Addressing learning gaps

Many administrators are of the opinion that grade-wise learning outcome statements are important and useful in helping improve learning levels. Some states have also mandated painting them inside classrooms. Examples of such Learning Outcomes statements are: A Class 1 learner should be able to name familiar objects seen in pictures, recite poems or rhymes with actions, recite number names and count objects up to 20, concretely, pictorially and symbolically, count objects using numbers 1 to 9 etc.

I have found international funding agencies supporting the idea, especially for India, as they believe that clearly visible and set goals help them being achieved. But do these ‘grade-wise Learning Outcomes’ really represent clearly visible and set goals?

Focus on understanding

Our own experience of doing assessments for over 15 years with large government systems as well as private schools suggests something else. At one point in time, we did think that these documents were useful, and I believe they were useful then and for a specific purpose. Today, we feel they are not that useful, rather they need to and can be replaced by something more comprehensive and more useful for teachers.

Right from the minimum levels of learning (MLLs) of the early 1990s, to various state records of recent years, these documents can be useful if they can give a clear message that learning has to be focussed on understanding and not getting children to simply be able to solve certain types of questions. At the same time, these are important competencies children need to develop – but there is a real danger of these statements being misinterpreted and there seems to be no clear protection against that.

Most educationists would agree that children should not only be able to estimate sum, difference, product and quotient of numbers but also be able to deal with real-life situations representing this competency. But how do we explain to a teacher who only teaches how to solve traditional problems given in textbooks, and feels that doing so makes the children competent or believes that children should be proficient only in the textbook-type of questions? 

Companion document

We need to also understand whether Learning Outcomes documents have really helped improve the system. Can the process by which they are expected to help be described more clearly? Or can we have a companion document for teachers showing clearly ‘How to use a Learning Outcomes document’ – an attempt that will reveal these serious shortcomings.

Do we have any reason to believe that states or schools that made better Learning Outcomes documents had improved learning outcomes? We must note that such documents have been used a lot and have not really yielded any notable results. We worked with a state which conducted assessments annually for over 5 years. After the third year, there was a directive to create a document specifying ‘grade-level competencies’.

Assessments were done before the document was released and similar assessments were done post its release. The questions in the assessments were mapped to the document’s statement. Both to us, and other external observers, there was no other difference or the impact from the availability of such a document.

As I mentioned, we did see Learning Outcomes documents as useful many years ago, and the reason for it is — such documents if written well, can guide teachers on what their focus should be and examples of what would constitute good learning. Good Learning Standards documents actually guide teachers and answer the doubts they face when deciding how to handle a topic in class. Such a document can help improve the quality of teaching by genuinely building teacher understanding and capacity.

The world is very different today from what it was in 2001. The version of the Learning Standards described above would now be in the form of documents, videos and forums that teachers can access and get inputs and guidance on. Most of what gets on to the site should be rigorously approved. But there is much more we can do to concretely improve Learning Outcomes today.

Skill-based activities

We now believe that merely a list of standards or competencies is not very useful either for teachers or researchers. Rather we believe that what we must have is a large pool of questions and activities linked to every skill or competency. This can be used both as a teaching as well as an assessment tool. Gradually a list of misconceptions should also be provided again linked to questions.

Such a listing of competencies linked to questions will help plan the way ahead and address the learning gaps before they become misconceptions for life. In other words, today ‘Learning Outcomes document’ could actually be an electronic database of lists of competencies, explanations of their importance, sample questions, their performance data, and ideas to help teachers teach and assess.

(The writer is co-founder and chief learning officer, Educational Initiatives, Bengaluru) 

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