Paradise on Earth or a Land of Many Problems? Challenging Perceptions of Sri Lanka through Enquiry

Article excerpt

This research encourages students to challenge their perceptions of economically developing places as 'primitive' through a study on Sri Lanka. In the initial lesson, students are asked to draw how they envision Sri Lanka; this reveals the students' most popular view of Sri Lanka to be a stereotypical economically developing country. After the enquiry-led work, students evaluate holiday brochures' portrayal of the country; this shows they have begun to appreciate the diverse nature of such a place.

Place isa key concept in geography. School geography can teach young people about the complex relationships between the physical, cultural and social characteristics of places beyond their locality, and thus broaden their horizons and perceptions of the world. Unfortunately, students' learning about economically developing countries has the potential to give them negative and stereotypical understandings of places, rather than one which is more complex and critical. The main aim of this research was to encourage my students to challenge their superficial perceptions of economically developing places as 'backward' or ' primitive' (Said, 1 978), and to gain a broader view of one place in particular (Sri Lanka), and of the economically developing places in general, as diverse, intriguing, nuanced and dynamic.

The study

My study was based on a new enquiry sequence of five lessons with my year 8 students. The initial four lessons provided students with opportunities to explore their perceptions of Sri Lanka (see Figure 1) and then investigate different aspects of life and change in the country. The final lesson encouraged the students to analyse how Sri Lanka was portrayed in holiday brochures in comparison to their own, hopefully now more nuanced, perceptions. I then compared this final piece of work with their initial drawing to gauge how their perceptions had changed overtime.


What were the students' initial perceptions of Sri Lanka?

The drawing task in Lesson 1 was very successful in exploring students' initial perceptions, !tallowed them to explore their own ideas about Sri Lanka in an individual, creative way. Similarly to Disney (200?), I found that the students' work tended to fall into a number of categories or themes, discussed below.

The stereotypical economically developing country

This was the most popular way to depict Sri Lanka, in a total often drawings. For example, Tom drew a small mud hut with straw on the roof and cracks in the walls (Figure 2). The person he has drawn is wearing ragged clothing, and is looking towards his house with a sad face. He has also drawn a number of weeds and cracks on the ground, which give the impression of an arid, infertile landscape.


Five students depicted Sri Lanka as a tropical island paradise. The beach huts that the students drew are very small and simple, much like the one in Figure 2. However, these huts depict a simple but relaxed way of life rather than one filled with struggle and hunger (Figure 3). In many ways, these images are just as stereotypical as the mud huts drawn by other students, but they do not have negative connotations. Again, there is nothing distinctly South Asian about these pictures, which gives the impression that the students' knowledge of Sri Lanka is minimal.


Four students drew pictures that could have been of their home town (Figured). Pictures such as this could mean one of two things: either the students have a very informed and nuanced view of Sri Lanka and understand that some areas do indeed look like England, or the students had little idea of what countries in the process of developing, such as Sri Lanka, look like.

Indian Subcontinent

Four students drew things that gave the impression that their knowledge of the Indian Subcontinent is a little more developed than the other students in the group. Stereotypes are certainly still present, but the drawings represent a slightly more informed view of Sri Lanka and its place in the world. …