India should embrace Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo-approved student training methods to give its primary education system a quantum leap

  • It would be a shame if an effective model evaluated by an Indian Nobel prize winner is ignored in its own backyard.

  • The usual solution touted by experts and policymakers is to improve the efficiency of the education system.

  • This is based on the implicit assumption that the system (teachers, curriculum, pedagogy) is well designed and the issue is of poor management.

Ever since Abhijit Banerjee, Esther Duflo and Michael Kremer were announced as this year’s Nobel Laureates in Economics, public consciousness has exploded with mentions of “poor economics”, development experiments and randomised control trials (RCTs). While upper-middle-class India has naturally beamed with pride at the accomplishments of one of its own, an unlikely constituency has also celebrated – villagers from some of the poorest regions in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar who were part of the six RCTs that Banerjee and Duflo have conducted on Pratham’s education interventions since 2000.

 India should embrace Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo-approved student training methods to give its primary education system a quantum leap

Representational image. Reuters

At Pratham, we had the privilege of partnering with the researchers who had the vision to study an innovative but practical re-imagining of the education system, instead of jumping on the bandwagon of efficiency improvements to “business as usual”.

Around 50 percent of Class 5 children in India cannot do basic reading and math – foundational competencies they are supposed to have mastered in Class 2 and the basic building blocks to learn anything beyond. The usual solution touted by experts and policymakers is to improve the efficiency of the education system. This is based on the implicit assumption that the system (teachers, curriculum, pedagogy) is well designed and the issue is of poor management.

Improve the efficiency of whatever is currently happening and everything will fall into place. Many technocratic ideas are accordingly proposed and implemented – creating competition among schools, monitoring teachers using technology, introducing “smart classrooms” and so on. The hope seems to be that at some tipping point, all these will stick – though there is no idea of when that point will be reached.

However, Pratham and J-PAL (the research organisation founded by Banerjee and Duflo) realised that more “efficient” business as usual couldn’t be the solution in the system as it exists today. If a Class 4 child does not know subtraction, then no teacher, no matter how well-meaning, trained and monitored, can teach her the Class 4 competency of division without first teaching the basics of subtraction. Currently, the teacher is supposed to assume that the child already knows subtraction and all instruction, teaching materials and exercises are based on this assumption holding true. Yet, data attests that this is untrue for the majority of students – little wonder that children continue to fall further behind every year.

The solution that Pratham came up and evaluated rigorously was to begin where the child is, and not where an overambitious curriculum expects her to be – assess primary grade children to understand their actual learning levels, group them accordingly, and provide targeted instruction on how to get to the next level. This methodology, known as “Teaching at the Right Level”, was evaluated and found effective by J-PAL in different contexts and situations -- it showed that children can learn to read and do basic math in as little as 30-45 days, changing their lives forever. Now Pratham and J-PAL are supporting its implementation at a large scale in Africa as well.

This all sounds fairly obvious but it turns out it isn’t – even now, most politicians, bureaucrats and policymakers in India prefer to ignore the data and opt for “efficiency improvements”, continue to struggle for “grade-level competencies” without fixing the basics. The genius of the Nobel laureates was to use the tools of economics to measure the data and impact of different out of the box solutions – those that would usually be considered imaginative but difficult to verify and hence ignored. In a world where efficiency is the buzzword, they preferred to reimagine.

The tragedy is that such results are usually ignored even today, and government school systems stubbornly stick to attempts to improve the “management” of the usual methods. With the visibility from the Nobel Prize winners, countries across the world are likely to adopt “teaching at the right level” in their education systems – it would be a shame if an effective model “Made in India” and evaluated by an Indian Nobel prize winner was ignored in its own backyard!

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Updated Date: Oct 29, 2019 13:24:02 IST