Children in rural India are creative, problem-solvers, cognitively nimble, capable of taking ownership of their learning, but only if we show them the way
By Vineet Nayar
It has been 10 years since the Right to Education Act came into effect, but India is still grappling with low learning outcomes amongst school kids in rural India. Learning outcomes is the skill a child is expected to acquire after completing a specific grade of education. Unfortunately, 60% of grade-5 students can’t read grade-2 text or recognise numbers beyond 99.
Having worked in primary education for the last few years, I know how important foundation years are in shaping a child’s future. While a pleasant primary experience prompts a child to continue middle school and pursue higher education, an unexciting, boring, primary stint can lead to a child dropping out of school even before she completes primary education. In fact, 36% of children drop out even before completing primary education, and the reason is outdated teaching practices.
Perhaps that’s the reason why, despite doubling investment in education in the past decade, learning outcomes, especially at primary school level, have plummeted. With 14 crore children in public schools, this negative trend needs to be reversed.
I believe no policy framework, or statements of intent, or investment will reverse this trend unless we refocus on engagement between teachers and children in the class—what we call classroom transaction. Of all the reasons that affect learning outcomes, the unmotivated and uninspired teacher, who lacks resources to teach a multi-grade classroom, tops the list.
Research has shown that the single biggest factor in student achievement is the teacher, and unless our teachers have frugal and innovative tools at their disposal, learning will remain limited. So, we need to inspire teachers though tools that reduce and not increase their workload, and make learning and teaching fun, making classrooms an exciting place to be in.
We are yet to fully appreciate the role of technology in the learning process beyond expensive and impractical computes and tablets. It is frugal ideas in leveraging technology that have changed the way we live, and these can transform the way teachers teach and children learn. Technology-driven pedagogy (TDP) can go a long way in attaining our learning goals by making the classroom transaction more creative, interactive, interesting and engaging.
I also believe we need to innovate and evolve an effective pedagogy by first defining the problem afflicting rural education in granular details. For example, while teaching English language to rural children, we need to understand that they have limited exposure to the language at home or surroundings. So, we need to find ways of developing English listening and speaking skills, and only then proceed with reading and writing. But how do we do this when our teachers can’t speak English?
Similarly, a subject like mathematics is usually hated by children because of the way it is taught in schools. Teachers in public schools do not have innovative teaching-learning materials like in many private schools to teach maths using concrete form, and then move to abstract form. But other than availability of such material, it is also true that our teachers are not even trained in this pedagogy process and may not use it even if they had the resources.
This is what we have attempted at the Sampark Foundation—and been able to transform the learning outcomes for 70 lakh children studying in 76,000 public-funded schools in India. Our key innovations comprise a battery-operated audio box with a voice mascot called Sampark Didi, which delivers lessons in the form of songs and stories, and helps first-time English learners by using the LSRW (listening, speaking, reading and writing) approach. Audio lessons ignite a child’s imagination and introduce the child to some widely used English words before she moves to multimedia workbooks with QR codes for reading and writing. Similarly, a frugal maths kit helps teach in concrete form before moving to abstract form through multimedia workbooks.
Teachers are also given mock lessons in video form on all concepts using this pedagogy in a bot-enabled mobile app that works without the internet. We have combined it with extensive teacher training and rigorous real-time monitoring to create a significant increase in learning outcomes over the last three years.
Having worked with teachers and children for so many years, I have learnt that today’s children—including those in government schools in rural India—are cognitively nimble, creative, problem-solvers. And they are capable of taking ownership of their learning if we show them the way.
The author, former CEO of HCL Technologies, is founder chairman, Sampark Foundation. Views are personal