“If children don’t learn foundational skills early, they never catch up…”
Achieving early learning objectives holds the key to India’s future – we try to understand the current constraints and potential solutions.
According to the last census in 2011, there are approximately 375 million children under the age of 8 in India. Nearly 80% of a child’s brain development is complete by that age, which places a huge importance on the early education years between the ages 4 and 8.
According to the latest Annual Status of Education Report (ASER 2018), only one quarter of grade 3 students can read and understand a story with a few simple sentences by themselves, or do a basic two-digit subtraction. By this time, it is already too late for the rest of the class. Without a sound base, one cannot build a stable building. Early language and mathematics skills are the foundations for future learning – and without comprehension of language or math, these children have a bleak chance at advanced learning or acquiring the skills required for a bright future.
As India hopes to cash in on its young demographic, early learning holds the key for the country’s future. We speak to Dr Dhir Jhingran, Founder Director of Language and Learning Foundation, who has worked in the primary education sector within and outside the government for over two decades, for a deeper insight into the challenges of achieving sound foundational learning – and what can be done to overcome those.
CSF: You got interested in providing quality early learning to children back in the 90s when you were posted in Assam – what made you focus on this area of education?
Dhir: I was Collector in Kokrajhar district in Assam in those days, and out of interest I used to sit in classes to see how education was being imparted. To my dismay, I saw a lot of children just staring blankly at the teacher, who would deliver a monologue. During my fieldwork for a research, I began to develop a deeper understanding of what happens inside classrooms in India in the early school years, and found that the teaching style was quite inadequate. International evidence clearly states that if children don’t learn foundational skills early, then they can never catch up. The main reason why texts don’t make sense to children in later life is because they did not get a good foundational understanding of the language. Similarly, for math – a good solid early learning is essential for any kind of future learning.
CSF: What are some of the troubling traits you saw in preschool and early education back then – do they still exist?
Dhir: There were several problems that we identified. We saw that the classrooms are silent – all the talking is done by the teacher. All the writing that the children do is copying; reading is mostly choral repetition without any comprehension. Then there was the problem of language of teaching: the child’s home language being different from the school language. And yes, unfortunately, most of these issues do still exist. We need to move towards equal participation of children and teachers in the classrooms, which is still not happening everywhere in India, even in the cities. Whether it is Assam or Rajasthan or other states, the problems are same or very similar.
CSF: How has the scenario changed? What are the key challenges facing primary education today?
Dhir: I don’t think the system recognizes early learning as important – at the state level, the common feeling is that anyone can teach grade 1 and 2, and the mindset in the system is to underinvest in primary education. The second challenge is that there is no monitoring and academic support for the teachers to help, appreciate, improve and guide them.
Over the years, we have developed a better understanding of what is required. For instance, we’ve learnt the importance of multilingual learning – using children’s home languages in early learning. Today, our foundation focuses on demonstrating how independent thinking, writing, reasoning and making the classroom a more animated space, makes all the difference. A major factor in achieving this is the continuous professional learning of teachers and teacher educators, which is the second major area of our work.
However, the entire ecosystem must have a good understanding of why early learning is important and what needs to be done. One can’t work just with teachers; there has to be a way to ensure the same messaging is filtered across the entire primary education ecosystem. There has to be alignment and understanding of goals in the system, which is currently lacking. Developing that holistic understanding is the one big challenge we have to tackle urgently.
CSF: How does one enable the teachers to impart better primary education? What are the challenges they face?
Dhir: In most classrooms even today, textbook is the only resource for the teacher, which is limiting. Another huge limitation for the teacher is that the education system is totally focused on completing the syllabus, so the teacher’s choices are restricted. One very practical issue that teachers face is that they teach more than one grade at the primary level – and even in the same classroom the children are different in terms of their learning levels. Some come from good preschool learning, some can’t even recognize a single letter of the alphabet. To handle a diverse classroom such as this is a huge challenge. So, any intervention we make has to be designed at a multi-grade level, keeping in mind the diverse backgrounds of the children attending the class.
CSF: You mentioned a multilingual approach – how important is teaching in the mother tongue?
Dhir: It’s very important, actually. If we say that education and learning is about understanding deeply and thinking and reasoning, then it is unreasonable to expect a child to do that in a language that’s unfamiliar. We talk about moving from known to unknown or building on what you know, and this goes completely against those principles. A lot of children across villages in India don’t understand standard Hindi, coming from different home language backgrounds as they do, so we advocate keeping a multilingual approach where you keep the child’s language at the centre and ensure that it finds place in teaching on a daily basis in a formal manner. A strong foundation in a familiar language is best even to learn more languages and other subjects. This is not easy to achieve. One approach is ‘mother tongue-based’, where you start with the child’s language and then introduce Hindi without completely giving up the child’s language, especially for nhigher order learning.
CSF: Finally, what should advocacy and financial investment in this area focus on?
Dhir: Putting good teachers in grade 1 and 2. We need to advocate for putting the best teachers in primary education so that the foundation of each child is solid. Having a consistent road map is also important – consistency and clearly defined goals should be a focus area so that shifting governments do not affect our main objectives. A teacher and the district education officer must have the same goals and understanding – there can be events, workshops, sharing of evidence, to make that happen, and investment can go towards these. Good multi-graded reading material for beginner-level readers in classroom libraries is another area one can invest in. There’s a lot still to be done, but we can achieve it if we all have a common goal.