“Children are not a blank slate”

José Morcillo Valenciano, flickr.com, CC BY 2.0
José Morcillo Valenciano, flickr.com, CC BY 2.0

Taking a child-centered approach, Indian NGO Pratham has helped thousands of children boost their numeracy and literacy skills. Usha Rane, Director of Content and Training, explains the organization’s methodology.

Clara Sanchiz: Pratham’s interventions have been motivated by data suggesting that despite having greater access to education than ever before, many Indian children are not learning as much as they should. Can you explain why?

Usha Rane: Currently, 95-98 percent of children in India are in school. To assess their learning, in 2005 Pratham launched an Annual Status of Education Report (ASER) in collaboration with local departments, NGOs, and universities. The report shows that almost 50 percent of 5th graders are unable to read a text intended for children in 2nd grade. The level of math achievement is also very poor. In other words, we are dealing with something of an emergency.

Even when children fail to learn as much as they should, they are automatically promoted to the next grade. The question, then, is what to do with these children once they are assigned to a higher grade level. They are expected to learn new and more demanding subject matter, but that requires an ability to read and solve basic math problems.

We have developed an instructional approach called Teaching at the Right Level, or TaRL, in which children are grouped by learning level rather than by grade, often for just one hour a day. When methods and materials are tailored to each group, students quickly make significant progress in basic reading, understanding, and arithmetic. We place children in the appropriate level based on a simple assessment, and similar assessments are carried out periodically to track their progress.

The aim is to move the majority of students up to the highest ability group by the end of the intervention. This means that they are able to read and understand basic texts, perform basic arithmetic calculations confidently, and express themselves effectively both orally and in writing.

CS: From the teacher’s perspective, what advantages does this approach offer?

UR: The advantage of this approach is that it produces results quickly – within only a couple of months. Children can pick up things fairly rapidly. It is when you start boring children by providing too much information and too many instructions that their attention starts to wane. If you engage them with something really interesting, if you let them know what the objective is, and if you avoid treating them as if they didn’t have a brain – they will show that they are able to think independently.

“If you engage children with something really interesting, if you let them know what the objective is, and if you avoid treating them as if they didn’t have a brain – they will show that they are able to think independently.”

Children are not a blank slate. They have knowledge, intelligence, and experience, as well as questions. The goal is to take advantage of what they bring with them to the process. We prefer to focus less on teaching and more on learning. This approach concentrates on helping children use their sensory motor skills, such as listening carefully, observing, speaking and doing, along with the skills of reading and writing.

Many of us have a traditional educational background and are well acquainted with a system in which teachers are constantly talking and students are passive listeners. But that system may not be as effective as was once thought. We urge teachers to “unlearn” the traditional ways of teaching/learning and help children become learners, while the teachers themselves become facilitators.

CS: How do you make the TaRL approach cost-effective?

UR: We have created materials that are easy to produce and use, and that can be easily shipped to different parts of the country. Every child receives materials that can be printed and/or replicated at the local level. In many cases children use local materials, such as straws, rubber bands, or pebbles – none of which are expensive.

“We urge teachers to ‘unlearn’ the traditional ways of teaching/learning and help children become learners, while the teachers themselves become facilitators.”

Training teachers can also cost a lot of money. So training shouldn’t last for months at a time, but instead for just a few days. It’s about sharing new ideas with people so they can implement them. The best approach is to provide annual training for a period of no more than 10-15 days, perhaps followed later on by a few days of refresher training.

Pratham is an Indian organization that is reconfiguring teaching methodologies, questioning traditional strategies, and challenging the widespread use of rote learning in schools, with the goal of maximizing learning. A series of randomized evaluations of the Teaching at the Right Level (TaRL) approach in India, Kenya, and Ghana have shown that teaching to the level of the child produces large, strong, positive impacts on children’s learning outcomes. With the support of TRECC, J-Pal Europe and the Ivorian government are implementing this model in cocoa communities in southwestern Ivory Coast.

Usha Rane is Director of Content and Training at Pratham. She joined the organization in 1996.

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