Sunday, August 2, 2015

On going beyond the curriculum

There were two students in when it first began. This was in January. Six more have since joined. It’s small even now. Not easy to spot out. Yes, there is a board that announces name. But you can miss it. Size doesn’t (seem to) matter, at least not to those who’re charting or have a stake in its future. That's what strikes you at first.

The Colombo School of Arts, located in Jawatte Road in Colombo 5, is “new”. That's only in name though. In pretty much everything else, there’s maturity. And age. Nothing seems improvised.

Shaleeka Jayalath, who heads it, spoke with The Nation. She kept to the point. The school is run differently, she commented. For starters, it doesn’t follow an 8 to 2 timeslot. A regular day at CSA starts at 7.30 and ends at 4. When asked why they decided on this, she answers simply: “It gets more work done.”

She breaks down a regular day: three one-and-a-half-hour blocks in the morning, a lunch break, and some extra-curricular activities. “We offer 15 subjects for the O/Levels and 15 for the A/Levels. In addition, we’ve kept the afternoons for five compulsory activities: martial arts, debating, art, drama, and public speaking.” It’s all to do with building confidence, she explains. “There’s nothing new in what we’re doing. We don’t follow on-the-moment, slipshod guidelines. We plan outcome and process. That’s why we went for this timetable, which reflects a typical fifth form or sixth form in schools abroad.”

The Colombo School of Arts is “affiliated” with Imperial Institute of Higher Education (IIHE). The institute concentrates on tertiary education, which is why it opted for a bit of “backward integration”. “We want to differentiate ourselves on what we focus on. Our education system is basically separated into two streams: science and arts. We picked the latter of these. That’s not to say we don’t offer science. We do.”

She shows us the subjects offered and taught. She elaborates on them. Students learn how to embrace different worldviews. That's why (for instance) they are taught "Global Perspectives". “Cambridge (which we follow) introduced that recently. In fact we were teaching something called 'Glocal Studies', which basically was the same thing. Even before Cambridge, mind you.”

And it’s not just about subject-matter. Not just about what’s in the curriculum or what’s outside. There are counselling sessions for those who can’t learn quickly. “We understand that some students have problems. They can’t be taught normally, which is why we have an advisor for them.”

This doesn't make CSA insular. As Shaleeka mentioned once, nothing's "new". "It's all about going beyond boundary and getting self-esteem." Even the motto (“rerum cognoscere causus”) echoes this: it’s important to understand why and how something works. In a way, this is what the school reinforces. And reflects.

She points out two examples here. “When we’re teaching our kids drama, we rarely if at all go for standard texts. We encourage them to come up with their own scripts. Likewise, we encourage them to go down for a bit of soul-searching before applying brushstrokes on a canvas. They start off saying they can’t draw or act. But in the end, our approach works. They realise themselves. And come out.”

There’s confidence in Shaleeka. She’s been teaching for quite some time. She's come to understand what's at stake for her profession here. That’s why she offers some insights.

“We have remedial sessions. Again, for a reason. I understand that kids tend to drop out and opt for tuition most of the time. Their parents pressurise them to ‘keep up with the Joneses’. They are weak and backward. And more importantly, they have doubts, which they never raise for fear that they’d be blackguarded. We’re trying to prevent the last two of these as much as we can, particularly because they’re unnecessary. That’s why we’re empowering our students. Why we’re looking at them differently.”

Schools operate in different ways and they’re known for different reasons. One wouldn’t know how CSA wants to “brand” itself to the world. These are still early days. But based on what it’s done so far, where it hopes to go to, and how it’s structuring itself for what’s to come (the first official intake is in September), there’s purpose. More importantly, there’s determination.

Shaleeka was right, hence. Hardly anything goes unnoticed in CSA. Nothing exists without a reason.

Photos courtesy of Shaleeka Jayalath

Written for: The Nation INSIGHT, August 1 2015