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Submitted by Suhas Parandekar on
Thanks to Ariel for sharing this hopeful and informative story and some lovely pictures. I especially likes the ones of the classrooms which appear to be so replete with cognitive stimuli and the children appear to be enthusiastically and cognitively engaged. Never mind the lack of electricity, illuminating minds perhaps requires something different from an electrical light bulb ! From the description, the pedagogical model being followed in these Tamilnadu schools looks to be very similar to the Escuela Nueva model pioneered in Colombia in the 1970s. Recently, thanks to the Global Partnership for Education, the model has been introduced to Vietnam and we hope to carry out a detailed three year long impact evaluation study of the program. In Vietnam as well , on school visits you can see similar enthusiasm and engagement and apparent gains in learning, and we see children from disadvantaged ethnic minority groups behaving in bold and assertive ways, which local officials say is not commonly seen. We hope to conduct a rigorously designed impact evaluation that could enhance our understanding of this teaching and learning approach. In my view, examining education from the perspective of complex systems indicates very clearly why it is theoretically possible to have very large impact in learning from this kind of model. In Vietnam, we use the made-up acronym SCALE – for (Students at the centre of the learning process; Collaboration and Cooperation between groups of students; Active and reflexive learning methods; Linkages in student knowledge building to outside activities and Empowerment of the local community). There are a few theoretical reasons why this method works so well: (i) Distributed Cognition – this is the most important one, where our learning is enhanced considerably when brains are connected to one another – in a traditional classroom setting this does not happen as much; (ii) Diversity of skills – students are situated at various points on multiple dimensions of skills and abilities – and everybody is very good at some thing – unlike in traditional school settings, in this model your hidden talent is allowed to be revealed and indeed used by others. Incidentally, this fuels your confidence and motivates you further to develop and hone your particular skill, setting in process a kind of virtuous cycle. Economists would recognize this effect as trade with gains from specialization, complexity theorists would see a strange attractor. For a brilliant exposition of the theme of how diversity of skills in settings of distributed cognition work so well, see an account of the chess tournament of Gary Kasparov vs. Rest of the World in the book “Reinventing Discovery: The New Era of Networked Science”, by Michael Nielsen, Princeton, 2012; (iii) “Dumb-proofing the teacher” – let’s face it, governments can pour lots of money into teacher training and incentive payment schemes, but is extremely difficult, if not impossible, to use money to transform poor and mediocre teachers into brilliantly effective teachers. However, it is possible to have a brilliant teaching method in place, that harnesses the cognitive power of the collective classroom brain, where the teacher does not have to be brilliant, and yet the children may learn very well and be happy too !