Addressing the wideing learning gap, post pandemic

Learning Poverty, a concept introduced by World Bank 2 years back, refers to being unable to read and understand a short, age-appropriate text by age 10. This indicator was introduced to spotlight the need for foundational skills at the primary education level. India’s learning poverty was at 55% during 2019 (meaning, 55 percent of children in India at late primary age are not proficient in reading). Acknowledging the gravity of this, National Educational Policy 2020 (NEP) has stated that, “attaining foundational literacy and numeracy for all children will be an urgent national mission”, and has set a target to achieve universal foundational literacy and numeracy in primary school by 2025. NEP had recommended various initiatives including better pupil – teacher ratio, efficient training of teachers, rationalisation of the curriculum to focus on essential learning etc towards these means. However, the pandemic and associated school closure for over 40 weeks has curtailed these efforts.

Due to closure of schools, there has been a loss of the learning that would have happened if schools were open and regular curricular learning had taken place. Worse, children have forgotten what they knew earlier due to disconnect from learning during school closure, including foundational abilities, such as reading with understanding, performing addition and multiplication, and so on as evidenced by multiple surveys. UN estimates the learning poverty to increase by about 9% in low & middle income countries due to the pandemic. This makes the “urgent national mission” even more critical to avert the large scale – long term impact of this crisis.

However, India is yet to come up with a national road map for bringing back students to school and to bridge the learning gap. State governments have taken various initiatives to tackle the situation. Delhi government has come up with a 100 day plan to ease students into school. Kerala government has requested the teachers to assess the students and support learning. Maharashtra has introduced ‘My students, My responsibility’ initiative, where teachers are tasked with reducing the learning gap. it is crucial to note that all of these initiatives pass on the onus of reducing the learning gap on to the teachers whereas the ability of a teacher to cater to the individual needs of each student is highly constrained by the high student – teacher ratio. Further, traditional focus on curriculum completion impairs these efforts. Addressing these require a long-term structural changes in the education system.

Further, studies indicate that instructional strategies used to compensate for students’ lack of learning by attempting to fill them in on what they have missed while keeping them in their age appropriate grade level have not been effective. In contrast, strategies that provide targeted and personalized instruction and support, such as the condensed curriculum, micro-teaching and supplemental and/or differentiated instruction may more effectively help students catch up on lost learning (UNESCO, 2020). While approaches to aligning instruction to children’s learning levels vary, such approaches often implicitly share a common set of principles including prioritizing all children mastering foundational skills (including literacy, numeracy, and socio-emotional learning); assessing children’s learning levels; adapting instruction to more engaging approaches and aligning with these learning levels.

While these are long term systemic changes, Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) recommends personalised learning intervention to tackle this issue in the short term. Intervention approaches of this nature include developing individualised development and learning plans, providing one-on-one or very small group coaching or tuition and additional or specialised instruction for certain students. In order to address a particular need at the individual or small group level, education systems may increase instructional time or employ specially trained professionals. Interestingly, this approach is not new to India. During early 90’s ‘Total Literacy Mission (TLM)’ employed a very similar approach.

TLM, part of the National Literacy Mission, launched in 1988 focused on imparting functional literacy to people in the age group of 15-35 years. Under this model, trained volunteers, equipped with customised teaching modules imparted foundational skills to adults within their community. The mission impacted about 13 crore adults. The success of this mission is evidenced by the 12.63% increase in literacy rate in 2001 census, highest decadal growth till then. Tamil Nadu government, has taken a leaf from this and had launched ‘Education at Doorsteps’ programme under similar lines to tackle learning gap. 

More states must come forward to adapt similar personalised learning interventions to address this issue. It is imperative that the policy makers understand that new solutions within the existing system, which is already strained, will only add more pressure and not yield expected impact and be willing consider alternatives outside the box.

1. Efforts to Eradicate Illiteracy in India –
2. Save our Future – White paper on education –
3. Locked Out: Emergency report on School Education
4. National Education Policy 2020 –
5. Plans for Bridging the Learning Gap caused due to School Lockdown as well as Review of
online and offline Instructions and Examinations and Plans for re-opening of Schools –
Department-Related Parliamentary Standing Committee On Education, Women, Children,
Youth And Sports –
6. Open Schools, Focus on Recovering Lost Learning: Clear Voice of Teachers Field Studies in
Education –
7. Regression in Learning: The High Cost of COVID-19 for India’s Children –
9. India Learning Poverty Brief –
12. Addressing learning gaps now will minimise disruption in students’ educational journeys –

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