Improving learning outcomes: Shifting the focus from syllabus

Updated: Apr 26, 2019 1:51 AM

We need a fundamental shift from a focus on syllabus completion to a focus on delivery of competencies. We also have to reimagine in-service teacher education system to provide relevant skills and support to teachers at scale. Lastly, we have to rethink vocational education in secondary schools

Improving learning, learning levels, school system, Teacher Eligibility Test, vocational educationIndia also needs to fundamentally reimagine its in-service teacher education system to provide relevant skills and support to teachers at scale.

Alok Kumar & Seema Bansal

It is widely known that learning levels in our country are poor by any benchmark. ASER reports every year that roughly 50% of Grade 5 children cannot read a Grade 2 text. Further, as students go through the school system, a significant percentage drop out (often due to low relevance or poor economic return from staying in school). Only about 30% of children enrolling in Grade 1 graduate from Grade 12. And of those who do, a majority do not possess the requisite skills to be readily employable. In our previous article (‘Improving learning outcomes: Fix the chassis before tuning the engine’; FE, April 25, 2019;, we talked about the major structural challenges of sub-scale schools and teacher vacancies. This is leading to multigrade, multilevel classroom environments, which, in turn, cause poor learning outcomes and low effectiveness of others interventions. With significant political will, in a committed 2-3 year timeframe, these challenges can be addressed and delivery structures in any state optimised for effective teaching-learning.

Also read: Creating schools that are functional the most basic input to improving learning outcomes

There are three other immediate issues, which need to be tackled at the same time.

One, children are far behind where they need to be, and teachers are focused on ‘covering the syllabus’ rather than bridging this gap. Given the teachers’ unidimensional focus on completing the book, students are mostly unable to make any sense of what is taught to them, thus falling further behind each year.

Second, given the inadequately-resourced and poorly-staffed teacher training institutes, teachers themselves struggle—both with subject knowledge as well as the know-how to teach it. A recent Teacher Needs Assessment carried out in a state in central India suggests that 76% of primary teachers are themselves not fully familiar with Grade 5 competencies. Estimates suggest that 10 lakh teachers in India lack even the on-paper qualifications for the job, and only about 17% of applicants qualify as primary school teachers and 15% as middle school teachers after taking the standardised Teacher Eligibility Test.

Finally, our curriculum lacks relevance, particularly at the secondary level. Every child is taught trigonometry and rolling friction and details of the nervous system. Why? Education needs to provide pathways to both higher education as well as employment, and give students the choice between the two. The employment pathway currently is completely broken, and our current vocational system is not working. On the other side of the equation, employers struggle for skilled talent, particularly to meet the demands of a workforce ready to deal with a rapidly evolving economy.

So, how do we address these challenges? There are three solutions on offer.

First, we need a fundamental shift at every level of the system and in every person’s mindset—a shift from a focus on syllabus completion to a focus on delivery of competencies. Instead of tracking how many chapters they’ve completed, teachers need to track what competencies their students have mastered. In the near term, given the current gaps in learning at all levels and to prevent children from falling further behind, we need campaign-mode remediation. Dedicated time should be carved out in the regular school day to bridge these gaps, and students should be taught based on their learning levels rather than grades. Teaching at the right level is a research-proven strategy that has worked in India across states. Programmes based on this strategy are being implemented in Haryana, Jharkhand, Madhya Pradesh and Odisha. These states have ensured teachers are provided concrete guidance through scripted handbooks, and students are given workbooks for rigorous practice. Steady gains in student learning are visible in state assessments as a result of this intervention.

India also needs to fundamentally reimagine its in-service teacher education system to provide relevant skills and support to teachers at scale. We need changes in curriculum as well as delivery model. The curriculum needs to ensure teachers master both the content they need to deliver as well as the approach to teach it most effectively. For example, a teacher first needs to understand herself why adding fractions requires conversion to a common denominator, and then she needs to be able to translate this understanding to her students by using hands-on material, concrete examples and real application. Training delivery needs to move from a standardised, cascade model to one that is personalised and delivered direct to teachers. Technology can play a role in delivering high-quality content to each teacher, where the learning pathway is customised for her based on her starting point and ongoing assessment. To supplement this, states need to explore innovative partnerships to deliver in-person training without the traditional training cascade.

Finally, we need to rethink vocational education in secondary schools. Currently, about 8,000 schools across the country offer 1-2 trades in an attempt to vocationalise secondary education. The trades are outdated and schools don’t have the necessary staff and infrastructure to deliver them. We need to first align on the objectives of vocational education—is it to provide multi-skill exposure and enable better trade selection post schooling, or to provide in-depth knowledge in a single sector and create direct employment pathways after school? Accordingly, we need to reimagine our vocational education curriculum and delivery, starting with an assessment of the relevance of trades offered. In terms of delivery, we need to choose between continuing the current smaller-scale model across multiple schools (and if so, better plan for the necessary infra and staff expertise) or pivoting to large-scale vocational centres where children stream into this path. Once streamed, they are exposed to a multi-skill curriculum with specialist teachers, well-resourced labs and apprenticeship. While this type of model has proven successful in countries like Germany and the Netherlands, feasibility, funding and resources need to be evaluated for India.
If our school education system has to maintain its relevance, it is imperative that we create some of these fundamental shifts. Public schools need to offer a meaningful education that can help bridge the demographic divide, and truly transform children’s life chances. If we can do this, our future can be truly bright.

Kumar is adviser, NITI Aayog, and Bansal is director, Social Impact, Boston Consulting Group. Views are personal

(This is the second in a three-part series.)

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