in my class for her comfort with awkward pauses as she attempts to construct a sentence that accurately reflects her thoughts as well as ‘acceptable’ language structures. But this is also possible only because I have now taught myself to never rush learners as they navigate new knowledge in a language that they are not fully familiar with. As a teacher of English as a second language, the tendency is to jump in with the necessary vocabulary so that the silences/pauses cause minimal discomfort to the learner. Yet, how will our learners ever be comfortable with the pauses that are inherent to language use and language learning if we do not (want to) confront our own discomfort with silence?

Learner silence, therefore, could act as a signifier of multiple underlying processes and problems. I am not in any way suggesting that silence cannot be associated with a lack of knowledge or with disinterest. However, to boil nuances in learner silence down to either a lack of knowledge or a sense of apathy regarding their discipline is to view learners reductively; we rob them of their right to be considered and accommodated as complex intellects in our classrooms. In rephrasing our questions (to better shape the silences in our classes) or in simply limiting our impatience at the lack of sound/response, we begin to create an atmosphere that is supportive of deeper engagement with our disciplines.

(Ruth is a teacher of English as a second language at a state university.)

Kuppi is a politics and pedagogy happening on the margins of the lecture hall that parodies, subverts, and simultaneously reaffirms social hierarchies.

Continue Reading

Trending