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On 25 September, in what had been billed as a historic beginning, we saw leaders of more than 150 countries, including Prime Minister Narendra Modi, meet in the United Nations to adopt a set of Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) to transform the world by 2030. SDGs will build on the Millennium Development Goals, which directed the global development efforts from 2000-15.

What does this mean for the education of Indian children—girls in particular? SDG 4 sets out the goal of ensuring “inclusive and equitable quality education" and promoting “lifelong learning opportunities for all", and SDG 5 affirms achieving “gender equality and empower all women and girls".

Read together, it is clear that our education system has to deliver on providing quality education for all, and girls cannot be left behind in this process.

In our effort to get children to school and retain them there, we saw the introduction of several schemes by different governments, such as mid-day meals, construction of girls’ toilets, free cycles for girls and free laptops for students, all of which resulted in tremendous progress, with almost all our children going to school. Enrolment of girls has shown considerable improvement over the years.

However, while we have achieved schooling, learning has proved to be elusive. On one hand we have what seem to be esoteric debates on the purpose of learning—whether it is for economic growth or holistic development of the child. Whatever be the purpose, one would not deny that as a result of education, our children should not only be adept at reading, writing and do math, but also should be able to reason, analyse, apply, create and, in essence, become thinkers.

The Annual Status of Education Report (ASER), and studies by the consulting firm Educational Initiatives and the National Council of Educational Research and Training (NCERT) have pointed out that our learning levels are low. Nationally, about 47.0% of students at Class V can read standard Class II-level text books and 26% of all children in Class V could solve a three-digit by one-digit division. Typically, this kind of division problem is part of the Class III or Class IV curriculum in most states.

The core problem in India is rote learning. The extent of rote is such that less than half the children of Class IV, who could multiply “23x3", could answer “what is 23 times 3". We cannot reform education, or aim to improve the quality of student learning outcomes, without tackling this problem.

The National Curriculum Framework (NCF) 2005 noted that we have bartered understanding for memory-based, short-term information accumulation. This must be reversed.

What is more shocking is that this type of rote learning is not just confined to public education. Students in our elite private schools also aren’t much better-off. The quality of education study on India’s top schools by Wipro-Educational Initiatives in 2011 showed that while students are doing well on learning procedures, they do not really understand the concepts, are weak in practical competencies like measurement, application, and integrating ideas to solve real-life problems, and writing. Overall, our best students seem to be two years behind the average student internationally.

There is a general perception that the board exams is a case of “a tail wagging the dog" and has been the root cause of rote learning. Whether it’s board exams, school exams or large-scale achievement surveys, it is true that our assessments today focus on “HOW MUCH did you score and “HOW MANY children passed". They don’t focus on “WHAT did you learn" and “HOW WELL did you learn". It does not suffice that we make board exams optional or compulsory; the quality and nature of questions in the exams should check not whether the student has memorized, but whether the student has understood what he/she has learnt.

The next decade is going to see a tremendous thrust on improving learning outcomes, and countries, including India, will require to show progress on these indicators. This is likely to result in more assessments. As long as assessments continue to be just used for monitoring how much and how many, and not for diagnosis that can provide feedback for improving learning, one will not really be able to leverage the forthcoming policy shift on tracking outcomes into meaningful, quality education.

World over, the experience of both developing and developed countries has shown that improving student learning is proving to be more difficult than rocket science. While countries have striven to put school resources in place, it hasn’t necessarily resulted in better learning. Similarly, measures like initiating a new curriculum, massive teacher-training exercises, and higher frequency of assessments, when adopted, are seen to shake the system a bit, but very quickly, the systems settle into the old equilibrium.

Given such a scenario, how difficult is it to improve quality of learning for our students? What we may need is a paradigm shift in approach—a prioritising learning approach based on a deep understanding of the science of how children learn. Such an approach will diagnose learning issues in depth; research possible reasons for students’ inability to acquire skills, understand misconceptions; figure out ways to teach the concept better and create suitable learning experiences for each child to learn. This approach will enable us to leverage assessments, which loop back to curriculum, pedagogy and targeted teacher training together in an integrated manner to address the quality of student learning.

A prioritising learning approach will require assessments to identify such issues, while curriculum, pedagogy and teacher training will target them specifically to provide quality learning for students.

Traditionally, we have been good in creating well-meaning intentions in our policies, and yet failed miserably in implementation. Will the next decade be different in improving learning quality?

Vyjayanthi Sankar is an international consultant for learning quality and assessments for the Brookings Institution, World Bank and UNICEF, and a former vice-president at Educational Initiatives.

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