Saturday, September 27, 2014

Those who read and those who write

Sri Lanka is the only South Asian country to have a literacy rate of more than 90%. As much as I believe in not resting in one’s laurels, I think this is cause for celebration. But we’re missing something here. We have, for one thing, mis-defined “literacy”. By that term, we tend to qualify those who can read and write in the most essential sense. UNESCO, I think, comes closer at defining what it really means: “the ability to identify, understand, interpret, create, communicate and compute, using printed and written materials associated with varying contexts”. There are six qualifiers (in italics). It is based on this that literacy as we know it is measured.

Still, I wouldn’t raise the cheer. Not yet. This isn’t the time to brag or to celebrate. The thing is, we as a nation have (in a way) gone back in literacy. Statistics may not prove this. That’s one demerit with them. We were avid readers once. And avid writers. Some are of the view that 1956 (or, to be more specific, 1960) heralded a radically different education system which inhibited the reading culture we (supposedly) had enjoyed till then. That’s rubbish.

Let’s take India. In 1947, the year of independence, her literacy rate had just crawled above 10%, notwithstanding the number of English schools which had mushroomed during the colonial era. Same case with Sri Lanka. "Divide and rule" was the name of the game, after all. Creating a comprador class to cater to the needs of the colonial masters was the end-goal of the school system. Unlike Sri Lanka, however, India managed to create its own education policy post-independence. Here, on the other hand, not until 1956 was any serious attempt at universalising education made. That’s cause enough for pride, considering how we’ve gone past India today.

Going back to what I started with, does this leave room for complacency? By no means. Let’s forget the forces out there which tried (and try) to stifle our present-day system. Even then, there is cause for alarm. We have gone from multidisciplinary learning to rote specialisation. This has nothing to do with 1956. Rather, this has to do with institutionalised staticity and inertia in a system that looks upon any form of innovation hostilely. I have been told by another group of people, beneficiaries under Free Education themselves, that there is no reason for reform. I too subscribed to this notion, until I realised that these same people would be the biggest losers should reform ever be attempted. More on this a little later.

We stress on reading. A lot. I can speak (limited as my experience is) only of English here. Textbooks are filled with activities, supposedly relevant for day-to-day lives (think “English as a Life Skill” here). Nothing wrong with that. I feel that we are placing the emphasis in the wrong place, though. Reading and reciting there are in plenty. Activities leaning on grammar and punctuation do motivate the child and inculcate interest. Unfortunately, though, they’re almost always results-based. Test-oriented. We live in a culture that shrugs off learning after exams are done and dusted.

There’s another problem. Assignments and group activities will, doubtless, go a long way. But only to a point. The Ministry of Education-published Education Perspectives (Volume 2, No 1, January 2013) bears testament to this. In it, the research paper entitled “Feasibility of School Projects of GCE (A/L) Curriculum (Science Stream): A Study of Student Views and Constraints” has commented that “students get involved in these projects only to fulfil the requirement for getting admission to the aforesaid examination”. Not too different to what I have seen with English. Notwithstanding the inevitable grammar mistakes (endemic to almost every country, if I may add), the focus is all too often on activities which have a bearing only on the exam. We’re missing something here. Something big.

There was a time when writing was mandatory in school curricula, and not just pre-1956. From what I have heard, this was the case even in the ’80s. I don’t see the point of neglecting it. Reading is essential. No two words about that. It builds vocabulary and adds to mark. But without converting what is read (and what is thought) into word, where’s the capacity to observe? To argue? To analyse? To conclude? These are the abilities which count in real life. Not emphasising enough on writing while screaming at everyone to read and speak is pointless and without benefit.

As I wrote before, I can limit my experience to only English. Small things help. They go a long way. Diary-writing, word-doodling, and crossword puzzles are ideal starting points. Teachers whom I respect for their wisdom have advised their students to do these things. In seven cases out of 10, it has worked. There’s nothing wrong with memorising grammar rules (which, may I add, is relevant even for the mother tongue), but beyond a point, they rarely help. As a footnote, let me say here that I too tested this with a friend I was helping out. Again, it worked. Encouraging the habit of reading, without respecting the child’s incapacity to memorise new words, serves no purpose.

We once had a robust writing culture. Half a century back, it would have been unimaginable that this culture would wither away. Perhaps it was a case of complacency, or rather too much thereof, but the truth is that we failed to move our language with the years. Siri Gunasinghe’s attempt at bringing the Sinhala language closer to a colloquial idiom was shrugged off. When a language, any language, faces a lacuna of this sort, the result can only be degradation. This is what happened. From the twilight world of Karunasena Jayalath to the world of cheap sentimental novelettes, we can see this process of deterioration. Why? Not because (as is claimed frequently) of Free Education. It is a question to which the answer lies elsewhere. We still haven’t grasped it.

In the meantime, though, there are things we can do. Writing, for instance. There’s still a long way to go. I was lucky. I learnt at a school which inculcated the writing and reading habit in us. No doubt popular schools around Colombo (and other main cities in Sri Lanka) do the same. But that’s beside the point here. Roger Ebert, in his review of Michael Moore’s Sicko, describes how well he was treated at a Chicago hospital after a carotid artery burst in him. He is not mincing in his praise of the care, the attention, and the kindness of those who treated him. He then makes this (timeless) observation, relevant to what I’m writing on: “Every American should be as fortunate as I have been”.

This is an era of free markets, choice, and globalisation (all within apostrophes of course). Those berating the efficiency-gap in our education system think that problems will sprout wings and fly away with one thing: privatisation. Some stop shy of this and mention another magic word: tuition. The truth, as always, lies elsewhere.

Those who justify tuition by the “needs-exist-to-be-satisfied” argument conveniently put aside one simple truth: choice can be manufactured. Tuition-masters identify a gap going by the name of “syllabus”. As we all know, the conventional 8-to-2 timetable cannot cover this. Schoolchildren have no other choice: they flock to after-school classes. And, no different to how foreign milk-powder manufacturers continually keep on harping about how essential their products are, so the tuition-mafia (there’s no other word for it) couches its profit-motive with feel-easy words emphasising their necessary-ness.

Let’s look at things a little more clearly here. Let’s connect some dots. Fact is, our education system needs reform. Big-time. Publication after publication has highlighted this. Writing, obviously, needs to be emphasised. In every subject. Some dislike reform, though. Natural enough. I’ve mentioned this class of people above. They’re beneficiaries of Free Education. The reason for their opinion is this: should there be reform, they would be the biggest to lose. I mentioned this as well. Why? Because those opposing reform are the tuition-masters.

Think about it. The milk-powder industry subsists in this country for just one reason: the myth that milk-powder is essential. That’s how the tobacco industry proliferated once upon a time. Shatter that myth, and profits go down. Same thing with tuition-classes. If we were to implement across-the-board, holistic reform, tuition-class size would drastically reduce to the point where only those who really don’t understand school-subject attend them.

Tuition-masters are supposed to “deliver”. That’s their by-line. Forgotten in this is the fact that profit-motive inhibits teacher-innovation. Let me elaborate here. I’ve been to tuition classes, both as student and as witness. Again, this is limited mainly to English, but I have been to classes teaching other subjects. It’s the same story basically: school-syllabus is too big, school-tuition gap is too big, and the filling-the-gap must be done adhering to the rote-based, specialisation-based, text-based approach our education system runs according to. “Delivery” presupposes “payment”, we’re being told. So we send our kids to tuition-class after tuition-class, not realising that the solution isn’t “after-school” but “within-home”. We think that money and education cohabit, and we hold it indisputable that the one can solve the other’s ills.

Can it, though? I know teachers who don’t think so. One of them doesn’t, as per principle, conduct tuition-classes. I’m not for total abolishment of tuition, mind you. But talking with this teacher, you tend to see her point: we have come to the point where monetised education, in tuition-class or elsewhere, simply doesn’t translate to hands-down, mark-guaranteeing innovation. That this isn’t a universal truth, I know. But then again, I’m not just speaking about marks. I’m talking about “after-school” and “real-life”. School education, as we all know, simply cannot be replicated by tuition-class.

I’ve heard of tuition teachers who’ve built swimming pools and bought houses through mass classes. Forget the ethics involved here. One can (validly) argue that we’ve brought ourselves to a point where we cannot do by without money and capital. The problem lies elsewhere. These teachers stick with the inertia our education system has institutionalised. Now compare that with the case of teachers doing “for free”. This isn’t uncommon in Sri Lanka.

There are schools, for instance, which “hire” past students to help out, either for free or for a small fee. I know for a fact that these teachers put more zest, effort, and motivation into what they teach. We as a nation aren’t grateful enough to them. That’s sad, because we have at the same time angel-titled tuition-masters by calling them “benevolent”. They are not. Where’s the “benevolent” in people who under-perform at school and make up for deficit later on for money? Where’s the “benevolent” in taking advantage of syllabus-gap by having intense, late-night classes for outrageous by-the-hour bucks?

Let’s go to something else: past papers. They are emphasised on. Rightly. But we don’t question access to them. Why? We’ve come to a point where they can be accessed online. Not every child in Sri Lanka has a computer. But almost every school does, not to mention internet cafes island-wide. Why do we still have to rely on third-party publications? Why does access to them remain the prerogative of these publishers, who, if I may add, maintain an uneasy relationship with mass-class tuition-masters at times? I’m not just blaming the publishers here. The Ministry of Education, doubtless, has a role to play. A big one. Past papers are not infallible indicators of final mark. But, at the end of the day, practice goes a long way. Denying access to them is a mockery to the “free” part in our education system.

But this isn’t too surprising. After all, some people still have trouble identifying education as a “free” thing in this country. Forget the fact that they themselves were beneficiaries of a “free” system. Aren’t we all, at the end of the day, together as one? And this is not Marxian “solidarity” I’m talking about here. People harping for private education often forget how their own education was “billed”: how someone had to indirectly pay for their schooling, their uniforms, their teachers, and their higher education.

As I wrote before, I’m not calling for total abolishment of tuition. There are and always will be students who need that “extra help”. One can provide it, for money or for nothing depending on context. I’ve had my share of tuition, both as student and as teacher, and both for a very short time. I’ve come to realise that we’ve looked at the student-teacher relationship (in recent years of course) a little wrongly. Spoon-feeding has become a sort of sine qua non of teaching. Those who cannot be taught this way, hence, are left behind. Regrettably.

There are other ways. Better ways. Teaching the child self-help, for instance. It isn’t easy. Patience is needed. But, at a certain point, teaching the student to “teach oneself” works. I’m speaking from experience here. Teach him/her the foundation. The baby-steps. The love for reading and for writing. The rest will come. Automatically. All this depends on context, of course, and I don’t deny that. Some students take time. Natural enough. That’s why I stress on patience. Our (school) teachers don’t lack it. That’s the key strength with which we can all go forward. Reserve tuition for the neediest. Tuition-masters will run out of business, true. But that’s their problem. After all, if I may quip this here, that’s the way of the “free market”. That’s “choice” for you.

Bottom line: read, write, and practise. As the Buddha once said, “Atta hi attano natho” (You are your own master). No truer guiding principle can be found for an education system badly in need of reform. Like ours.