Covid-19: Adopting a new method of teaching | Opinion
June and July herald the new academic year in India. The sight of smiling children trooping into schools is a joy to behold. This year, however, the Covid-19 pandemic has led to prolonged school closures with millions of children forced to stay home. The closure has led to learning losses far greater than the usual “summer loss” and this is likely to continue, leading to chronic learning deficits during schooling and economic losses as these children become adults.
India already experiences a deeply-entrenched learning deficit (Annual Status of Education Report 2018 reports that less than one-third of children in class 3, and one-half of children in class 5, are able to read a class 2-level text), which the pandemic will exacerbate. Many states with low learning outcomes are also facing an influx of returning migrants, bringing with them children who now have to be enrolled in schools. These children may need more learning support as they cope with recent disruptions and need to acclimatise to the new learning environment.
As governments deliberate on school reopening, there is a clamour among policymakers to reduce the curriculum. While this is laudable, it is not a good enough response as this assumes that children are learning at the appropriate grade level and the only problem to address is the reduction in instruction time. However, children who have experienced learning losses in the past months need targeted interventions to help them gain and retain foundational skills.
One such intervention is Pratham’s Teaching at the Right Level programme. The idea behind the programme is deceptively simple — if children’s learning levels can be quickly and accurately assessed by the teacher, they can be grouped by level rather than by grade. Teachers can then provide instruction tailored to the students’ current learning levels. This will enable children to gain basic reading and arithmetic skills in a relatively short period of time.
Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo led a team of J-PAL-affiliated researchers to evaluate versions of this programme. It has been found to be effective when delivered by volunteers in the community (Bihar) or by government teachers in schools as part of the school day (Haryana) or by Pratham staff supported by volunteers in an intensive short-duration camp programme (Uttar Pradesh). We found that almost twice as many children in class 3 to 5 exposed to the camp programme in Uttar Pradesh (UP) could read four-sentence texts, as compared to children who were not, bridging the gap between children in UP and Haryana, a state with significantly higher learning outcomes.
The camp model may also be much more adaptable to the current situation with its unique demands on social distancing, integrating migrant children, and the ever-present threat of localised, targeted lockdowns. For example, the duration and frequency of camps can be varied to suit local conditions. Migrants who have returned can be recruited as volunteers to assist teachers, and children can be brought into schools based on their current learning level in reading or arithmetic (so there would be fewer children but with more homogenous abilities) in order to promote both social distancing and focused attention from teachers.
In these uncertain times, children need some semblance of normalcy. A school programme tailored to suit their needs could be something that they can look forward to. A silver lining in the dark cloud of the pandemic is that it has demystified and strengthened the need for research and evidence. Isn’t it then fitting that we adopt a well-tested and proven programme to stem learning losses among children?