Buddhism and the Bard: My Malaysian education adventure

Jackson Kavanagh

A fellow of the Royal Society of Arts, Jackson Kavanagh is director of programmes at as creatives, a multi-arts provider designing and delivering engaging programmes through the arts. He works with Primary and Secondary schools right across the country, modelling a range of creative approaches to teaching and learning – and regularly delivers CPD sessions for both qualified and trainee teachers. He is also a great believer in the TeachMeet approach to sharing best practice and regularly participates in TeachMeet events. Before co-founding as creatives, he was Drama Consultant to the Academy of St Francis of Assisi and St Vincent’s School for the Blind and Partially Sighted.

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Although I’m quite handy when it comes to pub quizzes, geography has always been a bit of a blind spot. So when the initial email came in from the Learning Adventure Resources Network, I wasn’t exactly sure where Malaysia was. My only immediate reference point was the Willis Hall play (and film) The Long, the Short and the Tall, which didn’t seem entirely appropriate – but a quick look at the atlas showed that I’d instinctively placed the country in the right part of the world (good start) – even if I’d been a little confused as to its physical relationships with its neighbours.

Based in its own school in Petaling Jaya (or “PJ”, as the locals call it), some 60km south west of Kuala Lumpur, the Learning Adventure Resources Network caters for around fifty pupils from six to sixteen. Following a largely British curriculum, the school runs small classes and has a strong track record in preparing its students for and supporting them through the IGCSE. But keen to expand its approaches to teaching and learning (on the parts of both staff and students), the Network had got in touch to discuss ways we might work together. We discussed two options: one or two of their staff could visit the UK and shadow me as I worked in schools over here – or I could travel to PJ and model some of my approaches directly with their students. And the latter seemed to make much more sense.

From initial contact to agreeing a programme of work, the process was astonishingly easy. And so it was that Easter Sunday 2015 saw me boarding a plane at Manchester Airport and setting off for Kuala Lumpur. And, while I support schools right across the UK, the prospect of travelling six and a half thousand miles to work was more than a little daunting! All made eminently bearable, though, by the warmth of the welcome I received, many hours later, from my hosts – sisters Cordelia and Cassandra Koh.

I’d been prepared for the heat - so much so that I’d eschewed my normal strict dress code (black – all black) in favour of some lighter coloured shirts bought under my wife’s strict supervision. And the temperature wasn’t really a factor at first, anyway, as we moved effortlessly from the air-conditioned arrivals lounge to the air-conditioned multi-storey car park to the air-conditioned car. But, prepared as I was, the heat didn’t take me by surprise as I eventually stepped from the car as we arrived at the sumptuous One World Hotel. What did take me by surprise, though, and what literally took my breath away, was the humidity. Not for nothing, I was to come to realise, was Malaysia home to some of the largest shopping malls in the world!

A good night’s sleep beckoned, as we were to begin work the following morning. And while it was only 7.30pm local time, I’d been travelling for twenty five hours (thanks to a long delay at Heathrow) …

It had been agreed that I’d spend three days with the young people – with the first devoted to a murder-mystery activity in which a series of mathematical clues would enable participants to solve the puzzle of an attempted-murder mystery. It began, though, with some drama-based warm-ups designed to encourage the young people to explore the notion of “creativity”, a concept that, I think it’s fair to say, threw them at first. And I think it’s also fair to say that they found the very idea of being asked to actively think, rather than being required to absorb information, extremely challenging.

This clash of pedagogies continued as we moved into the body of a whole-day workshop that set them the problem of working out which one of six people tried to murder one of Malaysia’s most promising football players. Following an introduction to the victim, the crime, the crime scene and the suspects, the first challenge came in the form of an independent carousel. And while they eagerly devoured the variety and range of Maths questions the carousel set them, there were two aspects that they were less used to: moving round the room (instead of being desk-bound) – and working in teams. And it wasn’t just the young people who found some of my approaches on the alien side; their teachers, too, were startled by some of the ways I asked the pupils to work – and particularly by the amount of freedom I gave them. Fortunately, though, both young people and adults were nothing if not open-minded – and soon began to settle into a way of moving forward that focused more on independent working (albeit in teams) than on teacher input – and that featured a number of built-in opportunities for active reflection.

Preparing for the day had set me challenges, too, as it had always been planned that I’d work with all the young people, spanning an age range from six to sixteen, throughout. I normally run workshops for particular year groups, so this meant designing the session in such a way that all of the pupils could access it at appropriate levels, but working at the same pace.

And the great thing was that it worked! Which gave me, of course, the confidence to pursue this line back in the UK – and I’ve since gone on to deliver workshops to mixed year groups in a number of schools over here.

One of the reasons that we’d decided to work with all of the children together on Day One was to give them an extended opportunity to get to know me and my way of working – and to afford me, of course, a chance to get to know them. But we’d always planned that both Days Two and Three would see me working with the “juniors” in the mornings and the “seniors” in the afternoon. To paraphrase Robert Burns, though, the best laid plans go oft astray: the children had so enjoyed the workshop that, by the time it came to home time, many of them and their parents asked if they could attend and participate throughout both of the remaining days. Both my hosts and I, as you’d guess, were delighted by this. Day Three’s science content, though, was little problematic – so we decided to invite just the more able juniors to the senior workshop. But Day Two had a literacy focus, and I knew it wouldn’t be too difficult to adapt it for the wide age range – so the whole of this day was opened up to everyone.

The groundwork that we’d all put in on Day One more than paid off on the morning of Day Two, which introduced pupils (and teachers) to SoundScape Poetry. This is a methodology that I picked up from an RSC workshop many years ago, and have seen tweaked and adapted to suit my own practice – which just goes to show that we’re all magpies at heart!

Once again following some drama warm-ups, the children worked in groups to decide upon and pitch environments for our first SoundScape. Three were put to the vote: ‘Ancient Rome’, ‘Mount Everest’ – and, one I’ve never had before, ‘The Womb’ … The Womb won hands down, and taken together with a contrasting SoundScape, ‘The Coffin’ (!), resulted in some astonishing pieces of poetry exploring the bookends of birth and death. All of which was a lot more cheerful than it sounds – and tied neatly in with the afternoon’s exploration of Macbeth. By now, the pupils were happy and confident working independently, collaborating in ever-shifting groups, tackling open-ended questions and presenting in front of each other – and so well able to both handle imagining and enacting such unseen scenes as The Death of Duncan and managing substantial pieces of Shakespearean text.

By Day Three, all inhibitions and reservations about creative working had long flown out of the window. The morning saw the juniors unpicking Science skills and working independently in small groups on three challenges – one focusing on Biology, one on Chemistry and one on Physics. And, in the last of our sessions, and in an adaptation of Ambassador teaching, the seniors researched and dramatised interplanetary tours to a variety of destinations. Their dramas not only had to include real scientific problems for their characters to face (with a big emphasis on “real” so – to the chagrin of some, alien attacks were not allowed!) but also feature woven into the narrative some key facts to teach their peers.

At a review meeting the following afternoon, it became clear that the Learning Adventure Resources Network was more than happy with the outcomes of the three days. And quite apart from the content that had been delivered, they had seen the children growing in self-confidence, collaborating happily in unaccustomed groupings, working independently and acquiring and practicing transferable skills. These elements were of particular value, the staff felt – particularly as employers and higher education providers in Malaysia had been calling for an education system that promoted creative thinking as well as knowledge (chiming with my own concerns about Mastery approaches). Having seen the changes that creativity can bring, the Network is keen to provide opportunities for children across the country to access workshops like ours – so, although discussions are still ongoing, it looks as though I’ll be back again soon!

The school day in Malaysia is longer than children in the UK are accustomed to – not finishing until 5.00pm. The pupils were pretty exhausted by the time it came to the end of Day Three – so the amount of physical, intellectual and emotional energy required means that the types of workshops I’d been delivering simply wouldn’t be sustainable over a long period of time. But the point had never been to suggest a root and branch overhaul of the approaches used by the Network – but to offer them some new methodologies that could complement the successes they were already achieving (not least in terms of some outstanding IGCSE results).

And I, too, was physically tired after the three days – but not too tired to take in some of the local sights, sounds and scents before I returned home. PJ is very much a commercial sector and, despite there being very few Europeans there, has a distinctly westernised feel to it. So, thanks to hosts for whom nothing was too much trouble, I was able to spend two more days sampling some amazing vegetarian and vegan food (much more widely available than in the UK), reflecting in Buddhist temples, seeing some Malaysian art and, serendipitously, experiencing a production of Macbeth – in English, but heavily influenced by Chinese Opera!

So – how would I sum of my experiences of Malaysia? In an acronymic poem? A Mind Map? A piece of visual art? Actually, I couldn’t do better than to borrow from the Bard. Because, in one of its few optimistic lines from, you’ve guessed it, Macbeth:

“This castle hath a pleasant seat; the air
Nimbly and sweetly recommends itself
Unto our gentle senses.”

I’d recommend it to anyone!

Have you worked with teachers in Malaysia? Share your experiences below!

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