Arecent op-ed in the Financial Times ran a scathing critique on the quality of India’s primary education. It wrote: “India may be the world’s fastest growing economy after China, but its primary education standards in the countryside rank alongside Papua New Guinea and crisis-torn Afghanistan and Yemen.”
This depressing news has been confirmed in recent times by three reputed independent sources—the latest edition of the Annual Status of Education Report brought out by Pratham, the programme for international student assessment (PISA) survey of 15-year-olds, and the Quality Education Study 2011 conducted by Wipro and Educational Initiatives.
For decades, India’s abysmal social indicators attracted derision and condescension. Though they continue to remain a cause for concern, rapid economic growth of the recent past and resultant pace of socio-economic development have contributed towards considerable improvements. Now, however, the dismal student learning levels have emerged as arguably our worst development failure.
In this age of knowledge-based economic growth, India’s massive human resource pool has the potential to drive sustained economic growth for decades. However, the poor quality of our primary education threatens to nullify this demographic dividend. Our economic future is being built on extremely shaky foundations.
So what’s the way ahead?
The prevailing classroom instruction strategy in our primary schools revolves around teaching a uniform and common pedagogy for all children in the class. Teachers impart instruction in a rote manner, with their primary objective being syllabus coverage, irrespective of whether students comprehend or not. The widespread practice of multi-grade teaching—more than one class being run in the same room by the same teacher—exacerbates the problem.
Such one-size-fits-all classroom transactions fail to acknowledge the differential learning standards among students. Over time, as children move up the classes on “automatic” promotion, their cumulative learning deficiency becomes large enough to render them disinterested passengers in their classes. With time, they lose interest and often drop out.
Unfortunately, even when this problem is acknowledged, all attention tends to be focused on searching for the most optimal pedagogy. This exploration overlooks the reality that there are only marginal differences between all the widely accepted pedagogies and the debate on which is the best may never be settled. Far little attention is paid to the critical challenge of scaled-up field implementation of any preferred teaching strategy. It is here that public systems fail miserably. It is therefore, no surprise that even Tamil Nadu, which has been following the avowedly superior activity-based learning pedagogy for many years, came last in the PISA test.
In the circumstances, any meaningful attempt to improve student learning levels has to incorporate a multidimensional pedagogy. The classroom instruction strategy has to accept the reality of children being at multiple learning levels and with differential learning abilities. The achievement of grade-specific competencies for all children in each classroom will require dividing them into groups based on their abilities and current learning levels. Apart from teaching each group with an appropriate pedagogy and at varying speeds, the lag in learning levels should be covered with some form of remedial or catch-up instruction. If need be, those lagging far behind will have to be provided off-classroom hours instruction for a limited period till they catch up.
The successful implementation of this student-centred approach demands continuous and comprehensive assessment of student learning levels. This has to involve both quantitative testing and qualitative evaluation of the student’s learning level at any point of time. This assessment data should then be rigorously analysed to provide decision-support for headmasters and supervisory officials and also help design need-based training programmes for teachers.
Many education experts strongly oppose any form of examination of students. But they fail to appreciate the subtle distinction between high-stakes testing, which overwhelms students, and assessments, which measure the student’s current learning levels. In a recent interview with Mint (8 February), Harvard University Prof. of education Howard Gardner defined assessment to mean “what is the person’s understanding at this time, what is he or she not understanding, what can I do to help them understand better?” This is in accordance with the approach of the Right to Education Act, which assumes student assessment as a continuing process and advocates a continuous and comprehensive assessment framework.
However, such data-intensive strategy for improving the quality of primary education requires a mechanism to manage the entire time series of a student’s assessment information. In this context, the Aadhaar project offers exciting possibilities. The Aadhaar number can be the ideal anchor to capture the student’s longitudinal assessment information and develop a national student database, similar to the district information system for education for schools.
The learning trajectory of the student for each subject can be tracked over his or her entire schooling tenure. Information related to the child’s learning trajectory can be accessed by teachers even when students migrate or shift schools. It will ensure that the child’s learning process is a continuum, where teachers build on the existing learning level for each student.
Needless to say, the successful implementation of any student-centred pedagogy will require considerable capacity-building support to teachers, headmasters and school supervisors. But in its absence, the sustainability of India’s economic growth is questionable.
Gulzar Natarajan is a civil servant. These are his personal views.
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