The Medium of Learning in Sri Lanka for Sri Lanka: Journeys

Wilfrid Jayasuriya, in Daily Mirror Epaper, 18 January 2020, where the title is “English as the medium of modern education”

We are glad that President Gotabaya Rajapaksa hit the nail on the head about the meaning of education. Not a promising opening sentence? I do not wish to get into a harangue on education but just want to say there is an alternative to the education modus operandi which we practise by and large for more than a century. That alternative is the United States’ system as opposed to the British colonial model which was the foundation of our lay education for the last two centuries. Suffice to say that in my own family history, my maternal grandfather was a postmaster who worked in the English medium and my paternal grandfather was a school teacher who practised in Sinhala and English media. My father passed the Senior School Certificate in both English and Sinhala media and my mother passed the Junior School Certificate in English medium. I have both certificate documents and they are signed by the Vice Chancellor of Cambridge University because education in Ceylon had been allocated to Cambridge University!

So that was how modern education was installed in Ceylon during the British Empire. I have no doubt it was a noble foundation. I had the good fortune to attend Oxford University at the age of 35 and obtain a postgraduate diploma in economics and came to know at firsthand what best British education was like. It was totally admirable and served a particular purpose; in my case, it was to open my eyes to how British education with its lectures and tutorials at university level took place and how it could be managed. I already had a BA (Hons) from the University of Ceylon, Peradeniya, which was itself modelled on Oxford and Cambridge. So what does President Gotabaya Rajapaksa want or appear to want? I assume that because he has had a long association with at least one US university (Loyola Marymount), it is the American model that he admires.

As I pen this article, I receive a call from a young female student in Colombo who wishes to prepare for the Standard Achievement Test (SAT) which is the qualifying exam for students wanting to enter American universities. After talking to her, I get another call and that is from her mother who has overheard her talking to me, and knowing who I was, re-established our former friendship when we were married people, with children going to school, while we had been together previously at Peradeniya University. “What does Gotabaya want?” and the answer came from her: “I think he wants to build a society where people collaborate, and know how to collaborate, because they are trained at school to work in groups and learn from each other thereby developing themselves and their country, instead of being trained to compete with each other all the time in tests and outshine each other in whatever way possible. School examination was the occasion for competition and individual victory; it is still the main signal of difference as against a group method which enabled cooperation and mutual growth. The American school system paid due attention to individual growth in the context of social growth by cooperative behaviour in class.”

Asoka de Lanerolle was my contemporary at Peradeniya. After living in the US, his grandson became a student of American National College (ANC) in Colombo where I taught English from 2002 to 2012 after obtaining a PHD in English at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale and teaching undergrads there. During a classroom discussion in Colombo, I asked young Lanerolle the differences he saw in schools here and the US, where he had been a student for most of his life. He said in Colombo schools, there were no girls unlike in the US. Why are the girls not there? In Colombo, there are regular monthly, term and annual exams while in USA, there were group activities in class as well as assignments for homework and work done in both was counted for a share of the final grade for the year. Students were kept alive and alert both at home and in school. They were told beforehand, at the beginning of the semester, details of the studies they would do. The final exam was just part of the total work evaluated — say about 20% of value came from it. So in class, work was a social activity with interchange and discussions; i.e. an assignment for an essay could begin with a group choosing one out of many general topics and then individual students opting to choose aspects of that theme and comparing and contrasting with aspects chosen by others in the group. The output was collegial and not individual because it was based on discussion much more mature.

The teacher could give group grades. Some students coming to ANC would sometimes complain against the giving of group grades; i.e. “I contributed almost everything for the discussion in the group and we got a ‘B’ grading in the group but if I did the task alone, I would have got an ‘A.’ ” As opposed to the aspect of group work, I have the example of another non-state university where teachers were very “traditional” (in the Sri Lankan sense) and the institution as a whole, which was extremely conservative in its behaviour, had the principle “don’t talk in class” which may have been valid for the kindergarten, but here applied strictly at undergrad level. The outcome was that though the main target of the institution was to teach English, its students could not converse in English. This is an extreme example of how conservative a school in Colombo could become. This however is an extreme case, not at all representative of the general. I brought this up to illustrate how different our traditional models can be to the idea of a modern school or university.

The relevance of group work to improvements in both content and outcome of education were illustrated to me by another example. The university class I taught in Colombo had many practising, trained teachers who were getting their additional academic degrees to consolidate their future. One of them taught in an ELOCUTION institute which focuses on training students, not only to talk English but also talk stylishly. The validity of notions of style may be controversial. For instance, the student in my degree class was a mature teacher who was included in the practice of group composition that I initiated. She told me she had tried out that group composition method in her elocution school and was thrilled to find that students performed their elocution much better than they ever did. This was probably because talking was officially encouraged and elocution would be a form of talking.

So one can go on giving examples of how the group method of cooperative learning and teaching inculcates behavioural patterns which improve overall performance. Especially in management, teaching the outcome is obvious and American texts on management begin with examples of cooperative learning and behaviour as training sessions for management in the real world. But American models of education which include emphasis on cooperative behaviour as against the competitive nature of exam-based learning include other aspects such as research focus and originality.

The first year at Peradeniya University started for me with a lecture by a handsome lad who held forth on the “manorial system” of the middle-ages in Europe as the beginning of economic history in the BA syllabus. At the end of the week, we were given a list of books that could be “referred” for further knowledge on the subject. This was “research.” This would lead to writing an essay of a couple of pages on some aspect of the manorial system. Nothing could be more distant for me as a Sri Lankan student after secondary school as to study this notion of the distant past in a distant country in Europe. However, we were beginning to write a “research or academic paper” in our first semester. We had been writing umpteen essays in secondary school but there was no effort to build on it and clarify what the new task implied as compared to the school essay. It was called a tutorial and we had to write it after reading some recommended books. The tutor was different from the lecturer. The tutor gave no demonstration on how a tutorial could be written and how to read recommended books and use the material to write the tutorial. At least in school, if I wanted to play for the cricket team, I would go for practice and learn how to play an off-drive. But the university assumed we knew whatever it took to be a capable university student and the lecturer’s task was to cover the syllabus in a series of lectures. So this was how we studied history. This was NOT how medicine was taught at Colombo Medical College at that time. Medical students had discussions in small groups with their teachers where individuals could talk.

On the other hand, compared to the lecture on manorial system in Europe, I understand a first step in an American village school after the ‘war of independence’ had been won, was to talk about some aspect of the immediate surroundings because they were new, since the country itself was new. This was possible because Americans were British subjects and had learnt in British schools which inherited European culture and civilization, which we too inherited by becoming a British colony. However, because of the war of independence, Americans broke away from the “mind-forged manacles” of European culture going back to the Greeks and Romans, while as a colony we remained in that pattern of foreign knowledge and methodology. All of this may however bore the reader. What I wanted to bring up was the notion of a research paper. One can only explain it by putting it into action as (for example) trying to get into the juvenile cricket team by going for practice and learning how to play an off-drive. It is a series of steps and American teachers give students a kind of step-by-step demo and the student learns it by practice. My understanding of the genesis of research paper as a popular activity in any US school is that “school marms” who ran these institutions, which were set up in separate village communities, acting autonomously in various parts of the country, began to talk and write about their own immediate environs in joint or team efforts with colleagues as well as with students, as explorations of the new country to which they had come from other lands. This would be different from imitating traditional western European schools which could begin studies using Greek and Latin and perhaps use

Julius Caesar’s account of the Gallic Wars as a text. You could, of course, have both the classical and immediately real new world as study areas, and that’s probably what they did. American poet Walt Whitman called European learning “old accounts” but the US educationist did both agree and disagree with him.

Compare that experience with how a student in Ceylon, responding to English education in British times, could revel in it as a very stimulating and exciting environment, which would not however focus on the immediate surroundings. The question is: “How does one develop the research mood? One can revel in a new environment like that which faced the immigrants to USA, but how can you stimulate your intellect to get curious about what seems already familiar and well-known? As it would appear to be in our own country with its long and ancient history? When Ceylon gained independence, this question was surfaced in a discussion of literature. In an essay titled ‘Language without metaphor,’godfrey Gunatilleke raised the issue of how metaphor in literature and elsewhere could portray our own typical consciousness by avoiding similes like “white as snow” when we have not seen snow, and using comparisons taken from our own world, not necessarily the physical world but even from our cultural environment.

Be that as it may, I would include in this paper an account of how I learnt to teach in USA and did so successfully for four years and continued that process for another 12 years in Colombo at university level. I was given a teaching assistantship in an American university so that I could “sing for my supper” i.e. pay for the opportunity I was given to do graduate during studies. I was-national at the Coordinator and for English

1987 1989 UGC Education Ministry, appointed from my rank as a Sri Lanka Administrative Service Officer Class One, who had been in the SLAS from 1960. My role was to implement the constitutional amendment of 1987 by which English would be included again as an official language of Sri Lanka. As an immediate demo of the “change,” I organised a pre-university English programme of six months for 6,000 students who had been qualified to enter State universities and who would have to wait at home for another six months till they could actually step in and start functioning. I had a BA (Hons) in English, Economics and History from Peradeniya University and a postgraduate diploma in economic development from Oxford and more than 25 years at SLAS in agriculture, land, economic planning and trade, and a consultancy in SLIDA as a trainer of senior public officers. The English course for new university entrants I organised and ran for a six-month period was called GELT; it was supported with funds by both the UGC and Education Ministry at the highest level. It was also supported by the British Council,usis and Asia Foundation. It had 101 teaching centres (using schools from KKS to Dondra when buildings were free after normal school sessions were over), 303 teachers and 6,000 students. Together with the final test designed by a visiting professor, I asked the question: “Will you now sit for the General English paper at GCE A/level’s? Their answer was: No! But we want to study all subjects in English medium at the university.”

This is an eye-opener. Students across the country want to study in the English medium. Is anyone going to agree with that? When I conveyed the message of the students to the Ministry Secretary and other high-ranking officials, their response (in 1987) was NO!

That was in 1987. However, we are now in 2020 and it is possible to study in the English medium from kindergarten to university but not in government schools. I want to draw the attention of the reader to this student opinion. If we can arrange to satisfy that need for everyone, we have given what they want. That is the beginning of change in education that people want.


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One response to “The Medium of Learning in Sri Lanka for Sri Lanka: Journeys

  1. Laalitha Liyanage

    Dear Wilfred,
    Thanks for sharing insights and experiences in education. It was an eye-opening article. It was nice to communicate with the person who formed the GELT program. I would love to have a chat with you. Drop me a line at


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