FOUNDATIONAL LEARNING

Developing foundational skills is a complex issue as there are a large number of factors that impact a child’s ability to learn. Gender, race, place of birth, or the social and economic condition of their family – all of these lead to wide disparity in children’s capabilities and levels of exposure. Research suggests that disadvantaged children tend to have significantly lower cognitive skills, as compared to their counterparts. In India, there is also a lack of universal quality preschool education, which can influence children’s cognitive abilities and is thus critical for foundational learning. As a result, by the time children come to school, there are already wide learning gaps that exist due to variation in their family background and income inequalities.

Once at school, teachers have to contend with the heterogeneity of learning levels within the classroom. A large proportion of Indian classrooms today have students at different grade or learning levels sitting in the same class, making it extremely difficult for teachers to provide common or targeted instruction to students. Another issue is the difference in home and school language in many classrooms in India. Studies have found that children learn best in their mother tongue, as a foundation for bilingual and/or multilingual education. 1Teachers, however, often find it difficult to provide instruction in the student’s home language, affecting their learning in early years.

At the system level, issues such as the lack of investment in pre-primary education, teacher availability, timely availability of textbooks, demanding curriculum and adequate prescribed daily instruction time for literacy and numeracy further contribute to low learning outcomes.

Given this nexus of issues, we believe that achieving foundational learning requires solutions in classrooms that are comprehensive, and a system that recognizes the severity of the problem and creates a supportive environment for these solutions to be effective.

Several organizations in India and across the world have attempted such solutions. The impact of these programs has been limited, however, due to a lack of acknowledgement around the systemic nature of the problem, insufficient supportive systems to ensure effective delivery of these programs, as well as ineffective accountability mechanisms from the state to school level to ensure delivery of a well-integrated solution.

Given the existing challenges in tackling the issue of foundational learning in India, we have adopted a multipronged approach that involves:

  • Landscaping early learning programs that have shown some amount of impact at scale
  • Conducting a thorough literature review on the core components of an effective foundational literacy and numeracy program
  • Engaging with national and international experts who have worked in the area of early learning to understand and learn from their perspective

We studied close to 20 organizations in India working on foundational literacy and numeracy, as well as international programs that have shown impact at reasonable scale. We looked at different parameters of in-classroom elements and system elements, as well as the overall hypothesis of the program. Some common principles we found included a pedagogically-centred approach, consistent iteration to meet state context, and strong accountability systems to hold the program together.

We also conducted an extensive literature review as well as interacted with experts in this domain, using our learnings to shape our solution. Deeply inspired by RTI’s approach to early learning and Language and Learning Foundation and Dr Dhir Jhingran’s extensive work in this field, we have created the 5Ts Framework (see below) that encompasses all components of an effective classroom instruction solution. We believe that this combination of the 5Ts – Teach, Tools, Test, Train and Teacher Support – is critical for any solution to achieve quality learning for every child in the early years.

We believe that a comprehensive foundational learning solution is one that accounts for the current learning level of students as well as the ability of teachers to deliver effective instruction. The critical elements of an effective program should include – a comprehensive instructional design accounting for the disparate learning levels in the classroom, teaching-learning material that is paced at the level of the child, children’s literature, as well as regular assessments that provide specific support to children. All of this needs to be backed by effective training given to the teachers on how to teach children in the early grades, as well as appropriate usage of the material. Teachers should also be supported through consistent coaching and need-based mentoring on an ongoing basis. These 5Ts – teaching approaches, tools for teachers and students, tests, training on content and delivery, and teacher support – should be the key ingredients of any solution to improve early learning.

Principles of an effective solution across the 5Ts

Instructional Design
  • Balanced approach for literacy and CPA (Concrete, Pictorial, Abstract) approach for numeracy
  • Guided by developmentally appropriate learning outcomes
  • Caters to multi-grade teaching situations
  • Focuses on equity and supports multi-level learners in the classroom
Instructional Delivery
  • Improves student time on task
  • Focuses on social and cooperative learning
  • Acknowledges and uses child’s home language and context in the classroom
Tools for Teachers(Teacher Manuals)
  • Provides clarity on scope and sequence of content to be covered in the classroom
  • Structured, but provides flexibility to move beyond the script
  • Lists resources or materials required to be used by teachers for the lesson
Tools for Students(Workbooks,Literature,Manipulatives)
  • Improves student time on task
  • Focuses on social and cooperative learning
  • Acknowledges and uses child’s home language and context in the classroom
Formative Assessment
  • Regular and informal in nature
  • Followed by constructive feedback to all children and specific support to some children as required
Summative Assessment
  • Periodic in nature to capture student learning gains over a period of time
  • Discriminatory in nature to understand if the student has grasped a set of concepts
Training Content
  • Training on both academic and pedagogical content
  • Training on principles of early learning
  • Training on mindsets, attitudes and beliefs
  • Content is modularized and released gradually to teachers
  • Materials, activities and resources are aligned with the instructional outcomes
Training Delivery
  • Delivery through multiple touchpoints with teachers in an academic year
Monitoring & Coaching
  • Monitoring done on academic inputs and content delivery correlating to the lesson plan
  • Coaching is ongoing and need-based
  • Data-driven approach to design support for teachers
  • Content is modularized and released gradually to teachers
  • Observation followed by debrief and feedback cycle

We aim to work closely with technical partners to deliver an effective foundational literacy and numeracy instructional package, demonstrate its efficacy and cost-effectiveness at reasonable scale, and then work closely with states to get the program adopted. This involves:

  • Identifying the core elements of an effective classroom instructional package for foundational learning, through a comprehensive approach
  • Working closely with technical partners and co-designing an effective contextualized program for a select state that can address falling learning levels
  • Demonstrating effectiveness (impact on student learning) of the program at reasonable scale, through a process of constant iteration and evaluations
  • Working closely with the state to get the program adopted at scale, with state resources and budgets
  • Developing blueprints for other states to adopt and institutionalize the program for their state

At the same time, we are also working to increase the availability of public goods centered around foundational learning, including increasing evidence around effective models and developing a resource bank of high-quality materials aligned to the classroom solution.

We believe technology can also form a part of this solution – there is directional evidence around technology driving foundational learning in low-income settings. However, there is a dearth of contextualized, proven and scale-ready EdTech solutions that can improve foundational literacy and numeracy. To bridge this gap, we are working on understanding the needs of students, teachers and parents (who form the demand side); identifying promising EdTech solutions and running pilots of these solutions to demonstrate efficacy; and then scaling these solutions across low-income communities.