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Many Indian children are left behind in education; do we know what needs to be done about it? Yes!

I read a very interesting article in this week’s Business Standard where Abhjijit Banerjee explains what India should be doing to improve the learning outcomes of majority of its schools.

To understand what one means by learning outcomes, do watch my below short-film – you will love it and it’s super insightful. Plus, it shows how the problem can be resolved in a sustainable way.

In this blog, I am sharing six insights from the Abhijit Banerjee interview, interspersed with few related short documentary films that I have made over the last few years.

#1 – The mindset needs to shift from focusing excessively on the curriculum.

The new National Education Policy (NEP) of India acknowledges that ‘learning-gap’ is a critical problem. In many places, Grade 5 children are at Grade 2 level, but they are taught as if that doesn’t make a difference. There is an overemphasis on completing the entire curriculum.

If the child is still struggling with reading, what sense will the curriculum make?

Abhijit Banerjee

As per Banerjee, the NEP also recognizes the importance of basic skills of reading and numeracy, but they have not been made explicit enough.

Let’s forget about infrastructure investments for now – testing children on basic competencies needs more focus.

Abhijit Banerjee – Business Standard interview

On the point of testing, let me share the story of a startup that I created some time back. They focus on the right way for teachers to test whether a child has really grasped a concept (the startup calls their service ‘Thinking Classrooms’). Simple but efficient. Also, this ‘testing’ can be done in every class instead of waiting for exams to find out what the children have learnt.

#2 – There is evidence to show that enough people don’t know about the benefits of education.

This was a pretty surprising insight for me (and I guess for you too). These insights are coming from a recent large scale study done by a newly formed Global Education Evidence Advisory Panel by World Bank. Banerjee is a panel member.

The panel waded through the several hundred interventions tried around the world to improve learning outcomes and then identified the most cost-effective ones. Here’s the full report if you want to check that out. The best and most credible ‘buys’ that have been identified, can be replicated by other countries – is the hope and intention.

Only after parents understand the benefits (which many don’t), they alter their behaviour in a manner that helps improve learning outcomes for the child.

#3 – India’s Right to Education (RTE) policy doesn’t care much about ‘outcomes’

It is almost exclusively focused on the size of playgrounds, classrooms etc. – trying to dictate brick and mortar standards for the schools instead of focusing on verifiable learning outcomes.

There is another major issue with implementing a super important aspect of RTE – getting underprivileged children to access good schools. I created the below story some time back to show how some folks are trying to solve this problem by sheer persistence.

#4 – Handing out tablets, computers and other similar devices to students by Govt. is a “bad buy”

ICT (Information & Communications Tech), unless you combine it with the right pedagogical tools, is pointless – shares Banerjee. There are things ICT can help with, but in a thought-out manner. Just handing out laptops or tablets with little or no guidance will probably not yield any great strides in learning.

Five years ago, I was flown to a village in Gujarat to show how ICICI bank was helping a village digitalize (so that I could bring out the story via my 3MS). I did notice a similar problem there as far as using ‘tech’ in the village school went. Digital devices had been issued to the village school – but it all looked a bit superficial. Watch below?

Banerjee shares that one of the interventions tried in Rajasthan – MindSpark (run by a private company), has proved effective with science and math learning, where it first identifies the stage at which the child is and then uses a personalized learning journey to take them to the next level.

#5 – India has an ‘elitist mindset’ issue – one of the primary reasons why so many children are left behind

A central education minister once told me that the idea that no child should be left behind is not something he sympathies with.

Abhijit Banerjee – Business Standard interview

A few privileged kids do well but the rest fall behind. The Indian education system often destroys the confidence of children in their own abilities – claims Banerjee. This reminds me of my story on Arvind Gupta – the below film literally opens with a very similar line about schools killing some important things in children.

THE VEGETABLE SELLER EXPERIMENT

Abhijit Banerjee and team conducted a small experiment in some markets in Delhi and Kolkata among young children selling vegetables. They had shoppers buying a few vegetables from each child in varying quantities. Almost all the children reverted with the exact change, meaning they were managing to multiply, total up and subtract within a few seconds. They were doing math, doing it mentally, and almost instantaneously and perfectly.

But when similar problems were given to children in a Delhi government school (incidentally, better than most other government schools), they had a hard time solving. The moment children start thinking they have to solve a math problem, they lose their confidence.

Talking about Delhi Govt. schools – below is a story I documented few years ago to show how they have been improving, year after year. The Education Alliance – a Delhi based non-profit has played a major role behind the transformation of many Govt. schools in Delhi by making it easier for non-profits to work with government.

#6 – India can learn a lot from Vietnam

Vietnam is a stellar example of a country that’s made a lot of progress in ensuring that no child is left behind. People tend to think Vietnam is a much smaller country than India, but Vietnam is like Bihar, with a population of around 100 million. And since many of the Indian states are much smaller than Vietnam, there’s no reason why every Indian state cannot replicate Vietnam’s success.

Many of the good buys identified in the report have in fact been tried in India. Some have worked but have not been fully implemented.

For instance, it is now understood that access to schooling is not a problem for younger kids – there are private and public schools that are easily accessible in villages. But for older children, especially girls, access to high schools can be a problem. In Bihar, the government’s initiative of offering bicycles to girls helped tremendously in this regard.

So yeah, these were the six insights that I gained from reading up the interview. Hope this was useful and you learnt something new. Also, do watch at least one of the films shared here – they are nice – you will like what you see.

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