Over the last four years, 64-year-old Malathi Kothandaraman has visited nearly 12 states—far more than she’d travelled in the six decades preceding 2006. A retired teacher, Kothandaraman is a coordinator for the state’s chapter of Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan (SSA), a Central programme launched in 2001 to guarantee elementary education for all.
Her jetsetting began shortly after 2003, when Tamil Nadu became the first state to scrap its schools’ conventional day— seven periods of instruction, lasting 40 minutes apiece, delivered to classrooms with children of the same age.
Instead, elementary schools got a fresh coat of pedagogy, with mixed-age classrooms with children between the ages of five and nine, rotating between teams doing individual, group and teacher-assisted work. Only two of the four subjects—mathematics, English, Tamil and science—were studied at length on any given day.
Kothandaraman’s travels have come about because 18 other states have tried to emulate the activity-based learning (ABL) methods pioneered in 37,000 Tamil Nadu schools. But ABL’s outcomes in its home state remain poor, and Tamil Nadu’s schoolchildren don’t rank among the best academic performers in the country.
One survey, conducted by the consultancy Educational Initiatives, shows that 33.8% of class VIII students in Tamil Nadu met mathematics requirements for their age, below the national average of 35.5% and Kerala’s 45.6%. For language skills, Tamil Nadu’s figure stood at 52.5%, below the average of 53.5% and far below Kerala’s 74.7%.
The state’s own confirmation of this trend is contained in a coming Tamil Nadu government survey, which will indicate that only 22% of students, tested across 2,000 schools, are at their age-specific learning levels.
“The execution of activity-based learning on a large-scale in Tamil Nadu was brilliant,” says Subir Shukla, a consultant who spearheaded the survey. “But there were gaps in the curricula. As a result, their learning targets were substantially less than those of, say, Assam and Kerala. Since the goals were low, the learning levels remained stunted.”
Apart from Tamil Nadu’s weak syllabus, the spotlight will also shine upon teachers who do not think beyond the ABL script they’ve been handed. For now, the state education officials are furiously trying to boost curricula and train supervisors to be sensitive to teachers. A key item on the to-do list—tracking children who need one-on-one teaching— remains incomplete.
Tamil Nadu’s ABL inspiration came, in 2003, from the Rishi Valley School in Andhra Pradesh, an elite yet alternative private institution. Several education experts credit M.P. Vijayakumar, the former SSA state project director, with the experiment. In government schools across the state, classes I through IV were converted into mixed-age groups, and team- and self-learning activites were introduced.
The effects of that scheme can be seen, for instance, in the classrooms of the Rani Meyammai Primary School, at the dead end of a quiet, tree-lined street in south Chennai’s Adyar area. Here, blackboards are at floor level, for easier use by children; students also mark their own attendance.
“I know they‘re using some type of cards now to teach the kids, and I’m happy that my sons are reading now,” says G. Chitra, a mother of two sons who study at the school. She was referring to the picture cards prescribed by ABL to teach language. “What’s important for me is that the principal doesn’t reprimand us if the kids are late for school. She understands that it takes me an hour by bus to get here.”
Since the ABL’s laddered system allows children to choose where on the learning curve they want to be—by dividing every subject into skills and further into activities—a chance delay in coming to school isn’t viewed punitively. In a sense, ABL creates laissez-faire classrooms, where children chart their own growth.
That ABL even got off the ground is remarkable. “The bureaucracy in Tamil Nadu had a problem-solving attitude,” says Ramachandar Krishnamurthy, an independent education researcher who has studied the state’s schools. “There was resistance from teachers’ unions and from parents, but Vijayakumar brought in his administrative and bureaucratic capabilities and also got the political backing.”
But despite low teacher and student absenteeism, strong school enrolment, and this new approach to education, the problem of poor learning outcomes refuses to fade away. The 2009 Assessment Survey Evaluation Research (Aser), conducted by the non-profit Pratham, labelled Tamil Nadu as a weak-performing red state, along with Rajasthan and Bihar, where more than 20% of students of classes I and II couldn’t identify alphabets.
Even as the state’s administrators scorned Pratham’s evaluation, the results of Educational Initiatives’ 2008-09 Student Learning Study, across 18 states and nearly 3,000 urban and rural schools, were released. They showed Tamil Nadu students to be faring far worse than Kerala—the first-ranked state—and even lower than Orissa, Maharashtra, Haryana and Uttarakhand.
“People don’t like to look at outcomes because it spotlights a problem,” says Balaji Sampath of the non-profit Association for India’s Development, which has worked in Tamil Nadu’s government schools and has ties with Pratham. “But if you don’t acknowledge a problem, you cannot solve it.”
Shukla’s upcoming report promises to at least partially resolve this puzzle of Tamil Nadu’s poor learning outcomes. After extensive interviews with parents, teachers and students, the survey has zeroed on Tamil Nadu’s Achilles heel: undernourished curricula.
“When there is darkness, even the tip of a lit incense stick seems like it has a lot of light,” Shukla says of Tamil Nadu’s weak educational content. “But you need it to be a halogen lamp and not an incense stick.”
In mathematics, for instance, where most other states tested students on multiplication, division, addition and subtraction within a single sum, Tamil Nadu’s syllabus focused on single mathematical functions within a problem. Creative writing and oral skills, assumed to be key for developmental learning, were not accorded priority. In the sciences, the emphasis remained on factual lists and not on understanding interrelationships and fleshing out arguments.
These lacunae are, slowly, being addressed. Over the last two years, teams of teachers have been trying to translplant the weak innards of their textbooks. A partnership with Tara Books, an independent publisher, has led to the creation of Tamil and English readers intended for children who progress quickly. Mathematics and science textbooks have taken on more colourful avatars with illustrated content.
Acknowledging the inability of government educators to teach spoken English, bilingual audiotapes—in the form of radio programmes—have been entering classrooms since last year to improve students’ speaking and listening skills.
“English teachers at the primary levels have largely studied in Tamil-medium schools, so their understanding of the language is weak and pronunciations are different,” admits N. Latha, joint director of the state’s SSA unit. “The ABL methodology is only a means to an end. For 1.5 lakh teachers to digest it and go to classrooms with 100% understanding will take time.”
The mindset of Tamil Nadu’s teachers, observers say, has worked both for and against the ABL system. When the methodology had to be implemented, a culture of following instructions implicitly helped ensure that it was implemented widely and rapidly. But the same habit may also be preventing teachers from raising the bar or taking the initiative to identify and instruct weak students one-on-one.
Shukla recollects an instance where teachers from Kerala were visiting Tamil Nadu’s schools as part of an observation exercise sponsored by the United Nations Children’s Fund (Unicef).
“The Kerala team observed that the teachers were following the instructions to the T, without applying their mind,” Shukla says. “But the Tamil Nadu teachers said that the idea was not to think for yourself, but to do what was being asked of you.”