Learning through Development of Non-cognitive Skills -A Sikshana Initiative

There are some very disturbing facts about primary education in the Public School System that needs a close look. These are adequately highlighted in the ASER reports from time to time. For instance, 27.6% % of the students in 7th Std lack the ability to read in own language; 51.7% of them cannot divide a three digit number by a single digit. These are skills that they should have acquired at least three years earlier. The thing that causes greater concern is that this problem may, in the absence of further interventions, go unaddressed through High School and may eventually become lifetime issues.

The above shortfalls are notwithstanding the fact that the teachers are well equipped to handle them, both in terms of qualifications and experience. Neither can they be traced to the students’ inherent abilities and intelligence as, barring very few, most of them appear to be bright enough not to fall in this bracket. It is obviously a case of teaching taking place and not learning.

The two factors, which are widely regarded as the causes for this discrepancy, are motivation and volition on the part of the students *(1).  The major component of Sikshana, as a program, was designed to motivate the students and get them to become interested in the process of learning. It was observed that even where these efforts have had an effect, the learning levels were not registering an increase beyond a point.

The typical intervention for those who did not possess the skill was to ask them to ‘study’ – in the conventional sense- Kannada text at home and keep doing it under the supervision of the teacher till they acquire the skill of reading fluently. It was soon realized that, while someone like the teacher in the class can impart knowledge, a skill needs practice- something that the student needs to put in an effort for. Reading fluency is a skill that falls in this category, especially for those who know their alphabets. Since such a practice needs to take place at home, the ability and willingness of the student to do this for the right duration and at the right time every day assumes significance. Assuming that the motivational efforts put in are adequate to get the desired response, a pilot program was run during 11-12 in 413 schools with 9730 students along these lines; in spite of a highly focused effort and close follow-up, the year long program could only result in 84.7% of the students acquiring the skill. While this was higher then the 72.4% norm at the National level and 65.8% at the State level, it fell woefully short of the program goal of 95% plus.

In parallel, the Kannada teachers in 10 randomly selected schools were quizzed about the feasibility and the time needed for coaching a typical class of 20 students lacking this skill to an extent they can read Kannada as prescribed. The responses were near unanimous: every one of them said they could do it provided the kids were under their total control and that this would be their only assignment. The time indicted varied from two to six weeks at the maximum. A pilot program was run in 40 plus schools with an assigned teacher – brought from outside the system in some of them – to take responsibility for this task. This met with limited success though no correlation could be established between the success rate and the causative factors. The only indication was that wherever the person in charge was able to elicit a positive response from the kids in his charge, the results were up to the expectations. Since the distinguishing characteristic of such a successful resource person could not be established it made the entire process difficult to define and replicate.

Two questions popped up at this stage: how does one make a student want to put in the desired effort and how does one ensure he/ she does it till the skill is acquired? It was decided to address these two issues through an appropriately designed pilot program in one of our schools.

The concept behind such a program is that reading fluency is a skill, needing practice for mastering. It was felt that roughly 30 hours of reading spread over a month under controlled circumstances could be tried out in the first phase. The contours of the program evolved along the following lines.

Prior to the commencement, the kids identified for the purpose are given a briefing. The message at this time is to include the following:

Not being able to read own language at this stage is unacceptable

This is perhaps the last chance for them to acquire this skill before they move on to High School, since there will be no more interventions of this type.

If and when they commit themselves for a period of 30 days, there is a high probability that they could acquire this vital life skill- something that they have been unable to get so far in spite of spending years. (Data from successful camps are shown here to prove this point.)

 The practice sessions are to take place in the school premises- during the working hours wherever feasible. They should be of one-hour duration, six days a week for five weeks- no break permitted on any grounds, neither are changes in timings. The theoretical basis for the ‘no break’ rule is that the repetitive prodding for the right word- described below- should take place at such a rate that does not allow the memory of the last episode to lapse. Further the entire regimen that ensures strict observance of discipline plays a key role in pre-disposing the child to success. We will revert back to this factor again later.

Learning is enabled from a peer rather than from a ‘teacher’. In fact, no teaching takes place in this interaction. Kids are known to prefer practicing a skill in the company of their peers; enough has been written about the advantage of learning with a non-threatening support system in an alternate environment, where the one at home/school has failed.

The learner student is paired with another who has the required skill during the session. Both are given identical reading material of appropriate level. The learner is asked to try reading the text. Whenever he comes to a stop, the mentor student is required to read out the word loudly. This intervention should happen after the learner has made an effort to read and not later than 2/3 seconds after the attempt, in case he/she fails. The time delay is designed is to ensure the learner is not frustrated due to persistent failures and keep a steady pace of reading going. The entire process involves three steps: effort to read, hear the correct word in case of failure and read it correctly this time while observing it ‘visually’. An association between these is thus brought about in the mind of the learner, which is bound to last for some time. If the practice sessions are frequent enough, difficult words will recur to an extent that they get registered permanently.

A Facilitator will oversee the process and ensure compliance to the above. He/ she will not intervene in the process in the role of a teacher.

The anticipated success of the venture is no doubt built on the above process and its finer details to some extent. However the factor that plays a much larger and more effective role is the macro -message built into it. This is the incidental acquisition of the vital non-cognitive skills that go to differentiate a successful learner from the rest. These are perseverance, determination and grit required to acquire a skill or knowledge *(2). Once a kid agrees to submit himself/ herself to a strict regimen as described above, he/ she is already pre-disposed towards success.

To put the above to test, a Pilot was run in a school at Hosadurga with 13 students. These were what one would call as ‘down and out’ kids who besides having huge skill gaps also tend to skip classes frequently and are not known to evince great interest in learning. After a briefing for a day as prescribed, a camp was run from 31st Aug to 5th Oct; this period incidentally included three major festival holidays. It ran with total attendance on all weekdays without a break; the kids were showing unprecedented enthusiasm and a sense of pride in their progressively increasing level of competence. At the end of the period, 10 of them passed the standard test for Level 2 reading; two acquired it after an extension of the program by two more weeks. The success rate was indeed a significant improvement on our past experiences.

A second phase of the program was initiated during Oct in two clusters: 28 schools with 283 kids in Kanakapura and 15 schools with 223 kids in Hoskote. Again the schedule coincided with the mid-term holidays and three major festivals of the season. Notwithstanding this, the attendance in both centers has been near total.

Results from this phase show that the improvement gained in a month far outpaces that obtained in our earlier efforts. During 2011-12, a total of 3789 students studying in 7th Std in 136 schools of KP and Hoskote Blocks were taken up for remedial action using conventional techniques. At start, the number of students who did not possess the prescribed reading skill was 1091. During the course of ten months, this came down by 737, the rate of attrition working out to about 8 % per month. Under the current pilot program in the same two blocks, 506 students lacking the skill from 5th to 7th Stds were taken up; the reduction obtained during the stipulated 30 days is 327 amounting to 65%, a significant increase over the earlier figure of 8% in the same period. The program is now being extended to cover all 7th Std students in Sikshana schools by Jan ’13.

To complete the process, an analysis of the students who failed to acquire the skill has already been taken up; once the causes are identified, a remedial program to cover these kids will be placed in position at the end of which they will qualify for a second attempt under the present program. The aim continues to be that every kid passing out of 7th Std- barring those with severe disabilities- possesses the prescribed reading skill by the end of the current academic year.

The issue here is however not the efficacy per-se of the adopted learning process. It is about the role of non-cognitive skills and their relevance to enhancement of learning levels through controlled processes. Once this is established as expected, Sikshana will have a powerful tool to address other skill gaps too in a similar manner and will be in a position to aim at their ‘near total’ acquisition.

E S Ramamurthy

Note:  *(1) / (2)  “ How Children Succeed”– Paul Tough, HMH Publications



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