Learning the wrong lessons

Azim Premji University recently conducted a longitudinal survey of schools following two types of pedagogy — Activity Based Learning, and usual textbook based pedagogy. It says the following
The study assessed the ability of students to recognize characters in the local languages, and while students could recognize the root alphabet, they struggled to identify the compound character formed by joining “a” to the root character. While 32% students in Palghar could recognize the compound character, only 22% in Yadgir could recognize the same.
The lead researcher of the study says
Often, poor learning outcomes are attributed to lack of diversity in curricula, this research shows that even an activity-based curriculum couldn’t help the students as the teachers were ill-prepared and lacked the pedagogical tools required to teach Indian languages
How do we interpret the results of the study?
  1. Is it the issue with pedagogy — teachers lacking pedagogical tools?
  2. Is it the issue of systemic capacity/constraints (Gulzar calls them ecosystem-constraints) that constrain teachers’ efforts or overlook their lack of efforts?

Identifying the right question is important because the solutions lead to different policies. If it’s the issue of pedagogy and lack of teachers’ lack of tools, the solution is fill the knowledge gaps of teachers. If it’s the issue of systemic issues constraining teachers’ efforts, it means that teachers aren’t putting enough efforts. No amount of pedagogy drilling will help. The issue then is of addressing the ecosystem constraints.
These are empirical questions. The available evidence suggests that it is more of an issue of ecosystem constraints rather than a mere knowledge gap. In fact, the knowledge gap is due to ecosystem constraints.
For instance, Pratham’s Teaching at the Right Level pedagogy yielded results when volunteers implemented it but failed when regular teachers implemented in standard academic settings. This experimental setup thus rules out the socio-economic conditions as the possible root cause, as both volunteers and teachers were teaching kids of similar backgrounds. It clearly points out to the ecosystem constraints that make a particular pedagogy ineffective when implemented in standard academic settings.
In other words, no amount of gap filling of complex pedagogy will help, because it’s not the key source of the problem. Appropriate pedagogy is definitely necessary but we have enough to start with.
Returning to the results of Azim Premji study (the study in discussion), the poor outcomes of two types of pedagogies should mean that the problem is not necessarily with pedagogies, but with underlying ecosystem constraints.
Unfortunately, this isn’t the lesson inferred in standard interpretation. The poor outcomes of two types of pedagogies is seen as an indication for the need for another new pedagogy. Thus, the problem is identified with the pedagogy and not with the ecosystem constraints.
The comments of lead researcher of the study suggest that pedagogy is the issue. Her statements below
One of the main concerns flagged by the report is that early literacy is a rather new area for research with very little or negligible focus on early literacy in Indian languages. Further, curriculum materials cannot exist in isolation from effective pedagogical tools, the report adds. The complexity of decoding and comprehending Indian scripts has not been fully captured by the current curriculum and that remains a major challenge.
It is a classic argument for the need of new pedagogy.
As we have seen, even new pedagogy won’t help because the problem isn’t pedagogy, it is with the underlying ecosystem constraints. Any new pedagogy, even if it’s rigorously tested and successful in experiment settings, will meet the same fate.
Inferring such wrong lessons costs precious time. Now, all the efforts will be in quest of that new pedagogy, while the ecosystem constraints, the real problems remain unaddressed.

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