For long it has been recognised that classrooms in Indian schools contain students of different grades, making them multi-grade classrooms. The pandemic has affected 320 million students and when schools reopen many among them would have fallen behind further. Online teaching has bypassed the poor students in both urban and rural areas due to school closure and the non-availability of smartphones with most students from indigent backgrounds. Nobel laureate Abhijit Banerjee’s insights from his research hold promise for bridging the learning gap.
The thrust on universal school education might have created high enrollment rates. However, attendance on average is 71 per cent in random visits, and in states like Bihar, UP and West Bengal is 50 per cent or lower. Much more than the attendance is the problem of low learning level in the best of situations. An ASER study showed that 50 percent of Class V level students can’t do the Class II level maths of dividing two-digit figures by single-digit or two-digit subtraction.
The inescapable conclusion is that children do not attend because many of them find the classroom boring. It is also proven that enrolment figures and teachers’ salaries are not important in terms of learning outcomes. The salary of teachers of public schools is high relative to per capita GDP and is in multiple of that of teachers of cheap private schools. Non-permanent teachers end up teaching better with even lower remuneration. Overall performance of private schools is at least as good, if not greatly superior. But their cost per child is much lower compared to government schools.
A Randomised Control Trial in Andhra Pradesh showed private schools tend to teach maths and Telugu less well, but they teach Hindi and English better. Hence, the belief that children going to private schools consistently perform better than government school students could be because of selection bias as students from comparatively better-off households can afford private schooling.
Banerjee says students falling behind are not dumb but they are so because of the structural problem in our education system. There is one single way of learning and if one can’t fit in she feels defeated. In our schools, teachers do not encourage students to do it their way. Teachers don’t teach the algorithm of doing it differently. The second problem is sophisticating the curriculum (which he calls the tyranny of curriculum) which means the teacher is struggling himself to help out the lagging students. The teachers end up teaching what the curriculum says literally rather than what the children need. The opportunity for learning for lagging students closes up when one denies heterogeneity in the class. If some students in Class V remain at the level of Class III, their need is not addressed. If anything, the pandemic has exacerbated the heterogeneity.
Are these students really talentless? Is the system justified in focusing on the average student? Harrow, a psychologist from Harvard, tested it with slum children below the age of four in Delhi. It was, of course, a test of non-symbolic abilities in figuring out the difference like seven dots are more than five dots. She also found the same correlation between subsequent symbolic and non-symbolic skills as in the US. In another experiment, Banerjee’s findings are revealing.
Children used in the market selling vegetables and grain to buyers did their maths/arithmetic well in hypothetical transactions with different prices and different units, and they did it quickly for returning the change 90 percent of the time and often 99 percent of the time. The same children could not do the school maths well. Conversely, the children who were doing school maths well found it difficult to solve market problems and got them right only 50 percent of the time. So children who did very well in the market knew mathematics but didn’t know how to do school maths as their alternative algorithm was not acceptable to the teacher. When they fall behind and heterogeneity is not addressed, learning outcome further deteriorates.
Focus on the child and what she needs to learn is the advice. Going by the experiment carried out in UP, where such children are made to learn half a day for 40 days with the homogenous group regardless of class and the other half with the others in the class holds promise. Forty days of learning with the homogenous group have helped bridge two-thirds of the gap between the median and lowest child.
A fish can jump. But there is a price for measuring them against inappropriate standards. They are more intelligent in memory and cognitive power, matching higher vertebrates. As the quote credited to Einstein goes, if a fish is judged by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid. Can our education system change its attitude to curriculum and work around heterogeneity to give the kids who have fallen behind a chance? Only time will show.
Former Secretary, Government of India