For years, our education system has operated on the century-old, industrial-age factory model where learning is guided by student age rather than learning levels, abilities or interests. It is assumed that the same pace and style of instruction is optimal for, if not all, most students. However, the truth is that students learn at different paces, and have different learning styles (visual learners, auditory learners, kinaesthetic learners etc.). Hence, the typical age-grade organisation of schools, combined with a single, standardised pace and style of instruction is a major constraint in helping children learn effectively.
In the context of India, the situation is even worse. A typical Indian classroom is highly heterogeneous with students of varying learning levels. This can be attributed to a number of reasons including the no detention policy of the Right to Education Act. Fifty-three percent of children in grade 5 cannot read a grade 2 level text and over 70% cannot do basic arithmetic1. There is a huge mismatch between a child’s school grade and actual learning level, making it almost impossible for a single teacher to cater to all students. According to the recent National Achievement Survey (NAS), the percentage of class 5 students getting more than half the questions correct is only 36% for reading comprehension and the corresponding figures for mathematics and environmental studies are 37% and 46% respectively.
So the real challenge for India is to make the education system more student-centric. And at Central Square Foundation, we believe this can be achieved by providing personalised learning. Personalised learning refers to instruction in which the pace of learning and the instructional approach are optimised for the needs of each learner. Learning objectives, instructional approaches, instructional content and learning activities all vary based on the learner needs2. Usually, classroom instructions are targeted to filter out and cater to the high performers. When not taught at their levels, students who are far behind the scheduled grade curriculum, lose interest and fall behind even further, creating a huge backlog in learning. Personalised learning will ensure that all students in the class are learning, and has the potential to produce significant gains in student learning outcomes.
However, in a country like ours, where there are 17 lakh untrained teachers and the average pupil-teacher ratio is 273, implementing personalised learning in our classrooms becomes a huge challenge. Teachers are inadequately prepared to correctly diagnose the learning level of a child and tailor their teaching accordingly. Hence, teachers need to be supported with the correct pedagogical tools to enable personalised learning. The question then is ‘can technology be leveraged to enable personalised learning at scale?’
Technology definitely has the potential to solve this problem as it can non-discriminatorily cater to the diversity of learning styles, speed and choice with consistent quality, on all days and at all times. However, the idea of using technology in education is met with scepticism from both academic and practitioner communities, and fairly so. Despite significant investments from both public and private sectors, the evidence of the impact of technology on student learning is very weak. Numerous meta-studies from around the world have come to the same conclusion4. In the next blog, we will delve deeper into why technological interventions in education have not been very successful, while simultaneously exploring what then should be the new role of technology in education in order to improve student learning outcomes.