To see class 3 student Gautaman Balasubramanian frame and solve a three digit addition problem in almost no time is to understand why chalk and board teaching isn’t always the best way to go.
The secret behind his success is a combination of teaching tools like the number rod, beads and the abacus, which his school, Rani Meyyammai Primary School, a government-aided school in Adyar, uses to teach children basic arithmetic.
And these tools are just one of the elements of the increasingly popular strategy of Activity Based Learning (ABL) that this school has mastered.
It’s a strategy that is offering India’s vast and creaking schooling system a new approach to ensure that children actually learn, at a time when repeated surveys and studies have shown that students across the country have learning outcomes far below what is expected for the class they sit in.
“Nalla cholli taruvanga (they teach us well),” says Balasubramanian, shy, careful with his words.
In any class in the school, about 30 boys and girls are enjoying themselves.
They are not playing – they are studying and learning. ABL employs peer tutoring, so each class has a mix of students from standards 1 to 4, with the older children helping the younger ones.
Children use the abacus, number rods and beads to learn basic arithmetic at the the Rani Meyyammai Primary School in Adyar, Chennai.
Lessons are broken into small segments to make learning easier, and teachers employ continuous evaluation instead of tests and examinations.
ABL has already transformed Tamil Nadu’s learning processes and outcomes.
Till the early 2000s, Tamil Nadu was slipping in educational outcomes according to annual ratings brought out by the National University for Educational Planning and Administration (NUEPA). In 2004, then Chennai Municipal Commissioner P Vijayakumar started ABL in a few schools and over the next few years extended it to all 264 city government schools.
As the success of the teaching technique grew apparent, the Tamil Nadu government made ABL mandatory across all government and government-aided schools. About 3700 schools follow it today. And Tamil Nadu is second – behind only Puducherry – in the latest NUEPA rankings.
Children using the abacus method at the the Rani Meyyammai Primary School in Adyar, Chennai.
A recipient of the Prime Minister’s award for Excellence in Public Administration, Vijayakumar is convinced that it can be replicated all across the country. “If it can happen in Tamil Nadu, it can happen anywhere,” he says.
Education department officials from states like Gujarat, Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh, Himachal Pradesh, Bihar are routine visitors. IAS probationers from Lal Bahadur Shastri Academy also visit these TN schools.
Unlike students in schools where traditional teaching techniques are followed, these children learn in a team environment, gain respect for elders, discipline and dedication, experts say.
Because ABL stresses on learning concepts through fun activities, children are encouraged to think for themselves and gain confidence.
“We have no slow learners from our school,” claims N Mani Mekalai, principal of the Adyar school. Strong math, language and communications skills are the biggest benefits of the ABL methodology, according to Mekalai, who has taught at the school for 30 years.
“I wish, we had ABL in our childhood. We have missed so much,” Mekalai says, describing the method as a “silent revolution” sweeping across the education sector.
But it wasn’t easy getting parents to accept their children studying in the same class as students from other grades. Teachers would refuse to use mathematics cards and stuck to their traditional methods.
“It took patient talking to parents and to teachers,” Mekalai said. She herself had undergone three years of training, over weekends and holidays to imbibe both the techniques and the vision behind ABL.
But for lakhs of students across TN, it's been worth it. ABL isn’t just an idea any more. It’s working on the ground.