Teaching skills for better student engagement:

How UNICEF supported teacher training provides improved learning for children in Sri Lanka’s estate sector

UNICEF Sri Lanka
engaging with her students
©️UNICEF/Sri Lanka 2022/Herath P
27 April 2022

As schools across the country reopen for the second term in April 2022,  Ms Nadarajha Devaselvi prepares her weekly lesson plan. She looks forward to being back with her Grade Three students at the Nahawila Tamil School –largely for children from the surrounding tea plantation communities located 22 km from Passara Town in the Uva Province of Sri Lanka.

Her lesson plan is packed with interesting activities, assessments and teaching aids. She is determined to get her students engaged in classroom activities; the children are bound to still be in their holiday mood, but she has an interesting ‘curiosity approach’: a trick up her sleeve to keep the youngsters engaged. “Preparing ahead helps,” she explains, “it’s very important for me that all my students are engaged in the classroom activities; I plan my lessons accordingly. This preparation helps me reach students of all learning levels”

Classroom engagement at primary level, however, has not always been easy for Ms Devaselvi. With a career focussed on teaching secondary school, being a fulltime teacher to eight-year-olds was in fact a chance calling. “I joined Nahawila Tamil School in 2016 after completing my training as a Teacher of English Language.  But due to an acute shortage of primary level teachers at the school, I was assigned to teach Grade Three,” she explains.

Having little knowledge on managing the different learning levels of students of this age group, she often faced difficulties and was disheartened by her own incapacity. “My teaching approach to all students was the same; I was aware that some students found it hard to engage in learning and were left behind in my class, but I did not have the knowledge or the capacity to get them involved in my lesson. And I didn’t know how to plan my lesson to address this. I was disheartened by regressive students,” she intimates.

In January 2021 Ms Devaselvi and four other teachers from the school had the opportunity to take part in the provincial training programme on Multi-level Teaching (MLT). MLT is an inclusive learning approach that takes into consideration the different skill levels of students in a class and uses teaching and learning techniques to effectively engage with all students.

“MLT is a new concept for us,” she adds, “when the Principal announced that the school was selected for the implementation of the MLT approach by the Provincial Education Department, and that we will be sent for a training programme, my four colleagues and myself had no idea what it entailed.”

Nahawila Tamil School, along with 50 other schools under the Uva Provincial Department of Education,  was selected for the MLT approach which includes  monitoring, providing learning material, establishing MLT resource centres, and improving the physical facilities of the classrooms.  

The 3-day residential training on MLT provided Ms Devaselvi with new techniques for teaching. “The training program taught me how to organize the same lesson to cater to students with different knowledge levels; I learned how to plan my lesson to address the needs of each child in the classroom, and also to organize activities, assessments, remedials and enrichments to match the requirements of all the children,” she affirms.

The training also provided her with a new enthusiasm for teaching and gave a positive outlook to her profession. “I came back a different teacher,” she explains, “It was one of the most interesting and practical training programmes for us; it helped us overcome one of the main challenges we face as primary school teachers and address the vastly different skill levels of children of the same age group.” “I was motivated as I knew how to handle one of the main concerns in my classroom,” she adds.

Communities living in and around Sri Lanka’s tea plantations are some of the most vulnerable in the country and children in this sector often trail behind their rural and urban peers in terms of education. The situation is further compounded by the parents’ lack of capacity to support even the basic learning at home, and the lack of suitable learning environment in their residential setting, slowing down the learning levels of children and contributing towards the skill level gap at classroom level. Ensuring equal access to learning can bring transformative changes in the lives of these children in building resilient communities.

“I am now confident in applying the MLT techniques; I prepare the lesson plans for the week and get ready with relevant activities, assessments, and teaching aids. Previously I did not use many teaching aids but now it’s integral in delivering my lesson; I divide the entire class in to four groups based on the performance of the formative assessment of the lesson. The ones who require more attention are given the adequate support.”

“After several months of applying the technique, I noticed that the students who previously had lower skill levels are progressing well. This is my greatest achievement as a teacher.” She affirms proud of her achievements and the impact her teaching methods have on her students. “8-year-old Nilushin Ravichandren is the finest example of how I have progressed as a teacher. She comes from the nearby division of a tea estate and when she joined my class in 2021 her skill levels were much lower compared to others in her class. But after applying the MLT method her learning capacity increased. She was eager to participate in classroom activities and would be one of the first to come up to show her activity books to me. Her eagerness to learn has had a positive impact on her family too. Her mother now takes a keen interest in Nilushin’s education.”     

The MLT training was conducted by the Provincial Department of Education, Uva Province with the technical and financial support from UNICEF. The training included 3 zonal level teachers training workshops: two in Sinhala medium and one in Tamil medium, with 240 Sinhala medium teachers and 60 Tamil medium teachers in 100 schools in the education division benefitting. The training focused on primary school teachers of grades 1,2, and 3.

The follow up training sessions on MLT are planned for the second quarter of 2022 and Ms Devaselvi hopes to take part. “I hope I get a chance to learn from the experiences of other teachers. And I am keen to share mine, especially my ‘curiosity approach.’ Says Ms Devaselvi revealing her classroom trick: “Before I apply any MLT methods I need to get the attention of the class. I want them to be inquisitive about what they are going to learn that day. I like to model curiosity by introducing a question, a statement or even a joke. This gets them to think, get involved in the lesson and also contribute to the classroom. This makes the lesson much more interesting for the students and I am inspired by their enthusiasm.”