Reopening and reimagining schools

IE Thinc, an initiave of The Indian Express, explored how to rebuild schools in a world altered by the pandemic, and discussed urgent ways to address the learning loss. Expert panelists: Rukmini Banerji, CEO, Pratham; Atishi, MLA, Aam Aadmi Party; Usha Menon, founder, Jodo Gyan, and Ben Piper, Senior Director, Africa Education, RTI International. Moderated by: Senior Associate Editor Uma Vishnu. This session was presented by the Central Square Foundation.

On the digital divide

Atishi: The pandemic has taken us back by a decade or two in terms of a massive digital divide between those who have the technology and those who don’t. There are upper-class households, where each child is sitting with her own laptop or tablet, having high-quality broadband connection and, therefore, largely uninterrupted education. On the other hand, among the children going to budget, private schools and government schools, even in a place like Delhi, let alone the rural hinterland, not more than 50-60 per cent of older children have access to devices. Often you have one device in the house and if there is more than one child, only one of them gets the device, which often belongs to the father and is available only at certain times of the day, and broadband connections are rare. We were in a very deeply divided education and learning system even under normal situations. It’s going to be a very real scenario for children who have lost almost two years of academic development, to return to school and not know how to read or write.

On fluidity of the situation

Rukmini Banerji: The pandemic has uncovered the many reasons as to why school is so important in the lives of children and families. We are very lucky in India, because we’ve had 15 years of very high enrolment and, in many states, very high attendance. In the last year-and-a-half, there have been all kinds of learning. While academic learning may have gone down, every one of our kids has learned lots of other things, both desirable and undesirable. To me, it looks like we have to take advantage of the fluidity of the situation. I’m not as grim as Atishi. At Pratham, we’ve been running these mohalla learning camps, in almost 10,000-12,000 communities. The response from children and the communities has been overwhelming. I feel like the motivation to return to your friends, teachers, and to learn is high. Now the question is, how, as the adults of India, we organise ourselves to make this possible. Probably it’s going to be possible in many different ways, and then somewhat fluid ways, so I feel it’s a very exciting time, because there are options, but we must stake our claim at doing what is the right thing at this time.

When Kenyan schools shut and reopened

Ben Piper: When you think of coming back to school, how do we scaffold and support catch-up so that children aren’t missing skills? …Let’s focus the instruction on where they actually are, then combine that with a catch-up programme targeted at their actual right level. That combination of things is the best bet for a country like Kenya — and maybe India too.

On catch-up and how to do it

Banerji: Learning levels were already worryingly low and learning trajectories quite flat. If I look at Uttar Pradesh, from 2010-18, year-on-year, learning gains, particularly in government schools, depending on the grade and cohort, you’ll see anywhere between five and15 percentage point improvement in very basic reading skills in a normal year. Cut to looking at when a very focused attempt was made pre-COVID to improve these skills. We saw that when you put grade-level curriculum aside, for a couple of hours a day, and focus really on building basic math and reading, particularly for kids who are in Class III and above, you saw higher gains than the annual gains in a period of three months. And this was with the same teachers, same kids, same system, and hardly any increased expenditure, which means that a lot of our low growth is because of this great curriculum stranglehold that we have on our grades. When the government system decides to focus on the foundational skills, starts with what the kids know, and builds upwards from there, we can see big changes in a short period of time.

On playful pedagogy

Piper: We are evaluating five different programmes worldwide, including in Bangladesh, implementing play-based pedagogy. We don’t have evidence yet, but in my experience, a combination of efforts can make a difference. If you can’t get away from the grade-level tyranny, you can focus on better instruction in the classroom on a daily basis. It remains to be seen how much playful pedagogy itself can make a difference, but some of the evidence suggests that better teaching, in general, is more interactive, whether or not it has all the elements of playful pedagogy is a different question. But better teaching engages the students more actively.

Atishi: We need to be thinking about how to make schools interesting. All learning needs to be fun. That really has to be a fundamental benchmark of any good education system and that’s not easy because all adults have it ingrained that suffering is part of the DNA of schooling and education. One of the reasons why children are so dull in the classroom is that they have no idea what is going on. And you are teaching them algebra or geometry at a time when we need to be teaching them how to read or add. Children in kindergarten are natural scientists. You ask them anything, they have answers and opinions about the universe. You ask the same questions by the time they are in Class 12, no one is interested. We kill that instinct by the time they manage to make it through school.

On the conceptual understanding of mathematics

Menon: It’s about building on what children already know. Children are natural problem solvers. An interesting study was done in 2017 by J-PAL (Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab) that looked at children in Kolkata who were working in informal markets. It showed that children are actually able to subtract and divide when the context is what they know. But these were children who were not able to add, subtract or divide in a school kind of way. Any textbook would mention basic operations but very little thinking has gone into what is basic about basic operations. You need to build on their already existing number sense rather than falling into the trap of doing the algorithm before. [The problem with] the curriculum is not that it is grade-based but because the grades are developed by not looking at what children know but what they are expected to know.

On the new education policy

Banerji: During Covid, India launched a new education policy. There is a big focus on foundational skills but there is also a foundational stage — age three to eight, when certain things need to be done with them, which is very appropriate for that age — a solid foundation. Today, in India, children who are supposedly enrolled in the second standard have literally never been to school. So calling them the second standard doesn’t make sense. We should call them the “foundational stage”. There are mixed-age groups in standards one and two and I would like to call that stage “Leap Forward”. Everything we do with them should be a springboard in which we don’t make the mistakes we have made before. This is where doing better instruction, better scaffolding, bringing in of parents, will help strengthen things.

The way forward

Banerji: My proposition is that when schools open, we don’t get too worried about these grade-level outcomes but focus on building foundations, that the teacher starts at the child’s level and moves upwards, we could come back much stronger. And we give confidence: in the teacher’s ability, student’s ability, to parents. These catch-ups, well-designed, simple to execute, need to be put into place… Children respond very well to quick progress.

Bikkrama Daulet Singh: I want to emphasise on three priorities. We need to keep the focus on foundational learning, which is at the core of the the learning poverty crisis in India. Second bit is sustaining home learning programmes. And the third priority is around the private sector which needs to be strengthened. We need to figure how to bring more transparency and accountability.

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