What stands in the Way? Achieving Foundational Literacy and Numeracy- Draft NEP 2019

 
Background
 

It is heartening to see the focus on foundational literacy and numeracy in the Draft NEP 2019. As the document says “Our highest priority must be to achieve universal foundational literacy and numeracy in primary school and beyond by 2025. The rest of the Policy will be largely irrelevant for such a large portion of our students if this most basic learning (reading, writing, and arithmetic at the foundational level) is not first achieved

 

The document  lays out several important points and specific suggestions relevant to achieving this goal, for example-

  1. Enhancing the background early childhood care and learning (including pre-literacy and pre-numeracy) that is required for a child to engage in more formal grade school education. This problem most acutely affects large numbers of children from disadvantaged socio-economic backgrounds, who have not had access to pre-primary education.

  2. Assigning dedicated hours daily to focus on literacy and numeracy; Language and Math focused ‘weeks’, ‘melas’ and school assemblies etc. (P2.2)

  3. Importance of instruction in the mother tongue/ language, saying “It is well-understood that young children learn and grasp nontrivial concepts most quickly in their home language/mother tongue.” (4.5)

  4. Reducing curriculum content to enhance essential learning and critical thinking (4.3)

  5. Involving the community to bring the spotlight on foundational literacy and numeracy and building a culture of reading and communication (Chap 2). In 2.15, the document says “Students will be asked to read excerpts from their favourite books/stories and present oral summaries and their own thoughts each week or month in front of their class, to encourage reading as well as develop communication skills.”

 

Allowing the child to express herself in her mother tongue, with a reduced curricular load, focusing on creativity and critical thinking, building a culture of reading and communication, would all lead to the child gaining felicity in her language, initially with oral expression and later with reading and writing. A similar argument can be made for numeracy.

 

Analysis- Systemic Forces to be Addressed
 

One limitation of the Draft NEP is that it says little about what has and hasn’t worked at the ‘system level’  in the past, and this holds true for the chapter on Foundational Literacy and Numeracy. It is important to recognize learning from past efforts if the important ideas in the proposed policy are to see the light of day.

 

In my experience in evaluating the efficacy of government education systems and specific programs, I have observed various forces at play and I elaborate on these below. I also share examples from a UNICEF funded Evaluation of ABL programs across the country that I was a part of, as appropriate. The context is that ABL is/ was a multilevel activity-based learning pedagogy, which the Draft NEP document identifies as a key element in the redesign of teacher education to achieve the goals of foundational literacy and numeracy (P2.13). ABL was not particularly successful in achieving these goals (over a period of a decade or more), particularly due to ‘forces’ 1, 2 and 3 described below. The interested reader can study the ABL Evaluation report to understand other systemic forces that came in the way; these are generic points that would apply to any system-wide initiative.

 

1. Conflicting objectives across different initiatives sending mixed signals to teachers- Unfortunately it is not uncommon for governments to be misaligned across different initiatives, diluting focus on one key goal. The goal of Foundational Literacy and Numeracy by Grade 5, should be given priority over all other goals and this should be manifested in all elements of the program e.g. 

 

  • The assessment approach should be clearly laid out (being able to read an ‘unseen passage’, being able to write 1-2 pages on her own expressing her own ideas, being able to do simple arithmetic involved in a real-life transaction etc.)

  • Teachers should then be supported in achieving these goals, and not just be ‘monitored’ for ‘numbers of students who can read and do arithmetic’

  • There should be no other goals from a learning perspective ideally, or at the minimum they should be clearly communicated to be secondary/ something that will NOT be monitored centrally (e.g. Learning 3 languages in school as stated in P 4.5.3 poses a risk of sending mixed signals). One example of a ‘within programme misalignment’ was seen in the ABL implementations in Tamil Nadu and Madhya Pradesh (as of 2014). ABL is built on the philosophy of self-paced learning (so a ‘grade 2’ child could be working on ‘grade 1’ material and catch up at her own pace)- this was severely diluted when children were expected to complete certain goals every month, as indicated by the ‘monthly cups’ and the ‘half-yearly’ medals in the MP SABL (Simplified ABL). In Tamil Nadu, the use of both textbooks and the card-ladder created similar confusion. There is a risk that existing initiatives or proposed ones (like 3 languages in school or Grade 3 census exam) will move the focus away from achieving foundational literacy and numeracy. Whether teachers and field-level staff are given multiple objectives needs to be carefully evaluated and addressed. If not, the 3 language goal could end up with kids gaining a smattering of 3 languages at the cost of not being able to express themselves well in their mother tongue. And if state leadership cannot convince teachers that the census exam is a low-stakes assessment meant to help teachers in achieving their goals, significant energies will be diverted in preparing kids to do well on the test or even how to cheat. 

 

Another area in which the Draft NEP may be setting up conflicting goals is the prescription of new subjects like 'Critical Issues' and 'Indian Knowledge Systems' while talking elsewhere about 'reducing curricular load to essential ideas to permit nuanced discussion and understanding'. The objectives of the Draft NEP can be met much better by integration of the proposed 'courses/ subjects' with existing subjects. For example, there is plenty of scope to integrate Language with Social Studies/ EVS at the primary level, and important content and ideas of 'Critical Issues' and 'Indian Knowledge Systems' can be integrated into Social Studies at the Middle and Secondary levels.

 

Other significant forces in the environment also need to be recognized for the laudable goals in the NEP to be met. For example, parents and the community are increasingly seeing ‘English medium’ as a route to success, and strong awareness campaigns will be needed to reinforce the importance of mother tongue as a medium of instruction till at least Grade 4. Otherwise, parents will send students to private English medium schools or government schools that are technically vernacular medium schools will implement 'English medium' informally to drive up enrollment. I have seen schools do this because of the demand from the community.

 

2. Stakeholders gaming the system to deliver ‘defined metrics’- This is connected to the previous point. Lasting change is difficult, requires time, and moving away from entrenched paradigms. Given this, if the system is looking only at ‘lagging indicators’ of change- like children reading, doing arithmetic, knowing 3 languages etc., the assessments will get dumbed down to ‘show’ that these goals have been achieved. This has been seen on numerous occasions when large scale assessments are done. One striking example the ABL Evaluation team observed is a child reciting a story in English confidently, but being unable to explain the story in her mother tongue! This problem is exacerbated if there is an insistence that certain goals are achieved every 3 or 6 months. This issue can be addressed by having clear, aligned objectives as shared in the previous point, and coming up with ‘leading indicators’ of change that provide confidence that we are on the right track. Possible ‘leading indicators’ would be children speaking up freely in their mother tongue, taking part in language/ arithmetic games, sharing stories, teachers being aware of what students can/ cannot do at any given point of time. In other words, the system should be clear and confident about the ‘process’ to be employed and results will come in due time.

 

Assessment of learning outcomes is of course important but these should be done along with the assessment of 'leading process indicators', in a low stakes manner and perhaps less frequently (say once in 2-3 years, at least in the beginning till significant improvements are made).

 

3. Shifting from one approach to another due to lack of institutional knowledge/ memory- The Draft NEP 2019 seems to assume that ‘how language/ math is learnt’ is clear and that all stakeholders in the system agree on an approach or know how this can be handled (or can be trained on this). However, this is not the case, especially with respect to language. One can see different approaches being used in different states and language learning experts have pointed out issues with learning material in different states- examples of some areas to be looked into are- working on oral expression before reading/ writing; should writing letters precede reading?

 

The Draft NEP itself do not seem to build on existing knowledge of practitioners and experts in various areas. For example, Rohit Dhankar of Azim Premji University points to various issues in the section on 'Language teaching' in this recent article. He talks about inconsistencies in the approach on language teaching. He also says that '"Abstract moral reasoning is likely to have the same fate as so-called “moral science” that is taught in many schools." These are not 'new subjects' and there have been attempts to teach these for decades- what is the learning from past experience in these areas and how has it influenced the proposed policy?

 

The core issue is that  no central or state body is moderating a discourse on what works and what doesn’t and creating a repository of institutional knowledge, from which all can benefit. Thus, there’s a very real risk that stakeholders will not use approaches that have worked in the past or try out approaches that don’t work (or lose confidence in an existing approach that works, due to lack of evidence). The NEP 2019 must make ‘creating a research/ knowledge-base’ of what works an important goal.

 

Conclusion

 

In summary, the Draft NEP 2019 must look carefully at both the pedagogic and systemic challenges of achieving Foundational Literacy and Numeracy, and have a plan to address these. There exist several ‘bright spots’ in the system- schools and clusters of schools that have achieved these goals over the last few decades. The knowledge of teachers and other resource persons who have made this happen should be leveraged. Institutionalizing this knowledge, conducting further research on pedagogy and aligning stakeholders across the system on a focused goal are crucial for success. The education system should not fall into the trap of thinking ‘more is better’. A child with a smattering of English, mother tongue, a third language, the ability to do a few sums in a defined way but unable to express herself or apply her arithmetic knowledge is not what we want.

 

The Draft NEP rightly says “If students are given a solid foundation in reading, writing, speaking, counting, arithmetic, mathematical and logical thinking, problem-solving, and in being creative, then all other future lifelong learning will become that much easier, faster, more enjoyable, and more individualized; all curriculum and pedagogy in early grade school must be designed with this principle in mind.” If the efforts of every teacher, resource person and educational administrator can be focused on this goal, consciously saying ‘NO’ to other things that could distract us, we would be well on our way to achieving Foundational Literacy and Numeracy.

 

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