ABL, based on the pedagogical principle of learning through activity, was launched across Tamil Nadu's 37,486 government and government-aided schools in 2007/08. It has catapulted the state to the top of the elementary education charts, going by surveys conducted by the National Council of Educational Research and Training (NCERT).
Despite the state government spending Rs 4,000 crore annually on elementary education, children in Tamil Nadu were struggling to pick up basic skills
SOLUTIONIn 2004, Tamil Nadu's students' performance at the elementary level was below the national average. Students in Class III scored just 53.48 per cent in NCERT's mathematics test. In 2008, just a year after ABL was introduced, this score jumped to 75.20 per cent - the highest in the country. The same is the case with language (Tamil) and other subjects. All this has been achieved with no extra budgetary support from the state.
Activity-based learning, introduced across government schools, led to academic standards rising sharply in the state. A student at Rani Meyammai School in Chennai learning multiplication
The success is not restricted to just academic outcomes. Surveys have found that the children have greater self confidence, higher levels of motivation and less fear of exams. Take the case of S. Surendar, who was in the first standard in 2006/07. Teachers at the Rani Meyammai Primary School in Chennai's Adyar locality were at their wits end as he constantly cried in class and failed to master basic skills, especially in mathematics. "ABL transformed this boy. The activities got him interested and he began learning very quickly. Today he is in the seventh standard and among the toppers in his class,'' says N. Manimekalai, headmistress of the school. ABL has spawned many Surendars, she adds.
Elementary Education Department stunned. It revealed that 65 per cent of Class V students in government and aided schools did not have a grasp of basic mathematical skills such as addition and subtraction. Thirty five per cent could not read or write in their first language, Tamil. The survey triggered some soul searching within the state government, which, back then, spent close to Rs 4,000 crore annually on elementary education alone. The state provided excellent school infrastructure, had enough teachers and low student dropout/absenteeism rates. And yet, its students were performing poorly.
ABL's SUCCESS MANTRA Vijayakumar had actually woken up to the shortcomings of the elementary education system during a stint as Collector of Vellore District in North Tamil Nadu in 1993. The administration at the time was implementing a programme for abolition of child labour and bonded labour - notorious in the district's beedi factories. Officials found the 6,000 or so children weaned out of the drudgery of beedi-making struggling to cope in non-formal schools. These schools had been set up especially for the children, to prepare them for a return to mainstream schooling as their education had been disrupted. Some of the struggling students even went back to work. This made the officials look for an alternative system of education.
Clarity of vision Looking beyond govt diktats Change through demonstration Political backing Proper hand-holding
In Rishi Valley School, located in Andhra Pradesh's Chittoor district, they found a system that was being put to effective use among tribal children. "The basic philosophy of that system is that children do not learn by listening alone. They also learn by doing, experiencing and reflecting. We borrowed this idea and introduced it into our non-formal schools,'' says Vijayakumar. Numbers, for instance, were taught as rhymes or through activities and games. The core philosophy was to help students act and think independently, avoid rote learning and solve problems creatively. The children loved these methods and were quick to learn. They began to excel in the formal schools as well. This made the team from Tamil Nadu question the efficacy of the formal schooling system and consider taking ABL to regular schools.
Political will was the key and successive governments backed us to the hilt: M.P. Vijayakumar
Vijayakumar got the opportunity to implement the system in Chennai when he took over as Commissioner of the city corporation in 2003. Teachers were sent to Rishi Valley for training and to prepare teaching material. The national education policy has stipulated that between classes I and IV, a student should acquire 554 competencies, including addition, subtraction, alphabets, forming words, and so on. These were used to draw up various activities. To start with, ABL was piloted in 13 schools in 2003/04. A year later, it was implemented in all the 264 Chennai Corporation schools.
The state-wide implementation involved 37,486 schools, 140,000 teachers and three million students. "We had picked up 10 schools in each district to start with during academic year 2006/07, but we had to train the teachers,'' recalls Vijayakumar. So, a massive training programme was started.
Over 40,000 teachers were brought to Chennai to train, and to watch ABL at work in the Corporation schools. And teachers from the Corporation schools were sent across the state to train other teachers. But implementing the system across thousands of schools came with its share of problems. There was resistance from some teachers, with a few complaining that they could not sit on the floor. "It was a hassle initially. But once we understood ABL, it gave us freedom,'' says headmistress Manimekalai. A few parents, too, were unhappy with the new system, which was multi-grade, had no exams and no homework. But the students enjoyed it. "Despite facing these issues, we persevered. Political will was the key and successive governments backed us to the hilt,'' says Vijayakumar. The tide turned slowly and resistance evaporated.
ABL has sparked another transformation, one that was hard to imagine until recently. It has altered the student profile in government and aided schools, where students by and large hail from poor families. "Almost 20 per cent of our 686 students are from the middle class today. We are even getting students from the nearby convents,'' says Manimekalai.
But challenges remain. A recent NCERT study that looked into the efficacy of ABL pointed out shortcomings in teacher training and learning material. It has also raised safety concerns over the plastic beads used in mathematics kits. For now ABL has become a showcase project. The Department of International Development, UK, recently held a retreat for its education officers (from 70 countries) in Chennai to enable them to see ABL at work. Even China sent a team to study the system. In India, it is being piloted across17 states. On the ground, the satisfaction is of a different kind. Says V. Soureeswari, a teacher in the Kumaran Kottam school. "Earlier the focus was on finishing portions.
Today I go home satisfied that the children have learnt properly.''
Pupils at a night school in Tilonia, Rajasthan
The Social Work and Research Centre, also known as the Barefoot College, works with underprivileged women, helping them build livelihoods within their own communities. The college, which runs entirely on solar power, is located in Tilonia village in Rajasthan, about 95 km from Jaipur. It was set up in 1972 by Sanjit 'Bunker' Roy, a former national squash champion. The name 'barefoot' was inspired by a programme in China, where rural villagers were trained as health workers in the 1960s to assist their own communities. The institution is now administered by the villagers of Tilonia. Over the last four decades it has trained three million women, helping them become school teachers, midwives, health workers, solar engineers, computer instructors and accountants, among other things.
Apart from Indian women, scores of women from Sub-Saharan Africa and South America have trained at the college over the years. In India, the model has been replicated across 14 states. The later initiatives were all taken by people who trained at the Barefoot College. Click here for the full version of this story
Dearton Thomas Hector