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Transforming elementary education

Today, students of the government schools across Tamil Nadu are happier than their counterparts in other states. All credit goes to the  activity-based learning (ABL) , an initiative that has transformed elementary education (classes I to IV) in Tamil Nadu.

(This is an excerpt from an article in Business Today.)

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).

Ever since its launch, the performance of students at the elementary level has drastically improved. 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.They have a better understanding of basic mathematical skills and can read and write fluently in their first language.

M.P. Vijayakumar, an Indian Administrative Services (IAS) who was serving as Commissioner of Chennai Corporation at the time, had designed and implemented ABL to good effect in the 264 schools that the local body administered. He spearheaded its adoption and implementation in state-run and aided schools across Tamil Nadu. He is currently a member of the National Resource Group of the Ministry of Human Resources and Development’s Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan programme.

The state-wide implementation involved 37,486 schools, 140,000 teachers and three million students. A massive training programme for teachers 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. 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”, says Vijayakumar. Slowly the attitude of people changed and the resistance gave way.

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.  A lot of students are from the middle class today. Even students from convents are joining such school.

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.

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