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Teaching to Learn: Reflections from a Visit to India

Ariel Fiszbein's picture

In a recent trip to India I had the opportunity to visit schools in Tamil Nadu and observe the application of a new teaching approach in government schools. The Activity Based Learning (ABL) approach is a teaching technique in which learning is accomplished through activities, rather than through the traditional rote teaching we often observe in many schools across the developing world.

These government schools are serving mostly disadvantaged children. In the schools we visited, a majority of students are classified as scheduled casts/scheduled tribes. The infrastructure is basic -in one school children were working in the dark because the electricity was out - a regular occurrence in many schools in Tamil Nadu. Yet, there was significant learning going on.

We saw children reading, writing, doing math, and speaking in English. We saw critical thinking in the use of ‘mind maps’ to interpret texts. Equally important, we saw happy, engaged children who were not afraid to speak up and interact with us and other visitors on an equal footing. The teaching approach appears to have achieved a very unique transformation: a less hierarchical relationship between adults and children. The fact that blackboards are controlled by the children instead of by the teacher represents a strong metaphor for this change.

This active pedagogy is both extremely flexible (to allow each student to advance at her own pace with a focus in meeting learning goals) and very structured. Milestones are transparently set and students (and teachers) can track progress on a regular basis.

I kept asking myself why the standard problems in India of teacher absenteeism and lack of motivation appear to be less of an issue here than in other parts of the country. The reason is not clear, but some people I spoke with suggested that there could be a link to the relatively recent introduction of a policy whereby teachers are hired on the basis of examinations.

Still, it’s risky to draw conclusions from visits to just a few schools. According to the Quality of Education in Rural India (QuERI) project by the Center for Policy Research (CPR, September 2011) Tamil Nadu is a top performer in the country in terms of learning outcomes. However, we really don’t know what may be the contributions of the ABL approach. A recent evaluation of the program found positive results but had serious methodological limitations.

This set of photographs illustrates the dynamics of what is happening in the classroom.

Interestingly, schools are collecting incredibly rich data on student performance. For each student, teachers track the achievement of the forty-plus milestones in each of the areas of the curriculum. Right now, this data is kept in paper form. I could not resist considering the potential of a system that would digitalize that information and create a unified database that could be used for analytical purposes, including experimenting with changes in implementation at the classroom level. We could all learn valuable lessons from such effort.



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 !

If you are talking about India, India is not a fully developed country it's still developing country, people in India most of them are uneducated because they don't give much important to the study.

Submitted by TES India on

Fantastic article Ariel!

Its great to hear that the teaching techniques are effective and that the young children seem happy!

The education system in India as we know it is fragile. Poor areas are not always getting the support they need and children are missing out on their education!

Teaching staff and volunteers also need all the support they can get.

Have you heard of TES India?

It is a teachers network, created by teachers for teachers! Currently, the network features more than 500.000 free high-quality teaching resources and opportunities for education professionals in India to connect and share through our vast digital community.

This could help teachers inspire and encourage each other with exciting new techniques such as the ones you mention above.

Take a look ( )

Hope this helps!

magnificent post, very informative. I ponder why the
other experts of this sector don't notice this. You must continue your writing.
I am confident, you've a great readers' base already!

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