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Reality of our classrooms

Learning Achievements

In the last two decades India has made impressive progress towards universalising access to primary school. Over 96 per cent of all children are now enrolled in school. Yet very often, we forget that children go to school in order to learn. Increasingly, empirical evidence suggests that enrolment in school does not automatically ensure learning.

Understanding what happens inside the classroom is fundamental to thinking about how to help children learn. A recently released study (Bhattacharjea, Wadhwa and Banerji 2011) tracked a large sample of 30,000 rural children studying in Classes II and IV in 900 schools across five states (Andhra Pradesh, Assam, Himachal Pradesh, Jharkhand, and Rajasthan). The study highlights key issues that need to be addressed in order to improve children’s learning outcomes. Five critical issues are highlighted here.

The ‘age-grade’ organisation of classrooms is a myth.

In India, as elsewhere in the world, schools are organised around certain assumptions about age and grade. For example, the term “Class IV” conjures up an image of a separate room with a Class IV teacher, children of roughly the same age who are enrolled in Class IV and who are using Class IV textbooks. All of these children would be moving a year at a time through the school system, so that a child who starts Class I at age 6 would be in Class VIII at age 14. A further assumption is that if children are in Class IV, they would have attained the learning expected of them in Class III.

These assumptions do not match the reality of our classrooms. To mention just a few examples:

Less than a third of the 1,800 classrooms studied conformed to the one teacher/one grade image. In most classrooms, students from two or three grades were grouped together with one teacher.

Among the Class II children covered by this study, one out of every three children was older than expected. Children in Class II ranged in age from 5 to 14.

Even in a relatively well performing state like Himachal Pradesh, less than a third of all Class IV children were able to fluently read a paragraph at a level of difficulty that they were expected to transact a year earlier, in Class III.

Across both grades, one out of every 10 children belonged to a family whose home language was different from the school’s medium of instruction. Less than half had any print material available at home other than the textbook.

Neither educational nor professional qualifications equip teachers to deal with this diversity.

This study indicates that neither higher educational qualifications nor more teacher training are associated with better student learning. What does matter is a teachers’ ability to teach. For example: if teachers are to engage in ‘continuous and comprehensive evaluation’ as mandated by RTE, are they able to spot mistakes commonly made by children? Given that they are dealing with young children, do they have the ability to explain textbook content in simple language or in easy steps? Since many children currently in primary school are first generation learners, are they creative in devising activities that bridge the divide between home and school? Data from this study suggest that teachers struggle with many of these tasks that lie at the heart of good teaching.

Textbooks have unrealistic expectations about what children can do and should learn during one year.

Classrooms in India are driven by textbook content, and textbooks in every state make assumptions about what children in a given grade already know and how much they can learn in a year. Although this research showed that children’s learning levels improved over the course of a year, in every state, most children are at least two grades below the level of proficiency assumed by their textbooks. This means that teachers are teaching content at a level of difficulty that most students struggle with even two years later.

Teachers understand the importance of ‘child friendly’ practices. But classrooms are not friendly at all.

In a school close to Ajmer, Rajasthan, a teacher once told me that she tolerated the deafening noise level in her classroom because during teacher training she had been told that children should be encouraged to express themselves and should not be inhibited in any way. She understood that ‘child-centred’ classrooms were important, but had no real idea of what this meant in practice.

Both the National Curriculum Framework and the RTE Act stress the importance of child-centred and child-friendly classrooms. As part of this study, a simple checklist of six easily observable indicators was used during a classroom observation conducted in over 1,700 classrooms. These simple measures included: did students ask the teacher questions? Did the teacher use local information to make academic content relevant to her students?

Analysis of the data from 850 hours of classroom observation shows that these characteristics are rarely observed in primary school classrooms, although there is considerable variation across states. But where ‘child friendly’ classrooms were observed, these characteristics were strongly correlated with learning outcomes.

Children who attend regularly have better learning outcomes.

It is common sense that teachers and students must be regularly present in the classroom in order for teaching-learning to take place. While there has been considerable debate over teacher absenteeism in recent years, the much more serious problem of student absenteeism has received far less attention.

This study tracked almost 30,000 children individually on each of three visits to their schools. It found that children who attended school regularly had better learning outcomes than those who did not. There is an urgent need to move the focus from tracking enrolment to tracking and understanding participation in school — of both teachers and students.

The Right to Education Act is in the process of being implemented. Empirical evidence on scale from different parts of India collected through studies such as this one can be used to inform the process of creating better school and classroom environments for our children. The dream is that RTE will enable every child in India to go to school regularly, learn well consistently, and complete at least eight years of schooling successfully. The objective is achievable — but only if education policies are based on ground realities.

The Hindu
, 17 December 2011


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