What does ‘focus on learning’ NOT mean?

What’s the first and foremost problem in public education systems?

It is the ‘learning crisis’. Surprisingly ‘learning crisis’ ’isn’t the first response of people when asked about the fundamental problem of public education system. The typical answers are teacher motivation, infrastructure etc. It shows that though one understands subconsciously that learning crisis is the primary problem, it isn’t reflected in our actions and responses. We immediately turn to what one thinks of the reasons for such crisis like teacher motivation etc. It only demonstrates the struggle ahead to conquer the mental biases and mental models of people to bring ‘learning’ to the forefront of not just the discourse but also into the actions.

Understandably, almost every article and policy reform framework these days emphasize “Focus on Learning”, reminding governments to shed old ways of attempts to reform by building schools and increasing enrollmentsLant Pritchett calls it as 'pivot to learning'. Having said that, one should also be conscious of the tacit meaning communicated in recommendations that emphasize the focus on learning.
‘Focus on learning’ may sound simple as the three words suggest — just focus on learning. However on exploring the numerous ways it is being understood it becomes clear that the meaning of these words is not so evident and is being widely misunderstood.

The recommendations of ‘focus on learning’ are leading the practitioners to act as following.

1. Infrastructure is a strict NO

The discourse of focusing on learning is anchored around past efforts of focus on infrastructure. In the process, infrastructure is ending up being a taboo. The recommendation to focus on learning is being misinterpreted as ‘don’t do anything related to infrastructure’. Any effort of governments on infrastructure is being immediately termed us ‘but it doesn’t lead to learning’ and sometimes ridiculed.

Such responses expressing disdain towards efforts to maintain or upgrade infrastructure stem from incomplete understanding of the recommendations that emphasize to focus on learning.

It is to be made clear that focus on learning doesn’t mean that governments shouldn’t work on adding, maintaining and upgrading infrastructure. Focus on learning means — don’t put efforts ONLY on infrastructure, only being the operative word.

2. Focus on learning = No need to/Don’t focus on other aspects

The visible pain points in the system include a long list of things starting from lack of toilets, untimely delivery of funds, textbooks etc, large classrooms in some cases especially secondary schools, absence of fair and transparent processes of personnel transfers, teacher absence etc.

The recommendations of focus on learning have to come to mean as — neglect the other aspects or there’s no need to work on the other aspects. The abstract term of ‘learning’ is being forced to take precedence over these fundamental aspects regarding the immediate action points.

The result is that there’s more apathy towards the boring yet essential and sometimes politically challenging work of weeding out administrative inefficiencies and cleaning up of rules and regulations and enforcing accountability.

Everyone seems to be running after the abstraction of learning while neglecting the visible pain points.

This is reinforced by the policy reform proposals which find no mention of recommendations to work on the fundamentals (Read Appendix I).

3. Quest for magical solutions by practitioners

Trying to chase abstract term of learning, neglecting the visible fundamentals at hand has slowly turned into a quest for magical solutions which can yield ‘outcomes’ without having to necessarily resolve the fundamental issues (list mentioned in Appendix I). Scaling-up ideas is the commonly taken path.

Not surprisingly, such initiatives that overlay interventions (which still aim to focus on learning) on system with weak fundamentals, without addressing the fundamentals never take off. Even if they work, they work at incremental level for elementary concepts that can be standardized, leveraging the narrow bandwidth remaining in the system after the pain points, still leaving out lots of unused potential.

Tracing out the root cause for miscommunication — Researchers’ quest for determinants of learning

Tasked with the job to understand and suggest ways out of learning crisis, researchers responded in the following two ways

i) Finding interventions that result in outcomes despite the constraints in the system — the ones majorly by RCTs

ii) Finding determinants of learning from the cross-country data — external tests etc.

Trapped by the habit of commenting only in the presence of evidence and NOT commenting in its absence, the diagnosis and proposals emanating from researchers have also revolved around such interventions and cross-country determinants.

The misinterpretations of ‘focus on learning’ can be largely traced out (spare me for a non-rigorous causal claim!) to such proposals that drive the discourse in the form of news paper editorials, opinion columns, policy briefs, research papers, which largely miss out mentioning the need to work on fundamentals.

The compulsions to speak only with evidence are understood but do you always need evidence to mention the necessity of fundamentals? It’s a mere common sense. Such fundamentals are something taken for granted or not-fancy forgetting that all the other proposals in such briefs and articles work only when these fundamentals are in place.

What’s to be done — clarifying the meaning of ‘focus on learning’?

In order to rectify the miscommunication of the term ‘focus on learning’, it is important to address the misinterpretations.

Classifying the elements that contribute towards learning will help us give the clear picture.

The first set of elements are those that directly affect learning — teaching methods etc. These work typically inside the classrooms and affect the way teacher teaches the students.

The second set of elements are those that indirectly affect learning — having school to be able to teach, having books, administrative pain points to teachers etc. These are outside the classrooms but act as support to the first set of elements. In other words, the first set of elements — teaching, doesn’t happen in a vacuum; it is overlaid on these elements that affect indirectly.

The important distinction between elements of first kind and the second is that the latter are visible while the former aren’t. For instance, the problem of absence of toilets is immediately visible and sounds chronic while the learning crisis inside the classrooms is hard to trace and needs sledgehammering into people’s minds to convince them of the crisis.

What has gone wrong?

The visibility of the second type of elements is the prime reason for earlier efforts focusing only on infrastructure.

The bottlenecks of the elements of second kind seem so chronic that — combined with the personnel who cite these problems as alibis, it’s easy for practitioners to get convinced that these are ‘the’ constraints; there’s no way one can progress without addressing these; and that addressing these will solve the majority of the problem.

It’s unimaginable for practitioners to look beyond these — what after addressing these? For instance, it’s mentally difficult for a person who visits a school with students without textbooks to think of other possible reasons for poor results, other than the absence of books. Such experiences become part of the usual discourse.

The ease of addressing the elements of second kind and visibility of such work done also acts as an incentive to focus on these. So, we ended with just construction of schools and enrolling kids.

In a nut shell, the practitioners responded to crisis by reacting only to visible, easily solvable issues (elements of second kind), ignoring the invisible yet important element of the first kind. This approach views elements of second kind as the binding constraints and efforts to reform end with addressing these.

What does ‘focus on learning’ mean?

  1. Don’t work just on infrastructure (loosely using it as representative for elements of second kind). Alongside, also work on elements of first kind that directly affect the processes in classroom, leveraging on the bandwidth created in the system by easing out constraints of second type.
  2. Don’t see infrastructure as the end goal. Instead, see it as an enabling support to the final goal of learning outcomes.
  3. In practical terms — view ‘learning’ as the end goal— in the process remove all the irritants that come in the way of implementing the initiatives that directly affect learning. Infrastructure (loose term representative of secondary elements) then becomes as a complement and not as an anchor.
The above method of communication emphasizes the importance of both primary and secondary elements reducing the scope for misinterpretation where one is neglected for the other.

We have noted earlier that if the first order issues (fundamentals) aren’t addressed, the discourse on necessities gets stuck at initial stages itself. We need to resolve these quickly so that we progress to discuss higher level nuances. It’s better to debate on nuances of learning rather than discussing on books vs. toilets.
At a time when everyone is pushing the governments to focus on learning, it is important to have a tacit understanding of the term ‘focus on learning’, else we might end up treading incorrect or inefficient paths.

A senior IAS officer once commented

Why do researchers always want to recommend fancy (often funny) proposals? Why don’t they give ‘fill up all teacher posts’, ‘increase personnel for monitoring’ as one of their recommendations? Do you think any of the other interventions are going to work without addressing these? Don’t tell me that you are trying to suggest ways to work despite these constraints. It’s like disguising band-aid as the surgery and doing that for long till the patient dies.

These words may not cite rigorous evidence but there’s hard truth to it. We should act before the misinterpretation of ‘focus on learning’ leads to emergence of a group of practitioners to fight against the ‘learning-istas’! 

Mentioning the need to address the  fundamental issues in all the policy briefs, articles, even at the sake of repetition is the first step.

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