As India starts to reopen schools, replace ‘teaching the curriculum’ with ‘teaching the children’

By Abhijit Banerjee, Nobel Prize winner in economics

& Rukmini Banerji, CEO, Pratham

Given that schools have been closed for more than 18 months, the first priority for India now is ensuring a smooth transition back to school. This requires a focus on three key issues:

  1. Heterogeneity in the classroom: Some children were able to take better advantage of online and remote education facilities than others. This was partly due to internet connectivity, and access to devices. But it is also because some families were better equipped to help children in an ongoing way than others. All of this has probably widened the gap between children in the same classroom, which makes it harder to teach.
  2. Children have now become used to life out of school. Many, especially those in their early teens or older, are working, either at home or outside, particularly girls. Reintegrating them into school system is critical, especially to prevent early marriage and other social issues.
  3. Be ready for rapidly changing situations as far as the pandemic is concerned. A variety of schooling and learning strategies need to be in place in case schools need to shut again. Heterogeneity in the classroom has been highlighted in every round of Annual Status of Education Report (ASER) since 2005. For example, the overall picture for rural India shows that less than 30% of all children in Grade 3 are able to read at grade level, 17% can read at about Grade 1 level, and the rest (more than half) are already three years behind. These wide variations in learning levels in the same class makes it hard to teach the set grade curriculum. What is happening is, teachers tend to default to teaching the few children who can follow the curriculum, and let the rest manage on their own. This reinforces the inequity in the classroom.

The result is that children who once fall behind rarely catch up. This pre-existing problem has been accentuated by the pandemic. Moreover, the children who were already behind, and are now even further behind, may find the classroom even more frustrating. This may lead to high drop outs.  To prevent this potential disaster, the government needs to plan the reopening of schools in a way that focuses on this critical issue of heterogeneity of learning levels.

The strategy has to have two components. The Stepping Stones First, Teaching at the Right Level (TaRL), a pedagogical approach aimed at helping children catch up to grade level developed by Pratham in India, and now one of the strategies being widely recommended across the world. The basic idea is to do quick and simple assessments of children — basic one-on-one oral maths and reading tasks. Based on these assessments, children are grouped by their current levels, rather than by their grade for a part of the day, and focus the teaching in that period on getting them to the next level. This can happen in a few days, after which the children are tested again and regrouped.

Second, a concerted effort to bring children back into school and ensure regular daily attendance. This will require working with the community, families and children to persuade them that school is the best place for children to be. According to ASER 2018, in states like West Bengal, Bihar, UP and MP, the attendance of enrolled children on any given day is less than 60%. Making the school an attractive place for children is one way to ‘pull’ children back to school. Sports activities, books and magazines they can read for fun, perhaps some tablets they can use on a shared basis.

Schools had shut suddenly in March 2020. But now with the experience of over a year-and-a-half, a much more comprehensive plan for learning can be put in place. At least three scenarios warrant attention. What is possible when there is a complete lockdown? When there is restricted movement, teachers can come to school. But schools have not opened officially for children. What can be done in such times? Finally, when schools are truly open, how does one maximize interaction and learning in that period? The education system was failing to deliver quality teaching before the pandemic. This underscores the need for a broader shift in pedagogy to ensure that most children do not fall behind.

This will require a change in how learning goals are prioritized, how different elements of the system align to support achievement of the goals, including teacher training, monitoring, support and assessment. Overall, the big change needed is ‘teaching the children’ rather than ‘teaching the curriculum’. The curriculum is a means to an end. Focus on where children are today, and help them to move to where we want them to be tomorrow. The New Education Policy 2020 emphasizes that children need to have foundational literacy and numeracy by Grade 3.

Image courtesy of (Photo courtesy Economic Times)

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