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Are India’s schoolchildren really learning the right way?

For children, numeracy and literacy skills are critical pillars for lifelong learning. These support them in understanding, engaging, contextualising, and responding to their immediate environment. Such essential learning skills, however, seem to have been hit by the Covid-19 pandemic and have left children at a loss. Reports show how the pandemic has had a negative impact on their education. A recent one, by the NCERT (National Council of Educational Research and Training), has found 11 per cent of class 3 children with limited foundational numeracy skills.

The Foundational Learning Study 2022, released by the Union ministry of education and NCERT, has revealed some fundamental challenges in our education system. The report looked at literacy skills in 20 languages, including English. The figures are quite alarming: for instance, about 15 per cent of learners lack basic skills in English and 30 per cent have limited skills. “Young children follow a progressive learning path, wherein they build upon their existing knowledge and skills. This sequential learning is dependent upon the learning opportunities presented to them. The absence of a structured learning format, diverse learning opportunities and a social environment to internalise and practise the acquired skills and knowledge can impact academic learning outcomes,” says Arshleen Kalra, head of curriculum, KLAY chain of pre-schools and daycare centres.

Learning outcomes are diverse and highly integrated when it comes to literacy and numeracy skills for the age group indicated. However, in the last two years, the absence of social interactions, passive screen-time and wearing masks have impacted the early language development and expressive vocabulary of young children. “The lack of opportunities to develop personal connections has impacted children’s ability to become socially adept,” observes Kalra. “Empathy is considered to be a higher-order skill though children start developing it in the early years.” Even milestones such as responding to a smile/ laughter seem to be missing because of social formative experiences for children during the pandemic.

While e-learning has penetrated some regions of the country, a majority of the schools continue to practise traditional methodologies for imparting education. The education system also lacks a mechanism to address requirements of the children who have fallen behind, resulting in such alarming figures. According to Praveen Raju, co-chair at FICCI Arise and founder of Suchitra Academy, a Hyderabad-based international school, “Students are facing multiple difficulties in understanding and coping with errors in English grammar, pronunciation and vocabulary usage. Since it takes both physical and emotional involvement to understand and interpret linguistic ideas, they face challenges in practising and conversing in English due to limited resources and short stays in school.”

Another area of concern here is that English is taught as a subject and not as a language in India, owing to cut-throat competition. This results in educational institutions focusing more on marks rather than actual learning of the language. On the numeracy skills front, consistent underperformance can result in children becoming demotivated and losing interest in the subject. “This is why teachers must utilise mathematical terminologies as a part of daily language,” says Raju.

The education gap in India between metros, tier 2 and tier 3 cities is widening. While metros and tier 2 cities offer easy access to educational institutions, teachers and lecturers, tier 3 cities and remote regions are still grappling with lack of well-qualified teachers, institutions and tools. This, in turn, is increasing the knowledge and skills gap among students. To address this, the need of the hour is to make ed-tech more affordable to students and democratise education, adds Raju.

Children learn at their own pace and it’s important to factor that in and have focused and customised learning intervention. Teachers may need to focus more on inclusive practices to address the diverse learning needs in a classroom setting. “Schools need to create specific parent-school partnership frameworks and work collectively towards supporting the child in achieving the learning milestones,” says Kalra. “While the teacher needs to work on a customised learning plan for each child, it’s also essential to engage and involve parents to achieve shared goals.”

It is now critical for the Indian education system to focus extensively on adaptive and immersive learning for personalised learning experiences. This will not only ensure holistic skill development of students but also better assessment and identification of areas that need improvement.

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