Majority of children can’t keep pace with school curricula

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BY NIAMH BRANNIGAN

Let’s move from schooling to learning. That’s one of the key messages I took away from this excellent report from the Center for Global Development, which presents empirical evidence to support a suspicion that many of us working in education already harbour – that the gap between schooling and actual learning in developing countries is growing. The report, which presents the findings from a series of studies that tracked changes in student skills per year of schooling in South Asia and Africa (including Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda), finds that:

“Children are learning so little from each year of instruction that the completion of even basic schooling leaves children lacking necessary skills.”

The report makes liberal use of words like ‘shocking’ and ‘stark’ to describe student mastery against curricular expectations, and well it might because the findings illustrate that this is not a problem for a minority of students in some developing countries, on the contrary it is the reality for the majority of students in many developing countries. If you’re wondering at this point how so many children in developing countries are learning so little year on year, the report asks the same question and also presents some remedies to address this insidious erosion of the quality of learning. But first let me highlight some examples from the report of the growing gap between time spent in school and student mastery.

Let’s take reading comprehension: the report finds that in many parts of India four out of five children who enter a grade unable to read will finish that grade still unable to read. But what’s worse is that once students fall behind a little early on and fail to catch up, over the proceeding grades the cumulative effect of that initial learning gap will grow exponentially until they leave school in many cases, with a only a fraction more reading comprehension ability than they had three or four grades earlier.

Throughout the report the authors cleverly ask not why the students are behind the curriculum but why the curriculum is permitted to move so far ahead of the students? They remind us that ‘wildly’ overambitious curricula in many countries is nothing new, but it is the combination of this over-ambition mixed with too broad a coverage, covered too quickly, and at too difficult a level compared to the initial skill of students, that can prove deadly. An over-ambitious curricula they say, causes more and more students to lag behind early and stay behind.

Consider the consequences: If a child doesn’t acquire reading and writing skills early the authors note, then what’s the use of that child engaging in textually based learning in higher grades? Now we can see clearly how the initial learning gap that became evident in one grade can widen so dramatically in higher grades. The study, through a clever simulation model, shows how two countries (a developed and a developing one for example) can possess identical initial student ability and learning potential and a few grades on find themselves in two completely different places. Ironically it is the country that moves very fast that is often the one that ends up the furthest behind, finds the report.

The Tanzanian study (called the Uwezo study) found that:

….while multiplication is a key component of the grade 2 curriculum, only eight percent of grade 2 students could multiply, and over half could not yet add. Even by grade 7, 32 percent of children could not multiply. Progress was similar in reading – of children completing grade 7, only half could read a grade 2-level story in English (Uwezo, 2011).

The report is littered with examples like this one above that make clear that students are not only falling far behind the curriculum but that teachers are teaching at a level that significantly overshoots student ability.

At the heart of the problem the report reveals is a combination of factors:

1. An over ambitious curricula.
2. Teachers who cater to the higher ability rather than the average (the report notes that this may be because these education systems were originally designed to cater to the elite and have changed little since then).
3. Students graduating from grade to grade automatically and thus missing out on the opportunity to catch-up, while also contributing to a growing population of students who lag behind as grades progress.

The report offers the several remedies to address the problem including:

• Refocus teaching on real student ability

• Multi-grade teaching

• Community controlled schools

• Remediation

• Pedagogical reforms that allow teachers to focus on student mastery of basic skills

But there’s a catch. Schooling systems have to want to re-focus learning goals on the average student, by for example, concerning themselves with more immediate and early achievable goals rather than on end of school exams for university entrance etc. This implies that teaching and learning has to become more conscious of everyone in the system and not just a small minority of elite. Surely, education systems can’t ignore such ‘shocking’ findings I ask myself. The answer to that question is proffered most frankly at the close of the report. Have you ever heard of isomorphic mimicry? Me neither, but it’s presented as the principal reason education systems often choose to ignore the reality of learning. The report argues that most schooling systems are rewarded for ‘looking’ like other ‘good’ schooling systems which means ‘processing compliance and inputs’ rather than ‘seeing’ the failures of the system and responding from a genuine desire to promote learning.From this perspective the report continues, it is easy to see how curriculum reform adds more and more new skill sets and topics to look like it’s performing like a good schooling system when in actual fact these reforms are simply camouflaging the real problem i.e. the widening gap between student mastery and curriculum expectation.

But slowing down, the report sagaciously notes, would be akin to admitting failure and in our current political systems that would likely have negative consequences. The authors suggest that we must find the means to sabotage the camouflaging of the schooling systems failures and thus force the system to adopt disruptive innovations that will truly address, as per the report’s title, ‘the negative consequences of an over ambitious curricula in developing countries’.

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