Posts Tagged ‘Primary Schools’

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

October 31, 2012

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



Tapping Student Power

July 10, 2011


The performance of a group of students is affected by a number of factors that are routinely acknowledged and put to use by the teachers and Sikshana. During my field visits I found that we have not been realizing the full potential of one of them; it is the influence of one on the other. This is no less in the High Schools than at the primary level.

Setting out to tap this, I had some very interesting experiences. The first came up while trying to tackle the age old bugbear of the PES – attendance or rather the lack of it. During a visit to one of the Upper Primary schools in Anekal where a summer camp was being held, I found that there were 20 kids in the room out of a class of 21. A query on why one is missing when it should be fun attending the camp elicited a range of standard responses – not well , busy at home and gone away on a trip. I sought out the best friend of the missing girl who admitted she was at home and had no real excuse for not being present. I told her: ” if she is really your friend she should be happy playing with you here rather than spend time alone at home; can you go and get her now ? “. She rushed off and was back in minutes with the other girl; even the teacher was surprised at the promptness. I told the entire group that they are responsible for every kid attending the camp daily; after all, it is being organized against a specific promise that they would all be present. Later I checked and found the Group had kept up its promise; the attendance was total right through the remaining days of the camp.

When the schools resumed after the summer break, I started visiting High Schools to check how attendance was faring in the first few days. I knew from prior experience that it would take a couple of weeks before the strength picks up and regular classes commence. This of course is unacceptable in Tenth Standard where every day counts during the year; the best efforts on the part of the teachers however have had little effect till date. The first school I went to had a strength of nearly 100 in Tenth but the attendance was just 20 on the second day. Obviously these are kids who are serious about studies and could be expected to take a lead in bringing about a change. I talked to them for an hour about the effect of such laxity on the part of the missing students on their studies, lives and future career. If the  teachers now take time till Dec or Jan to complete the syllabus leaving little time for revision and tests, they cannot be faulted. I told them in effect: ” it is for you to go and get your friends to come and attend classes, because it is you who will suffer if they do not”.  I asked whether they are willing to take up this challenging task and if yes, how long they will take to get all their missing friends into the class room. To my surprise, they not only accepted it readily but also promised results in three days. I visited three more schools on this trip; the situation in the class room was no different – so too were the responses from the students. To my immense satisfaction, I found that the attendance after the stipulated period was near total in all the four schools. That was my second taste of student power in action.

The first one took place towards the end of last academic year. We were at this time pushing hard towards ensuring that no student fails in the SSLC examinations – a pretty stiff task in most schools. I was there in one of them – Thokasandra- during Jan 11; to my query on the prospects in his school, he categorically affirmed that at least 12 kids would fail in spite of best efforts and nothing can be done about it, since we had only to months left and these kids are way too behind in learning levels. I told him that I would like to talk to them once and see if we could ‘save’ some. The meeting was held under a tree in the school premises.  I found that there were actually 15 kids in the Group waiting for me; possibly the HM did not want to take a chance! I started off by asking them if they knew why have been sent to meet me; prompt came the response that it is possibly because the HM felt that they were all ‘dull’ –  a highly demotivating term used in Public schools which becomes self fulfilling- and would fail in the examinations. When I asked them what they wanted to do about it, there was silence. I told them that they had two options at this point. The first was the easiest – to do nothing and prove that the HM and the teachers were right . The second would be more difficult; they could treat this as a challenge, follow my advice during the remaining days – which would involve considerable additional effort – and go on to prove the prediction to be wrong and they were not ‘dull’ as claimed. The choice was entirely theirs; I gave them ten minutes to discuss this among themselves and get me their response. As I was walking away, I could already hear heated exchanges in the Group.

When I returned, I could see a distinct change in their mood. One of them got up and said that they were willing to do anything to prove their worth; in effect they said: “tell us what we should do and we will do it”. We promptly put them through the standard drill – identify the weak subjects and start writing one model paper a day; this effort which needs 2/3 hours should be over and above their normal workload given in the schools. We organized special coaching sessions and counseling too to hone up their exam skills. The kids put their hearts into it and did a great job. Ultimately, when the results came, it was not a surprise that all except just one had passed ! The same experiment was repeated in Bannikuppe where ten were identified as above; here too all except one passed.  More interesting was a subsequent incident : when Muthuraj , our Mentor for High schools, was passing through one of the villages after the results were announced, two boys came running and told him that they had passed the examinations – and they wanted him to inform me that they had won the challenge!

I wish I had started with more such schools to validate this approach; but whatever data  I could gather was enough to convince me that we need to do a lot more in the area  of  tapping student power. Psychologists do tell us that teens do not always perform well under external compulsions but they do rise to meet a challenge when they face one. Looks elementary isn’t it? It seems to work too.

Student power in the form of group leadership could also make a big difference; but then the teachers seem to get it all wrong here. The practice seems to be to make the student who scores highest marks the leader of the group or a class. Invariably this kid would be such that he or she would rather be left alone to pursue their studies. It is more likely that the one with the leadership qualities is the kid whose scores are modest or even less. It is easy to pick such boys or  girls out in any class; they stand apart from the rest. We need formation of groups around them; the kids in a group do not need to be taught, they need to be managed. It may look like a strange concept; but I am sure it is worth a try.

Maybe, this should  provide the basis for a ‘Nextgen’ initiative under Sikshana.

E S Ramamurthy

The Sikshana Story – 6

May 7, 2011

Decline in City Schools – Rise of Rural Schools

“The City schools and Rural schools are so different from each other, we often felt that we should have two separate Departments to deal with them”. I would like to start with this interesting comment from no less than the Secretary of the Department of Education; it took two years for me to understand the full implications of this statement. Someone needs to study the characteristics that define each to be able to manage them well. The divide is similar to the one between urban and rural poverty; both have some common features but are distinctly different.

There are many factors that contribute to this divide. The obvious one is that the City schools are the most coveted destinations for all teachers in the system. Teachers from different parts of the State spend a lot of effort, time and more to get posted here. The pressure is so intense for postings and transfers, which by the way is an industry – a fact owned up by the Department itself- that we found the staff in the schools to  in a perpetual state of uncertainty and fluidity; this is more  so at the level of the HM. To become a HM of even the ‘poorest’ City school calls for factors that go far beyond merit; to retain it calls for constant vigil and sustained effort. The Department has been putting in position various rules and regulations to control this ‘epidemic’, but have not been very successful so far in its efforts. The environment is so vitiated that by the time the teachers get there, education and all the rest that go with it start taking a back seat in their mind. We bore the brunt of this during the three years we were active; almost every one of the HM’s whom we trained in the Upper Primary schools got shifted out. Worse still, some of the good ones were superseded by newcomers, who had to be accommodated in the City.

Many of the schools happen to sit on valuable real estate which becomes the focus of attention of all, including the HM, the school committee and the community leadership. Proposals dealing with this are put up and discussed at various levels; this becomes the prime activity in the school affairs. Others who lack space manage to get grants cleared for building superstructure over existing buildings; being near the centers of power help them in getting the clearances through expeditiously. Often the contractors in the area do all the spade work in getting the files cleared and get ‘rewarded’ with the work thereafter. Barring the few schools in which both land and building are inadequate, some of which I had covered earlier in this narrative, the HM’s in the other schools were found to be busy with one or the other of the above activities; this has its own impact on the teachers. In all this, the education of the kids was seen to take a back seat.

There were a few other factors too, involving the school, the administration and the community, which are too sensitive to be covered here without jeopardizing the ongoing  interests of Sikshana at this point.  I am skipping them here. I am also avoiding socio- economic issues that are unique to urban and rural environments; these have a large role to play too in defining the type of intervention that can succeed in either. This is because I realize that they cannot be the reason for a decision to stay or quit; they can only be taken as challenges to be met. This still left a feeling that in the time taken to cover a single City school, we could possibly cover two or more in rural areas; after all a poor kids are poor kids wherever they are and they deserve the same consideration.

I could however cover one more point that justified what we did. This is the fact that there are lots of Voluntary sector initiatives and Corporates who want to ‘help out’ the neighborhood school in the City; you get what can be loosely called a ‘buyers market ‘. Barring a few honorable exceptions, most of the latter do not want to stray beyond the City limits under the mistaken impression that this will deter volunteer participation.  I have personally seen many who walk in, distribute the goodies and walk off without bothering to ask or check about the likely impact of their generosity. Such easy money has already set up a trend which makes it difficult for any serious low cost initiative focused on issues such as sustainability, return on investment and accountability to function. Sikshana had to face this problem in many forms. An extreme example of this happened to us at a school in the Eastern Zone of the City which we were pressurized to adopt by one of our major supporters as it happened to be close to their premises. Initially the HM agreed to our terms for adoption with a lot of reluctance; he apparently felt that the hassles he had to go through working with us were not commensurate with the quantum of funding. When we were about to sign the deed of adoption in the office of the Deputy Director of the school zone, we got a frantic call from this gentleman requesting us not to go ahead with the signing since someone else had just come in offering four times the amount to his school, no questions asked. I would say that this incident was crucial to our decision to our steering away from City to rural schools. It did not make sense to continue to focus on schools that are getting more than the attention that they really deserved in the City, while there are other schools within the same system that had been neglected and had a crying need  for attention and support in rural areas. The ultimate nudge however came from an unexpected quarter.

I had sent a routine email to Dr Kalam, the then President of India, requesting an audience with him for briefing him about what we are doing and to seek guidance on how we should proceed further. I knew about his intense interest in the field of education and felt he will certainly have some ideas which would benefit us and the cause we stood for. I was not disappointed; I got a prompt response saying that he is visiting Bangalore the week after and that I should present myself at Raj Bavan at 930 PM on a given day.  I knew enough about him not to be surprised at the timing. Unfortunately the ex-Chief Minister of Karnataka – Shri R K Hegde – passed away on that day and he had to go to pay his last respects at his residence. Finally he arrived at the Raj Bhavan at 10 PM; there were lots of people waiting to see him -VIP’s and ‘commoners’. Whatever doubts I had about the meet was soon dispelled by his Secretary who confirmed that he would see every one waiting there before the end of the day. Finally when my turn came at 1145 PM, I was almost apologetic about taking his time over a 15 school program; but my pitch for 1000 schools and evolving a model for the public school system in the process got his undivided attention. He heard me with rapt attention for a few minutes and decided that the program deserved a closer look than what he could give at that time of the day. He asked me whether I would mind coming to Delhi and make a presentation in his office; the message and the language were vintage ‘Kalam’.

Subsequent developments did not surprise me either; on the following Monday, I got a message from his Office requesting me to present myself at the Rashtrapathi Bhavan on 4th Feb 04 at 2 PM for a 30 minute meet with the President. My characteristic luck followed me here too; that was the day Parliament was getting dissolved. My meet was wedged between two VVIP’s and his overdue lunch. It was totally to his credit that he gave me 40 minutes of his time, unmindful of all the signals from his Secretary that he was running very much behind his schedule. It was a memorable experience, talking to someone as passionate as he was, and willing to listen to others who have something to convey to him. Wishing us well, he had three strong messages to offer:

Move away from City schools to rural ones; the latter have no one to look up to

Give prominence to the education of the girl children

Even 1000 schools is not a big number in India; don’t get bogged down by it – shoot for the stars if you can

This meet was a turning point for me; I still have his messages in view in everything I do. There was something else that impressed me about him; he was scrupulously keeping track of the number of students he directly interacts with during his tours. If I recall correctly, he had a target of one million during his term and he had reached 70% of this by the time I met him! I may not be doing such a good job of keeping track of numbers; but I do make it a point to meet and talk to kids individually every time I visit a school.

With the ‘not so sweet’ experiences in the City schools and this powerful nudge from Dr Kalam, we started on our fateful shift towards rural areas. At the same time, we tapered off our involvement in the former gradually such that it did not hurt them. This was the beginning of the academic year 04-05.

E S Ramamurthy

Mid-day Meal Scheme- An Open Appeal to ISKCON

April 21, 2011

There is no single intervention in the Public School System that has done greater good for the school going kids of India than the Mid-day meal Scheme. This welfare measure did not come easily; the highest court of the land had to issue a diktat to the States and threaten action for contempt for non-compliance before they fell in line. All the impressive statistics that we see in the area of enrollment and retention are due to this single initiative that went to ensure that the children get at least one hot meal a day to minimum nutritional standards. The scheme has still its shortfalls, thanks to the pusillanimity of the Administration in the States which keep raising issues on the admissible rates for reimbursement, scope of coverage and the inclusion of nutritional supplements. Apparently they have always adequate funds to bail out dubious ventures in other Sectors but cannot find money to feed the vulnerable sections of the new generation. Politics here follow the famous Quote: “What has the next generation done for us to merit special attention for us”.
I still recall the days when Sikshana had to feed nearly 1000 kids in three schools; we could obviously not have preached quality of education to children on empty stomach. Once the State stepped in 2004, the situation eased up quite a bit for us; we did not have to bother about this burden. I have since been following up the progress of this scheme with considerable interest.
Initially, a provision of Rs 2.75 per child was made by the State, the good gesture tainted by many graceless caveats. Typical of them was the stipulation that the reimbursement of materials will be computed based on the actual attendance on a daily basis. At the school, the HM has to initiate cooking with release of material well before the actual numbers are available; kids are known to come late often and they cannot be denied lunch.  It was left to the schools to sort this out; everyone knows that it is such unworkable rules that encourage malpractices and dishonesty among people who would prefer to be law abiding citizens given a chance.
After six years, this admissible rate for a meal stands somewhere near Rs 3.25, the figure depending on how it is reckoned. Though a lot can be written about this subject, which will not reflect well on the State, the focus of this blog is not on this but on another aspect of the scheme that calls for a lot more thought and introspection- the sourcing and distribution. Typically, the school is expected to find its own way to feed the kids with the material supplied. In an urban environment, the logistics could pose problems, given the acute shortage of space in most schools, thereby restricting their options.
The picture becomes different as one goes away from this environment to rural areas. Here, the schools have space not only for cooking but also for growing vegetables for the menu; there is ready availability of local labor too for preparation. Though the remunerations admissible for the cook and the helper are not princely sums, they were still adequate for local entrepreneurship to evolve in these communities which enabled the schools to ensure that the kids are fed well. In many areas, women’s self help groups have come forward to take up the job. This is really a very welcome development. If there are any people with a real interest in the welfare of these kids, it should be these women- more so when some of their own children are likely to be in the same schools. This did put some pressure on the HM’s since they had to keep accounts for money and material, a responsibility grudgingly accepted by them over a period of time. The scheme is now however stabilized and is doing well enough within the given limitations.    
The story unfortunately neither starts nor ends here. Historically, a few initiatives existed that were catering to this need prior to the State announcing its welfare measure.  While it was a very commendable effort at that time, their continuance under the new regime where the State has taken up the responsibility is what causes concern with wide ranging implications.
For understandable reasons, such initiatives are popular in urban areas where space is at a premium; and cooking and distribution within the school premises are logistic nightmares. However when they start straying into areas beyond urban clusters, the issue becomes more complex, requiring a closer look. In far flung rural areas, it makes eminent sense to prepare food locally where it is required for consumption.
I have serious issues with one such initiative in Karnataka, which is actively supported by the State; this is Akshaya Patra from ISKCON. It is one of the most popular ones around Bangalore City and attracts lot of Donor attention. Unlike many of the other ventures in the City, the meal provided by this Organization is subsidized by the State; while exact figures are not available, it is highly likely that the subsidy is higher than the cost incurred by it under its own scheme. The coverage extends to a few hundred thousand children out of a possible 8 million in the State, with no prospects of extension across the state. I do not see the logic behind categorizing the kids under the PES into two streams: one fit for this preferential allotment and the other consigned to the routine State designed menu. Having done that, the State and ISKCON could have restricted the area of coverage to urban clusters, however unfair this would have been for the majority of kids in the public school stream. On the other hand, we find that their operation is progressively expanding with more centralized production facilities and distribution nodes into semi-urban and rural areas.  Unfortunately many Sikshana schools fall under the periphery of some of these new facilities; as a result we come under constant pressure from these schools to get them included in this ‘fortunate’ list.
It is unacceptable to me that some kids in public schools are selected for a Rs 6.5 meal, while the rest under the same system are advised to get reconciled to a Rs 3.2 one. Apart from all the distinctions that we have created based on castes, classes etc., we seem to be introducing a new one along the urban/ rural divide. There are more arguments against this irrational approach. It is an environmentally unfriendly scheme since it involves movement of prepared meals from the central kitchen to the schools in remote areas. Further it deprives the local community of employment opportunities that a decentralized solution would have provided. More to the point, the bonding that this brings about between the schools and the communities is also lost.
Notwithstanding the above, I admire Akshaya Patra for all that it does and keep doing for the welfare of the children. I have only one appeal to make to them. Instead of replicating the efforts of the State, can they try and supplement them? If they care to look around, I am sure they will find many interesting possibilities.  
It is not as if the State has wiped out hunger with one meal for school going kids.   From my personal experience I can affirm that many of these children now come to school without breakfast, since their families are assured their wards will get one square meal at noon. The children now go through three hours of schooling on an empty stomach, eagerly waiting for the lunch bell; some schools even advance the timings to accommodate these kids.  
I am sure it is within the capabilities of Akshaya Patra Foundation to find a far better option than the one adopted by them at present.

E S Ramamurthy