Education has been put away and locked up for more than a year now. People are now scratching their heads about how to take that out, dust it, oil it and put it back in action. This also provides us an opportunity to revisit some of the things that we have been doing wrong even before the pandemic and improve education.
I often see the question posed wrongly. It is often phrased something like this. Do we make the children repeat the year that they missed or do we compress the curriculum and try and catch up to the class they are meant to be in? For example if a student was in class 3 in March 2020 when the school closed down. He wouldn’t have attended school or had any instruction for any of the class 4 lessons. Now do we make him repeat class 4 or do we admit him in class 5 but compress the curriculum for class 4 and 5 together for him in the rest of the class 5 year. Or do the catch up over 2 years? Or …?
This question reflects a lack of understanding of how education works and commits the usual mistake of confusing the certification ladder of classes to the process of teaching and learning.
A Model of Education
If you look at the curriculum for each subject, typically all the things to be learnt can be broken into a small number of areas of competencies. For eg. in primary school Maths the basic areas of competencies will be,
- Shapes which eventually becomes Geometry by 5th std.
- Numbers (Counting to place value and 4 operations to fractions).
- Patterns & Sequences
- Measurements (Time, Money. Weight, Height, Volume etc.)
- Information Processing (collecting/tallying data. Venn diagrams, etc.) This in higher classes becomes Probability and Statistics.
These exact same 5 lessons repeat in every term of every class! This is it. This is what needs to be taught in Maths whether you are in 1st std or 5th std. Even by 8th std the exact same areas need to be taught. The only additional thing that is introduced is Algebra which you may view as an extension of Patterns and Sequences or as a bifurcation of Numbers.
We did a similar analysis for Language (English or Tamil) and Science. If anything language is simpler. Children need to know letters, words, sentence structures and start comprehending more and more complex passages. Orthogonally, they need to know reading, writing, listening (with comprehension) and speaking. An analysis of Tamilnadu and CBSE Science curriculum also yeilded just 8 topics: Human Body, Living and Non-living things, Animals, Plants, Air, Water, Matter and Force.
Therefore this notion that children learn something unique in class 4 which is not going to be covered in the class 5 curriculum is a completely wrong one. This idea of education as acquiring distinct pieces of knowledge or competencies without repetition in some sequence of increasing complexity as you progress through the classes is a wrong model.
A model that would reflect reality a little better is to think of each subject as a spiral. We keep repeating a set of areas in each term/class and increasing in the level of competency within that area.
This model is also deficient. People often operate with the assumption that children in class 6 know the competencies covered in classes up to class 5 and are ready to learn the competencies to be taught in class 6. In reality, children will be in a wide variety of skill levels in each area of competency. One child’s spatial sense may be good but their numerical skills may be poor. They may have understood shapes and geometry very well but may be struggling with addition or place-value. Even within an area like numbers one child may really understand place-value properly but may be struggling with division. Further even within division, a child may have mastered the method of long-form division but may not have mastered the basic concept that division is splitting a number of items into groups. Further even within long-form division one child may be accurate but slow another child may be fast but make a lot of mistakes. Therefore there is no merit to this notion that all children in a certain class are at the same level and need to be taught the same things the same way. The only thing we may be able to assume is that the band of skill levels possessed by the children in a specific class will be increasing with the class. ie. On an average say class 6 students will know more in every skill area of Maths than say class 4 students.
Opportunity for a Reset?
Note that all the points I made about varying levels of competencies in students was just as true even before the pandemic disruption to education. Textbook is not a manual for what should be taught to the children. For most part it only captures the new competencies that are to be taught to the children of this class. All the prior competencies in that area need to be covered. Teacher must also adjust to the fact that some children just may not be ready to learn the competencies intended for this class.
Pandemic schools closures mean that children will be at a significantly lower level that what is expected of students at a certain class level. In that sense it provides an opportunity for a reset in our education system so that the teaching is aimed for the level the children are at rather than the level the textbooks expects them to be at. Teaching for multiple levels of competencies need not be viewed as something negative. It is indeed proven to be very effective in teaching children. This is the reason why muti-age-classes work and they are often deliberately chosen in good educational systems and good schools. Even when there are adequate number of children in each class level, there is a strong reason to mix children of multiple classes together.
When you teach children with differing competencies, children at a higher level will get an opportunity to revise the basic concepts. For eg. children who are at the level of long-form division will benefit from reinforcing the concept of division equal groupings or equal portions or repeated subtraction. Children who are just learning division will also benefit by seeing where this learning leads and what kind of problems they will see as they continue learning. In the next year when they learn long-form division these concepts will fall into place in their mental model. Further peer-learning benefits the stronger children who do the teaching and the weaker-children who learn from their peers instead of the teachers.
Blueprint for Reviving Education
At the most basic level the education system and the teachers should whole-heartedly embrace teaching for multiple levels of competencies. If they already have a multi-age-class model (as is the case in most primary and middle schools in TN), this will fit naturally. Black-board based teacher driven instruction will not work that well in a class with widely varying levels of competencies. Here are some approaches that we have found work well under the circumstances.
Worksheets – For the same area of competency, several worksheets at different levels of complexity can be designed and made available to the teachers. By giving these worksheets for the children, you allow a child to work at their level of competency. When the student masters a certain skill level, the teacher can start giving worksheets that require a higher level of competency.
Activities – Activities can be crafted to suit multiple skill levels. Here is a simple game of counting the number of circles in the picture. Here is a sample picture.
Children in class 1 or 2, may just count the circles. Children in class 3 may add the 2 6s in the top and bottom rows and the 3 4s in left, right and center. A class 5 student may use the dotted line to recognise that there are 4 portions with same number of circles and may just do 4 x 6.
Children may draw cards from a deck and be asked to form a multi-digit number. Ace is 1 and 10 is 0. Depending on their level, they can be asked to draw 2, 3 or 4 cards.
There is a simple game where children run around in a circle. When the teachers shouts a number – say 3 – the children have to form groups of 3 and the children left out will have to leave the game. Here the older children can be pointed out that the children left behind is the remainder in the division. And they may be able to anticipate whether or not anyone will be left behind after the groups are formed.
Library Hour for Languages – Children can be asked to read books suited to their level in English or their mother tongue. Children can be asked to act out a story they read or draw a scene from it. They can even be asked to come up with their own stories. Each student will tell a story at their level of comprehension and their level of language skills.
Back to the Original Question
As explained here the original question of whether children should be made to repeat a grade or compress the curriculum is a wrong question. All the areas are anyway repeated in every class with the competency in the areas gradually rising. Teachers anyway have to let go of the textbook and teach to the competency level of the children with or without the pandemic. These changes will ensure that the children are taught competencies relevant to them whichever class they are in. As the textbook serves as a beacon for the competency level the children in a class are expected to attain, let them retain that beacon and do their best to raise the level of the children to the level of the textbook.
Along with this pedagogical change, there is also a crying need for reforms to the assessment process. The encouragement to the teachers to fudge the assessments should be stopped. Teachers should be able to honestly measure and report on the learning levels of the children without fear of reprisal. Till that change occurs expanding the scope of a meaningfully designed, minimally invasive assessment conducted centrally like SLAS would be good. Here is my previous article on assessments.
We have an opportunity here for not just reviving education but actually improving it. For that these changes can be a good starting point. States all over India have done grave injustice to the children by completely abandoning the education of the children as I argued in another article. I hope they redeem themselves by doing the right things at least now.