‘Farren the Wanderer’, written by Sachintha Pilapitiya and published by Neptune Publications, will hit the shelves at the Book Fair from September 19
By Uditha Devapriya
At S. Thomas’ Prep, Kollupitiya, Sachintha Pilapitiya had trouble speaking in English. The problem hadn’t been his articulation or pronunciation; it had been his grammar. “Every time I opened my mouth,” he remembers, “I knew I’d trip somewhere.”
Ordinarily, this would have discomfited someone, draining his or her confidence, preventing him or her from talking ever again. For Sachintha, though, the way forward seemed clear. “I resolved to speak no matter how many mistakes I made.” Having wound up as Head Prefect, he knew he had to brush up quickly. “I invariably had to speak at official functions, especially at the Assembly. So I’d go through the speeches I had written many times before I walked to the podium and delivered them.” For a while, he says, it worked.
But such a temporary solution couldn’t last forever, and Sachintha knew that only too well. So when two of his friends – twins and batch mates – ‘introduced’ him to the Prep School Library, he was thrilled. They would have been in Grade Three or Four then. “We discovered Enid Blyton: Famous Five, Secret Seven, and so on.”
From there they graduated to Hardy Boys, “though we didn’t move on to Nancy Drew.” When in Grade 10, he was indulging in Dan Brown, and when he offered English Literature for his O Levels, his tastes had considerably widened. By then he was poring over ‘serious’ writers: Dickens, the Bronte sisters, and of course Shakespeare.
The Local O Level English Language paper lasts three hours, but can be completed in less than 30 minutes. At a term test, Sachintha had written it in 10. That left well more than two hours to do anything he wanted in the classroom. So he reflected on the books he had read, the speeches he had made, and wrote down a story. The story was about an adventurer, an explorer, or as its author put it, a ‘wanderer’. It incorporated the genres he’d grown up on and grown up with, especially fantasy, sci-fi, and adventure. “I finished the basic structure in two hours. When I came back to it, I fleshed it out even more.”
That was years later. By then he had completed his A Levels, finished school, and entered university. Having added other characters and subplots, he felt ready to publish it. Through an uncle, Chamikara Pilapitiya, he met a publisher, and did just that.
‘Farren the Wanderer’ will hit the Book Fair at the BMICH on September 19, 2020. While I have read the book, pored over its illustrations, and let it take me back to a childhood spent dreaming of fantastic beasts, unrelenting explorers, charming princes, and beautiful princesses, I am less interested in its story, and how it will captivate young readers, than I am in its author, and how he grew up.
Sachintha Pilapitiya was born in Kelaniya in 2000. His father had found employment in the medical industry, while his mother worked in the IT Department at Brandix; after his sister was born two years later, she quit her job to look after them.
His parents fuelled his love for writing. From an early age his mother would tell him bedtime stories: of beasts, explorers, princes, and princesses. His father, a more practical and hands-down person, would take him and his sister out exploring, “from the north to the south and virtually everywhere in-between.” This soon brought him into contact with the immense diversity and richness of the land of his birth, a theme he has woven into all his written work thereafter. “My father put wanderlust in my blood. My mother, on the other hand, instilled a love for imagining things, for writing them down.”
These two interests met later on, but as Sachintha tells me, “while my parents inspired me, they didn’t overly influence me.” The distinction, he emphasises, is important.
All that had been long, long before his education began. His first school, S. Thomas’ Prep, had contained a close-knit community, where, he remembers, differences of race and faith just melted away. “Even today, I can remember the names of almost everyone three years my junior there, and practically all the teachers and staff.”
Soon enough he bonded with this community, and while they weren’t ignorant of what was happening outside the four walls of their classrooms – like the war – they relished the little things that brought them together. “We ended up becoming brothers.” It was against this backdrop that Asher and Dan Abeysinghe, the twins from his batch, introduced him to the library. “We’ve remained close friends ever since.”
A whole flurry of extra- and co-curricular activities, of sports and clubs, followed. In Grade Three he joined the school rugby team, and in Grade Eight he joined cadetting, two activities at which his father had also excelled.
While indulging in these, he straddled other pursuits as well: Cub Scouting until Grade Five (though he didn’t take up Scouting afterwards), Badminton from Grade Six (winding up as the Captain), and the Interact Club from Grade Eight. Of these Cadetting had occupied him the most, and he climbed up to the post of Cadet Sergeant.
The schedule he had to endure was, to say the least, gruelling. “I had to be at school by 5.00 every day for Cadetting practices, and stay there until about 7.15 or 7.20. Rugby took three to four days a week, and unlike Cadetting which came up only seasonally, it lasted the whole year. Interact got me and my friends out into the world, to visit communities I’d normally not have encountered. I’d say these broadened my horizons, and helped me in my writing. What became more important to me were the contacts I forged through them.” Knowing people, he adds here, is absolutely essential to any writer.
School concerts had also taken up his time. “I was always a girl: Goldilocks, Sleeping Beauty, Rapunzel, you name it,” he chortles. (I tell him that he could have fared worse; after all some of us were flowers, trees, and bushes!) “I pursued Kandyan dancing and underwent an ada ves ceremony, short of a complete ves mangalya. Given my deficiency in grammar, I began attending St Theresa’s School of Speech and Drama in Kelaniya as well.
Having done both Trinity and LAMDA, obtaining a Diploma in the latter, Sachintha feels that elocution is more than just a colonial spill-over we’re still having hangovers over. “It’s easy to denigrate it, but as someone who started out with a rudimentary grasp of grammar, it helped me weave words from my thoughts. I can never forget that.”
For his O Levels, as I pointed out earlier, Sachintha had offered English Literature. “Not that the books we did were that interesting, though they were – R. K. Narayan’s The Vendor of Sweets, plus an anthology of poems – but I personally found the stories I discovered at the library much more fascinating.” Nevertheless he came to like his subjects, and having passed them secured a placement at S. Thomas’ College, Mount Lavinia.
Sachintha entered S. Thomas’ Mount in 2017. At first, he didn’t see any difference. “It was the College version of Prep, or so I thought.” Later, however, those differences came to light, especially after he was sent to the College hostel. “At Prep we had been a tight and close-knit community: everyone knew everyone else. Here, on the other hand, it was difficult to establish contact with everyone you met.” This issue had been heightened by his parents’ decision to enrol him at the hostel, “a necessity, given that otherwise I’d have to travel to and from Kelaniya every day.”
One of the most frequent themes and motifs that run through ‘Farren the Wanderer’ is the importance of understanding other communities and collectives. This came to Sachintha in his hostel years, particularly due to the people he befriended there. According to Sachintha, most of them were even less equipped with English than him. That had underlined a more glaring division: not just of language, but also of class.
“Most of those in the hostel hailed from far-off places, and nearly all of them had attended S. Thomas’ Gurutalawa or Bandarawela. They were encountering English for the first time here, in Mount. The first few days at the boarding became hard to adjust to. Once I got to befriend them well though, they taught me about life and taught me certain important life skills. In turn I endeavoured to teach them English. I believe, and I hope, that I succeeded, because it was my way of repaying my debt to them.”
The crowning moment of these encounters had been an Inter-House Drama Competition in 2018. Accordingly, the boarding students who belonged to Sachintha’s House – Sachintha being the House Captain – had to somehow jump over their linguistic handicap, since they were competing against ordinary College students. “All or most of whom hailed from English speaking backgrounds and could muster only broken Sinhala.” The odds were not in their favour, clearly; everything seemed to favour their competitors.
And yet, they emerged runners-up. That had shocked everyone. For some time thereafter, the feeling persisted that, somehow, the ‘bounders’ had triumphed.
Sachintha found the experience refreshing. “It showed not only that we could prevail, but also that we could rebel against the stereotype of us being rasthiyadukarayo, which is how the ordinary students viewed those boarded at College.” Along the way, he managed to seal his friendships with them. “Even now, I know that if I call them up, they’ll be with me and by my side. They may have been demeaned as loafers, but I know that they are much, much more sincere than those who demean them.”
In a way, this found its way to his writing commitments as well. By now he had published a story about his dog, a stray, and had written a novel titled ‘The Super Five’ – telling, since it reveals his fascination with fantasy AND Enid Blyton – which remained unpublished. They remain a world away from ‘Farren’, of course, less because of the differences in the plot than because of the differences of the themes explored in, and by, them.
While I won’t reveal what takes place in Farren’s universe – influenced more by C. S. Lewis and Narnia than Tolkien and the Hobbit – I will say this: in his quest to discover what lies beyond his father’s kingdom, the hero and his sidekick discover certain values Sachintha no doubt picked up from his boarding years.
I feel I’ve written too much. I’ll conclude by mentioning that Sachintha offered an unusual combination for his A Levels – Combined Maths, Literature, and Economics – and topped them to such an extent that New York University Abu Dhabi offered him a scholarship. He plans to leave next year, in January or February, and “to carry forward my childhood wanderlust.” He could have added, though he didn’t, that he’ll continue to write there, as he has here: While majoring in Economics and Legal Studies, he plans to minor in Creative Writing. In those two paths, no doubt, lies the key to his future.
Isn’t cleansing hearts a political issue?
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.
· 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.
· 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 email@example.com and www.researcher.com)
President needs to take up challenge of leaving a legacy
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.
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.
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.
Silence in the classroom: Confronting the dynamics of ‘deficiency’
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.
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