Teaching at the Right Pace to the Right Level

In a class room there are two paces at race, the pace of teaching and the pace of learning. In the previous post, this blog discussed about pace of teaching and in this post it discusses about the pace of learning.

To re-iterate the arguments, when there is a difference in pace of teaching and pace of learning, the students below average lag behind and those above the average may feel bored. Thus, an ideal scenario is one where the pace of teaching is equal to pace of learning.

The gap between paces of teaching and learning can be bridged by adjusting either of these. In the previous post, this blog discussed about the over-paced curricula. Assuming that, the teacher decides to slow down the pace of teaching, to what pace should she reduce, in a class where there are students of multiple levels? The initial learning level of the child is another important aspect here. An ideal scenario is where teacher is able to diagnose difficulties of each student and teaches each of them at their pace. This would require one teacher per student which isn't feasible. Technology could be a possible solution where the advanced artificial intelligence programmes can identify the level of the child and teach him/her accordingly but the tools today haven't advanced enough to handle this. [More on technology in education later]

One second-best solution is to divide students into two different classes as per their initial levels, instead of randomly allocating them, and teach them separately. This is for cases where there are two classrooms for the students of same grade and have two teachers. A field experiment on same lines was done in Kenya in 2008. This intervention showed significant improvements in the learning levels of these children as compared to those where there wasn't any segregation. The interesting aspect being, teachers' effort in higher-skilled group as per initial levels, put more efforts as they were more motivated to teach these students. Earlier, these teachers were teaching a heterogeneous groups where they couldn't customize much.

Another second-best solution can be to divide the class into multiple groups within the same class as per the learning levels and teach them accordingly. Studies (link to the summary) conducted in India in government schools using this methodology also showed significant improvements in students learning levels.

Very few can deny the proposal that students should be taught to their level and the studies above also serve as evidence for proof of concept which validate the theory. However, there are significant challenges associated with this methodology.

One, design of pedagogy. Teaching at Right Level is a theme but it needs lot of thinking to convert it into a concrete form that is implementable in the classroom. Consider a typical class room scenario. A teacher has introduced a concept, formed students into groups and is trying to address their problems. Which group should the teacher focus on? What should the teacher do with the students who learn quickly and are restless in the class? At what point should the teacher decide to proceed to the next topic? Should teachers wait for each and every student to learn the concept thoroughly? Should they proceed on knowing that significant part (80-90%) of the class learnt the concept? What happens to these students then? If teachers have to do this for each and every topic, how many concepts can they teach in an academic year? All these processes can be daunting for a teacher. Thus,  the ease of implementation of pedagogical process is one of the major factors for the success of this methodology 

Two, teachers' efforts. As narrated above, this approach to teach needs more efforts than the traditional classroom teaching, which might put off an average or below average teacher after some point.

Three, teachers' beliefs. In many such available approaches, where multiple groups are formed, students in a group are encouraged to help each other. But what if teachers don't believe that students can't learn from each other?

Four, acceptance in society. In education, we are yet to come into terms with the phenomenon that it is ok for a child to slowly as compared to others. If it were gym, people would acknowledge the fact that each person's body is different and hence might take longer or shorter to lose weight but when it comes to learning, there is a stigma associated with being slow.

Activity Based Learning (ABL), a pedagogical technique developed at Rishi Valley School in Andhra Pradesh on similar lines was adopted by several states across India. States like Tamil Nadu have upscaled the programme to all the government schools. The results of this programme illustrate the gravity of the challenges discussed above. Despite being successful in Rishi Valley School, it couldn't have similar effect in the context of government schools.

Some possible ways to address these challenges would be to a) support systems to slower kids either in form of teaching assistants to teachers or through technology. b) simplify the syllabus so that teachers can focus on simple concepts in early stages and gives them time to phase in concepts slowly. c) better training, monitoring and support to teachers. d) counselling to parents. These are easier said than done considering the weak state capacity. These challenges are worth solving and shouldn't come in the way of implementing this in classrooms since it is better than status quo.

All of this underscores the need for a) tools to diagnose students' difficulties b) innovation in pedagogical techniques which can translate abstract idea of teaching at right level into concrete actionable techniques and c) additional support for students falling back in classroom.

More on this in the following posts. Stay tuned and do subscribe to the blog. :)

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