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A team from World Bank 1 and European Commission 2 visited the SSA program in Tamil Nadu, from August 19 ‐21, 2008, with the objective of learning and understanding the education reform that is taking place in the state, with specific reference to Activity Based Learning (ABL) program and the Active Learning Methodology (ALM) program, in the primary and upper primary schools respectively. The team visited in all 5 Chennai Corporations schools and 10 government schools in Dharmapuri district. In the district visited, there was an interaction session with district level officials and practitioners (District Education Officer, Assistant Education Officer, Block Resource Centre Coordinators, Block Resource Teachers, Supervisors, etc) in addition to discussions with teachers, students and parents/ VECs in the schools. SSA Tamil Nadu has received acclaim in recent Joint Review Missions for the ABL and ALM programs for their comprehensive and holistic approach to enhance quality of education at the school level. With a growing focus on improving quality of education and classroom processes, the Tamil Nadu model has been projected as an initiative that could be adapted and replicated by other States.
1. The State Profile
Tamil Nadu has achieved near universal access at both primary and upper primary levels. The GER and NER for Primary are 101.5 and 99.4 and for Upper Primary are 103.8 and 98.6. Attendance rates are reported to be over 97% in both primary and upper primary levels with high transition rates to upper primary. The state has reached almost full gender parity. The State has comfortable Pupil Teacher Ratios and Pupil Classroom Ratios of 29 and 36 at primary and upper primary levels. The State of Tamil Nadu has a no detention policy up to Grade V. The State schools have relatively good infrastructure with reasonably large classroom sizes, pucca buildings, toilets and other amenities. About 12 districts have some infrastructure deficits which are being addressed as special focus districts. All schools, including private aided and unaided, are covered in the District Information System for Education (DISE). The State provides free textbooks to all children. The State employs professionally qualified teachers (graduate teachers for upper primary and diploma teachers for primary) and no para teachers. The State has virtually no single teacher schools. The State has successfully upgraded most Education Guarantee Scheme Schools into regular schools, which ensures that most of the schools operate with certain minimum infrastructure provisioning (only about 78 EGS centres remaining). Recently, all schools have been supplied with a TV and DVD player for using audio visual teaching learning materials.
2. The ABL and ALM programs
The ABL and the ALM methodologies were introduced in response to poor learning levels amongst children and uninteresting classroom processes. Nearly 60% of the 37500 primary
Venita Kaul, Deepa Sankar and Savita Dhingra Shanti Jagannathan
schools in the State are two teacher schools; with teachers addressing the learning needs of grades 1‐5 and transacting up to 17 textbooks in an academic year.
2.1 Activity Based Learning for Primary Grades
The ABL methodology has been designed essentially with a focus on classroom reform. It enables individualized, self learning in an interesting and interactive manner, and is based on the model of the NGO Rishi Valley Rural Education Centre, well known for their experiments with joyful learning programs and intensive teacher training. The ABL methodology constitutes a major departure from conventional classroom organization and learning process. In its design, the ABL method expands on the Rishi Valley model by incorporating certain enriching features such as the Montessori approach, the inclusion of Science, Social Science and English teaching. Initially this methodology was taken up as a pilot in a few Chennai Corporation schools. By 2003 all schools in Chennai Corporation had begun to adopt the ABL method in their classrooms and groups of teachers and Block Resource Centre (BRC) personnel had received in‐depth training from Rishi Valley. From all the Corporation Schools of Chennai, ABL was further expanded to 10 schools in every rural Block of Tamil Nadu. From the 2007 academic year, ABL has been scaled up to all the 37500‐odd schools run by the Panchayat Union in the entire State. This has been a phenomenal development. The ABL teacher in the classroom has transformed to a facilitator of learning; she does not lecture to the class or direct the learning of the whole class in a uniform pattern. The burden on the teacher is reduced and learning by children does not depend totally on the teacher.
The use of the ABL methodology has thus constituted a paradigm shift in the process of learning in the classrooms. This has been made possible through intensive teacher training and on –site support and the development of appropriate teaching and learning materials for every curricular aspect in the textbooks. The method has brought out the potential of multi‐grade classroom situations for child centered teaching –learning. An ABL classroom is colorful, lively and child friendly. The blackboard has descended to the eye level of the children and each child has a dedicated space in the blackboard in which to write her work. Once used only by the teacher, the blackboard is now an active learning aid for the child.
The ABL method rests on an integrated Grades I‐IV structure in a multi‐grade classroom organization, enabling both vertical and horizontal groupings within the classroom. Children sit together according to their learning levels, irrespective of their age‐appropriate grade. The school time table operates on half day or even full day units, rather than the conventional 45 minute periods per subject. This allows children to persevere and complete the tasks on hand and get a sense of closure. They can concentrate longer and without any interruption or pressure to complete. A key feature of the ABL methodology is that each child is aware of his/her own progress in the learning ladder. In each class, a child is typically able to show where in the learning ladder she/he is situated and the corresponding self learning cards that need to be used.
An ABL classroom has a wide variety of cards and material which enable a structured learning process amongst children at different levels of competencies. The ABL methodology allows for individually paced learning through sets of graded learning materials, along a well defined learning continuum. Each child’s learning follows the defined milestones for each curricular area, which are depicted in a pictorial manner through a learning ladder that is displayed in the classroom. In addition, every child’s learning progress is monitored and displayed on an achievement chart. Every child is able to check his / her location on the chart and identify the corresponding activity card on the learning ladder and thus initiate his /her own learning activity for the day. Each activity is done three times over by each child for reinforcement and mastery, once in his/her own exercise book, then in his/her designated slot in the low blackboard and then finally in the activity book. The sets of activities are divided into introductory activities, practice activities and evaluation. The teacher’s role is clearly that of a facilitator who takes a more active role only with the’ introductory’ activities. The learning materials are arranged in an orderly way and each child is able to access the card specific to her or him. Text books, although brought into the classrooms are not directly used to avoid teacher‐centered pedagogy. Freed from the intimidating exams and tests, children self‐evaluate their learning as the last step in a series of activities, which is then ultimately reviewed by the teacher.
The Active Learning Method (ALM) for Upper Primary Grades
A key feature of an ALM class is to encourage each student to prepare a 'mind map' of a particular concept or theme. We observed very interesting, creative and colourful mind maps prepared by students of ALM.
Tamil Nadu has continued the pedagogical reform process at the upper primary level as well. The Active Learning Methodology (ALM) has been introduced in all the 12000‐odd upper primary schools in Tamil Nadu. The ALM does use textbooks in the class rooms; however, learning has become more active. In a typical ALM classroom, the teacher introduces a topic or theme of a lesson very briefly, for not more than 10 minutes. Children are then encouraged to read the lesson on their own with sufficient time provided. They can then discuss amongst themselves in groups as well as ask clarifications and questions to the teacher. Each child is then required to depict the concept / concepts introduced, in the form of a “mind map”, that deconstructs the given concept / learning. The child has the freedom to use his/ her creativity in
drawing the mind maps to explain the process. Building on the competencies of reading and writing acquired at primary level, the ALM classroom provides each student with opportunities to study in greater depth. Each child is able to use his/her own capacities to understand, query and to explain a concept. This methodology stimulates the children to think for themselves as well as to relate what they learn to their environment and surroundings. They are also encouraged to make sense of what and how they feel about the things they have read and understood and depict the same in creative modes. The class works in both small groups and large groups for discussions and once again the teacher is more of a facilitator of learning than a conveyor of information and knowledge. Both ABL and ALM methodologies follow the constructivist learning rubric advocated in the National Curricular Framework of 2005 with emphasis on concept clarity and higher order skills rather than on rote learning.
Team’s Observations from the field visit
It is indeed impressive to note the rapid up‐scaling of the ABL and ALM models across all the Panchayat Union schools in Tamil Nadu within a very short span of time. The most notable feature of the reform is the focus on changing classrooms, in terms of methodology, role of teachers, classroom organization, and classroom environment as a whole. Discussed below are some of the more significant observations of the team with regard to both ABL and ALM. ABL: A commendable feature that ABL has facilitated is an honest and scientific benchmarking of children's learning levels at the start of the academic session. In school after school, the mission members noted that teachers, using a 'level fixing' exercise, had no hesitation in benchmarking children's learning levels well below the grade they are supposed to be in as per their age, wherever so justified. The teachers then focused on moving them up the learning ladder to higher level competencies, using the ABL methodology and the wide array of learning aids available to them. The ABL thus presents an excellent model of the much advocated “child‐ centered” and individual paced process of learning. The materials have been developed in a graded manner with considerable thought and proper trialing so that these not only cover the entire process of learning (from introduction to extension to reinforcement to evaluation), but were also observed by the team to be very engaging for children. The methodology provides consistent tracking of every child’s progress, on a continuous basis. In addition, the self‐learning skills that are developed in children as a part of the methodology are observed to be cognitively stimulating with children as young as five years showing the ability to follow and interpret the matrix. Children were observed to be not only adept at the methodology of self‐learning, but were also demonstrating ability to read materials other than their own texts, including newspapers and do mathematics with complex Montessori materials in a concrete mode. English lessons through audio‐visual medium were a delight to observe in the classrooms. A very gratifying observation across schools visited was the confidence level as well as ability demonstrated by children to persevere on a task and take it to its logical completion entirely on their own. The essence of the methodology is the trust reposed both in children and teachers which allows them to function optimally in a very enabling and stress‐free environment. The grading system developed for grading of schools was also found to be very comprehensive, with inclusion of indicators related to classroom processes and change which is a very welcome step in terms of facilitating systemic change. The adeptness and enthusiasm with which all the teachers observed were implementing the changed methodology within the short span of time
provides evidence of a very effective training and onsite support system. The training at all levels in the methodology was essentially hands on in classrooms which were already implementing the methodology and included both demonstration and practice teaching with children. Some issues that were discussed with the state project authorities regarding this excellent methodology which they may like to give more attention to are as follows: • The ABL methodology provides an opportunity for children to proceed at their own pace of learning. However, accelerating progress of children lagging significantly behind their age appropriate class versus the progress along the learning ladder of children in their own age appropriate class may need to be monitored more closely and additional support provided. In terms of the daily schedule, there is merit in not binding the time table in 40 minutes slot as is the traditional practice. However, the ABL schedule of dividing the day into only two slots with forenoon dedicated to one curricular area and afternoon to another was observed to be very lengthy and tiring for small children. Given children’s developmental status and needs at the primary stage, it would be desirable to have a better balance within each session of active versus passive and group versus individual activities. This may help to optimize children’s participation, interest and learning. The curriculum at present focuses only on Language, Mathematics and EVS with a thrust on competencies. The team was happy to note that the state is considering making the curriculum more comprehensive to include art, crafts, music etc. In terms of Language curriculum also, it would be desirable to focus more on development of listening and speaking skills in children. It was very heartening for the team to observe children reading fairly fluently even from the newspapers or wall hoardings. These skills could be further enriched by providing children opportunities to ‘bond’ with books and experience more meaningful and interesting reading through activities like story telling, story book selection and handling in book corners. Teachers appear to report some difficulties in effectively implementing ABL in large class sizes, whereas it works very well for small class sizes. Teachers appear to have some difficulty in addressing a classroom that has large numbers of class 3 and 4 children who demand and occupy greater attention of the teachers than the class 1 and 2 children. (Possibility to group children in different ways was also raised and the SSA management has given the freedom to the teacher to organize her class in the way she considers most appropriate). The ABL has completely dispensed with the textbooks in the classrooms – although the State continues to provide textbooks to all children, they are kept outside of classrooms, to be consulted only once in a while. It would be advisable to see these text books as additional resource materials to be used in more creative and imaginative ways rather than keep them out of the classrooms, which may adversely condition children towards books.
ALM: ALM methodology provides an excellent approach to develop analytical and communication skills in children. The team was shown the “mind maps” developed by children who very enthusiastically discussed and described them. The classrooms were found to be vibrant and student‐centered, and students in general appeared to be motivated and happy. The implementation of the methodology, which is a very promising one, is still in its initial stages and needs to be strengthened further.
The team discussed with SPO the possibility of expanding the availability of reference materials in the classrooms, such as encyclopedia, dictionaries, supplementary materials etc so as to enable the students not only to develop analytical skills, but also skills of referencing, (accessing, selecting and interpreting information). The students may also need more guidance in developing the “mind maps”. The team observed that in many cases, the students’ “mind maps”, though creative, did not adequately reflect the deconstruction process and inter‐ connections among sub‐concepts. Grade V: The ABL at present covers Grades I‐IV while ALM addresses Grades VI‐VIII. Grade V is considered a transitional year and the state has to still develop and define the approach to address the needs of this grade. The team observed that a significant number of children in grade IV were still at lower levels of learning although making fast progress. Given this scenario for the existing cohort at least, the expectation is that many students may come into Grade V without adequately acquiring the required competencies. Therefore, the state may consider addressing this grade (grade V) as a year of consolidation rather than transition. Most stakeholders have been sensitized to these new methodologies such that there was tremendous unity of purpose in evidence. The SSA in Tamil Nadu had promoted a very comprehensive implementation of the model that entails cooperation from teachers, students as well as community representatives. A important next logical step would be to explore how the ABL and ALM could be linked with a review of the State Curriculum using NCF 2005, as ABL/ALM already incorporate much of the vision of NCF 2005.
The quality improvement model adopted by Tamil Nadu is clearly a forerunner, which can inspire similar initiatives in other states. While the model may not be amenable to being replicated exactly the same way in other states with different baseline conditions, it is worth exploring the key features of this program. Some aspects that emerged from discussions that would appear to have contributed to the success of the initiatives: • • The State took the plunge to go to scale in quality improving measures and addressed all elements of the quality support chain, from teachers, to teacher educators and supervisors. The State made innovative use of finance available through SSA to implement quality improvement measures at scale – eg, teacher grants, teacher training, TLM, Learning Enhancement funds. As part of the comprehensive reform, the state created a separate cadre of block resource teachers (BRTs) who were selected from the open market to ensure motivation and merit. Most BRTs are experienced teachers from private schools for whom the government job and salary offered job security and better pay. Each BRT has not more than 6‐7 schools in his/ her charge, allowing for at least a visit to each week per week. This ratio along with the availability of adequately trained mentors allows for very effective on‐site support system. The master trainers, BRTs and the teachers are all trained through direct hands on experience in ABL and ALM classrooms with children, allowing for intensive and experiential learning. The training is in a cascade mode, but provides enough checks and balances to avoid message loss. The dynamic leadership of the of the previous SSA State Project Director who championed the entire reform, coupled with a strong political will in the government of Tamil Nadu
which provided significant autonomy to the SPO and the comprehensive reform process that was followed of involving some major stakeholders like teachers unions etc were significant facilitating factors. • • The teachers have been unequivocally enabled to address the real learning levels of children without the pressure of targets in student learning within specific time frames. While it is remarkable how rapidly the reforms has been up scaled across the state, the sustainability in terms of political will, resources, motivation and social pressure will need to be strategically thought through. Important dimensions that may need consideration in this context could be (a) addressing pre‐service teacher training to be in tune with the new philosophy of the classrooms, (b) wider sharing and buy in of the private sector which is the pace setter for any reform and is presently positively inclined; and (c) inclusion of the state nodal agencies like DTERT, DIETs and other state structure, which are at presented excluded.
In Summary The ABL and ALM models in Tamil Nadu are clearly very comprehensive and exciting as case studies for other States. The strong political and managerial support to the programs is noteworthy. It is also very heartening to note that there is a strong demand for private schools for sharing of the ABL/ALM methodology. In Dharmapuri dsitrct, 505 students had moved from private schools to panchayat union schools. The English language teaching program that includes interesting audio visual materials is impressive. The next 2‐3 years would be critical to ensure the consolidation of the program and its sustainability
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