We Must Prioritize, Assess, Remediate and Innovate as Schools Reopen
By The EDge Editorial Team March 2021
This month completes a year since Covid-19 forced schools to discontinue physical classes. And while the education ecosystem is still grappling to mitigate the impact of the pandemic for about 250 million school-going children, April brings with it a new academic session. The Central Board of School Education (CBSE) has recommended that the new academic session start on April 1, “to the extent feasible subject to instructions of the State Government”.
Despite collective efforts by governments, non-profits, schools, teachers, and parents to ensure continued learning at home for children using EdTech, the absence of classroom learning was widely felt. There has been an unprecedented learning loss, especially in foundational grades of 1-3. Even before the pandemic, many children lacked basic reading and math skills, and that has only aggravated over the last year. A recent study by Azim Premji University found that 92% of children on an average have lost at least one specific language ability from the previous year across all classes, while 82% have lost at least one specific mathematical ability.
The new academic year brings renewed and more urgent focus on bridging the learning gap caused due to school closures. We need to have a clear understanding of the learning levels of every student, realign expectations with all the stakeholders involved, and a draw roadmap to improve learning. We call this the PARI approach - Prioritize, Assess, Remediate and Innovate.
Prioritize Foundational Learning
A child’s ability to read basic text with meaning and solve mathematical problems is called Foundational Literacy and Numeracy (FLN). Children who do not gain these Foundational Literacy and Numeracy skills by grade 3 struggle to learn meaningfully in later years and risk dropping out of school.
The ASER 2020 report found that a higher number of children are now out-of-school compared to 2018. The most worrisome aspect of this is that the highest percentage of these children are in the age group 6-10, the age at which children acquire FLN skills. It is crucial that we identify these children and bring them back to school to help them build better lives for themselves. Equipping them with FLN skills will form their bedrock for all future learning and skill acquisition.
School closures also led to a drastic decrease in the nutritional levels of many children who didn’t have consistent access to mid-day meals and likely had adverse effects on their mental health as well. We should treat children with utmost sensitivity, taking into account their physical and cognitive needs, instead of a forced emphasis on finishing the syllabus.
Assess Each Child’s Learning Level
Each child has had a unique learning experience at home in the last one year. The vast digital divide and the varying educational levels of a child’s parents allowed some children to be more equal than others. According to ASER 2020, only 61.8% of children in rural areas had access to a smartphone as learning moved digital.
Increasingly, children also received learning support from family members. Those with more educated parents received more support than children whose parents had no or minimal formal education. According to ASER 2020, 54.8% of children whose parents had completed grade 5 or less received some form of family support, as compared to 89.4% of children whose parents had studied beyond grade 9.
The State Council of Education Research and Training (SCERT), Jammu and Kashmir is scheduled to conduct a survey to identify the learning gaps in children. We should consider uniform implementation of this across the country and assess every child before moving to the new grade curriculum. Their needs will vary and a ‘one size fits all’ approach is likely to alienate more children and could lead to dropouts.
Remediation is Key
Once children have been assessed, there has to be focus on remediation to recover from the learning loss without which no new learning will materialize.
We should set aside a couple of months for a remediation bootcamp to build back learning levels. If we chase syllabus completion and scoring high marks in exams, children are likely to resort to rote memorization or drop out altogether because they might not be able keep up with the curriculum.
The Bihar Education Project Council (BEPC) will begin ‘catch up’ classes from April 5 for students in classes 2 to 10 across 80,000 government schools in the state. The 3-month catch-up classes will focus on bridging the learning gap of conventional subjects. The Uttar Pradesh government too, as part of Mission Prerna, has started daily 40-minute-long remedial classes in the first period to strengthen the basic concepts and clear doubts among children. Such initiatives will go a long way in helping children stay the course and improve their learning outcomes.
Innovation Will be Crucial
This is an unprecedented situation and we must be willing to look for solutions that might not yet exist. The conventional or traditional approach must be balanced with the will to innovate.
Parental engagement increased in a child’s education during school closures leading to a fully functioning channel of communication between parents and the teachers. This can be built upon to improve learning outcomes in a child’s learning journey.
We must also encourage blended learning, harnessing the momentum that has been created for EdTech solutions. To close the digital divide, we could look at solutions such as ‘Shiksha Mitra’ in Haryana, under which students without access to mobile phones are mapped and are assigned a ‘Mitra’ or a friend who provides the students their phone for a few hours in a day.
Similarly, instead of teaching students at the grade level, we could consider teaching at their learning levels. Pratham’s learning solution - Teaching At the Right Level - groups children according to their learning levels instead of grade level, and is a low-cost approach to help children catch-up with their learning in the short-term.
‘PARI’ is Integral to Winning the Fight Against Illiteracy
Along with lives and livelihood, there should be equal emphasis on learning as we continue battling Covid-19. While the resumption of physical classes in some states is a welcome step, we must ensure it does not deceive us into believing things are normal. We may soon win the fight against Covid-19, the one against learning disabilities could go on for much longer unless immediate, coherent and specific measures are adopted.