back arrowGo Back

Share

Let’s ‘Start at the Very Beginning’: Rukmini Banerji on the Need to Focus on FLN in 2022-23

By The EDge Editorial Team

Jan 27, 2022

We caught up with Rukmini Banerji, the Chief Executive Officer of Pratham Education Foundation and recipient of the prestigious Yidan Prize for Education Development in 2021, to understand how we can make the most of the upcoming academic year for children in their early years of education (pre-school and grades 1-3).

The last two years of school education have been punctuated by repeated school closures due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Consequences range from rising inequality in accessing education, to learning loss, to negative impact on children’s socio-emotional development to highlight a few. We caught up with Rukmini Banerji, the Chief Executive Officer of Pratham Education Foundation and recipient of the prestigious Yidan Prize for Education Development in 2021, to understand how we can make the most of the upcoming academic year for children in their early years of education (pre-school and grades 1-3). Here’s what she had to say; and we’re just glad all hope is not lost.

Watch | Foundational Learning: what it means and why it matters

Diving in with a deep breath

Sifting through this rich weave of experiences and evidence, it is useful to decide which threads to take forward, where the fabric needs to be replaced, and how to bring in new strands. For this discussion, I am going to — to borrow inspiration from the evergreen and universally popular movie Sound of Music’s song Do-Re-Mi — “start with the very beginning, a very good place to start ….”, and talk about the foundational stage in children’s educational journey.

Rukmini Banerji, Chief Executive Officer of Pratham Education Foundation and recipient of the prestigious Yidan Prize for Education Development in 2021

Sifting through this rich weave of experiences and evidence, it is useful to decide which threads to take forward, where the fabric needs to be replaced, and how to bring in new strands. For this discussion, I am going to — to borrow inspiration from the evergreen and universally popular movie Sound of Music’s song Do-Re-Mi — “start with the very beginning, a very good place to start ….”, and talk about the foundational stage in children’s educational journey.

Starting 2022 with a wish

We fervently hope that the 2022-23 school year will be very different from the last two and that schools will remain open for substantial periods of time. This desire is echoed loudly by children, parents and teachers in cities and villages across the country. Everyone is longing for a time when children and teachers can be together in classrooms, with uninterrupted learning time without any uncertainty or fear.

Listing facts

Children will move to new classes in April 2022. Those who will go into grades 1 and 2, and even 3, have never been inside a school. If there are approximately 25 million school-going children in each grade in India, between 75-100 million will be entering early grades with no prior exposure to formal schooling. This situation presents an unprecedented prospect for nothing less than a new kind of nation-building.

For more than a decade, ASER data has shown that our existing age-grade curriculum and ‘business as usual’ teaching methods are not working with children in primary grades. ASER 2018, the last nationally representative face-to-face household survey of basic learning, shows that only about 25% of children in grade 3 are at grade level (if we consider the ability to read simple text as a proxy for grade-level learning). Which is to say that within the first two years of school, three quarters of the children have already fallen behind. And this is before ‘learning loss due to pandemic’ made headlines!

Without a strong foundation in the early years, and without much learning support in school or at home, these children remain enrolled in school but never really catch up with the curriculum.

Thinking ahead

2022-23 will be the first academic year where we put into action some of the key elements of the National Education Policy (NEP) 2020. The policy has proposed a ‘foundational stage’ spanning ages 3 to 8, and prioritized universal acquisition of foundational literacy and numeracy skills by grade 3.

This conceptualization is based on globally accepted scientific principles of how children learn at this age/stage of their lives. There is a need to accordingly align learning environments and teaching-learning interactions. On the one hand, decision-makers have to figure out how to better link anganwadis and schools, and pave a smoother transition from preschool to formal schooling. On the other hand, the current situation presents a golden opportunity for putting in place four critical pillars to support the growth and development of young children going forward.

1) Promote “pre-school-ification” of early grades

The first pillar can be termed “pre-school-ification” of early grades in school. Children in grades 1, 2 and 3 need to land softly from the laps of their families into the harder demands of formal school. This means that the existing curricular expectations, materials, methods of teaching-learning or measurements cannot be used. Early childhood activities have long been anchored in five broad and integrated domains: physical, socio-emotional, cognitive, pre-language and pre-math development. This framework needs to guide early grade instructional practice. Classrooms will have to function very differently from the past if we want to build a strong and durable foundation in the early years.

2) Make early grade teaching high status

Practical decisions need to be made at the school level like who is the best available teacher for this age group. Like in a cricket match, the opening batsmen khata kholte hain (start things off) and set the tone for the innings ahead; in schools, a child’s first teacher leaves a major imprint on the child’s subsequent learning journey.

No matter how well designed instructional plans or materials are, unless you enjoy working with young children, learning activities in classrooms will not come alive. If today in India, foundational learning is the top national priority in education, then teaching in grades 1-2 has to become the most sought after teaching spot.

Some years ago, the government in Bihar had started a policy of allocating a specific teacher in each school for grade 1 and delivered special training to them. At the time, I had the opportunity to visit these trainings in many districts. I asked every batch of teachers if teaching grade 1 was their first choice, hardly anyone said yes. No matter how well designed instructional plans or materials are, unless you enjoy working with young children, learning activities in classrooms will not come alive; effective and enjoyable teaching-learning processes leading to durable outcomes require motivation and support. If today in India, foundational learning is the top national priority in education, then teaching in grades 1-2 has to become the most sought after teaching spot.

3) Involve and support parents’ participation in children’s learning

Ground-level experience and evidence (as ASER 2020, 2021 highlight) has established that parents were involved in their children’s learning during the pandemic. This has been true across all education levels and geographies. It is worth noting that the current generation of mothers and fathers of young children (aged 3 to 8) are products of India’s drive for universal elementary education. The available human capital, at least in terms of years of schooling, for young parents is higher today than ever before. This parental human capital is an invaluable resource and must be seen as a strong pillar for supporting children’s growth and development.

Pratham’s experience in over 10,000 rural and urban communities has shown that direct parental engagement in children’s learning has been instrumental in sustaining and strengthening children’s learning through the pandemic. So have neighborhood and mohalla mothers’ groups. School readiness melas or community-based activity fairs where mothers and children participate in tasks together have not only been very popular, but have also highlighted the central role of young mothers in their children’s education.

4) Building bridges

Building close and continuous contact between the anganwadi worker, teachers in grades 1 and 2, and parents is essential. I would go so far as to say that a chunk of training funds at the block and cluster levels should be put aside to consistently engage parents in their children’s learning. Greater participation and ownership from them are critical.

As new Covid-19 variants move through our communities in waves, it is likely that schools may repeatedly open and close this year. Trust between these key adult figures will also prove to be useful for other local decisions related to the health and safety of children in schools. And in the event of schools shutting physical classes, a strong parent-teacher partnership should be able to navigate such periods with minimal disruption for children.

Preparing for a new innings

India prides itself on nurturing start-ups. The 2022-23 school year should be declared to be a “start-up” year for launching NIPUN Bharat, the national mission on foundational literacy and numeracy. The stage is being prepared for a long and memorable performance. The cast of characters are getting ready. The plot will unfold year on year and adjustments to the script can be made accordingly.

For now: put aside the usual textbooks and curriculum for grades 1 and 2. Meet children at their level as they enter school. Build teaching-learning interactions and activities based on their needs and on what they have already picked up at home and in the community. Set a few clear doable goals that everyone can understand and work towards them. Like in the initial months of a start-up, iterations and changes may be needed. In subsequent years, we will need to formally link activities and processes between anganwadis and schools.

For now: put aside the usual textbooks and curriculum for grades 1 and 2. Meet children at their level as they enter school. Build teaching-learning interactions and activities based on their needs and on what they have already picked up at home and in the community.

Remember, first graders in 2022-23 will be in grade 3 in 2024-25. The experience of each cohort will be built on the achievement of the previous cohort. Like the measuring tape used to periodically track the height of children, this cohort too will be the first whose achievements will be compared to the ambitious goals set by the NEP.

Here’s to a new beginning

April 2022 will see the start of a new school year. As we hope for the best, let us greet the group of children entering school for the first time with the best that we have to offer. In every way, achieving the NEP goal of foundational learning is absolutely vital to the future of the country. A new journey is beginning. It will come with its own set of adventures. Let us embark on this trip with high expectations, energy and excitement. With our four pillars in place, we will be ready for any challenges in our path. The goal is far too important for us to not succeed.

View Article References

Keywords

FLN

Authored by

The EDge Editorial Team

CSF

Share this on

Subscribe to our Newsletters
Voices from the ground: Featuring stories of #ClassroomHeroes