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Blog: The opportunities and challenges of raising learning outcomes in India

The Impact Initiative

Jan 2020

On Monday 9th December, researchers from the ESRC-DFID Raising Learning Outcomes in Education Systems Research Programme (RLO) alongside policymakers, development practitioners and civil society, met in Delhi to present evidence and explore pathways to improving learning outcomes in different Indian contexts. In this blog, organisers Anuradha De and Meera Samson of CORD India, present the key takeaways from the event: 

Sixty-five delegates attended including 24 RLO research team members and 39 academics, policymakers and key stakeholders. There was also a large number of deaf researchers present, and through their presence and participation, they made a strong case for the need for greater inclusion in the Indian education system. 

The day-long conference began with a presentation (by two members of the participating RLO projects) of the policy brief on Raising Learning Outcomes in Diverse Contexts in India that was prepared jointly by the India partners of the seven RLO teams. This was followed by a panel discussion. The six-member panel included bureaucrats, academics, researchers, policy-makers and practitioners, all with experience of working in the field of education in India, and considerable expertise to comment on the same. The discussion was moderated by a member of one of the participating RLO teams. 

The presentation of the policy brief focused on three central issues which had emerged from the RLO research:

  • the need to expand our understanding of learning outcomes;
  • the need to enhance systems for teacher motivation and skills, especially towards disadvantaged learners; and,
  • the need to strengthen links between teachers and families/communities. 

The six panellists reflected on two key questions posed by the moderator:

  • What are the key barriers which have impeded the progress in tackling the problems of the Indian education system even when these problems are well known to policy-makers and researchers?
  • What is the role of evidence in pushing back some of these barriers to move towards a better system of education?

Barriers to progress 

Three key themes emerged: 

1. A shift of focus from classroom processes – learning outcomes is an important concern, but it has become the nucleus of quality improvement in the current discourse, and is detached from classroom processes and support systems. There can be no learning outcomes without proper learning experiences. But attention is given to ‘Assessment of learning’ and it fails to look at the children in classrooms who are not learning and why.

2. Centralised policies have not taken into consideration needs of diverse learners – Policymakers look for solutions that can be implemented state-wide, and these solutions are unlikely to be adapted to the diverse needs of the students. One of the panellists highlighted the hardships faced by deaf students in government schools and the extent to which they are excluded through use of language and classroom processes focused on the rest of the class. Another panelist pointed out that this was similar to the experience of students from other marginalised groups (disadvantaged castes and minorities). Without ‘accommodation and adaptation’ inclusion is not possible.

3. Looking for solutions that bypass core problems – The diverse needs of students can only be addressed if teachers have the necessary ability and agency to teach all children. Ratherthan starting with supporting the teachers, changes are focused on technological solutions, massive assessments and tightening control on teachers. The “Right to education” has been diluted to “Right to learning”.

The role of evidence 

Panellists agreed that only certain types of evidence have influenced policy. They are primarily measurable learning outcomes. Evidence on what happens inside the classroom, or the learning experiences of the marginalised children such as those with disability are very limited, and have not been used for policy changes. At different levels in the system different types of evidence are needed. Evidence based on qualitative studies as well as evaluations of policy implementation and budget analysis have been able to have limited impact.

Policy recommendations 

Post lunch, researchers from each of the seven RLO projects shared their methodologies and key findings. This was followed by discussions on the three main questions raised by the policy brief, in particular the role of teachers and parents.

Some of the main recommendations that came out during the day-long deliberations included:

  • A focus on education rather than learning by using qualitative research and classroom observations in addition to quantitative data collection and assessments to measure the quality of education.
  • Systemic changes to enhance teacher motivation and skills. For teachers to support the learning needs of individual children, their job cannot be focused only on completing the curriculum in class, or even on average performance. For example, deaf children need a more hands-on approach and more visual ways of teaching.
  • The strengthening of links between teachers and families. Parents don’t feel ownership over the schools, and so they don’t feel any responsibility or role.There is a need to find ways to involve parents in various aspects in education, including the decision making process.

The event was successful in highlighting that the improvement of learning outcomes in diverse Indian contexts requires a rethinking of educational strategies. Whilst there has been an improvement in the provision of physical access to schools, improving a child’s learning outcomes will require the role of different stakeholders in the learning process to be strengthened and adapted contextually.

Related items and resources from the Impact Initiative:

The Impact Initiative blog posts are either from individual researchers or from major research programmes. Some of the blog posts are original source and are written by researchers and experts connected to the two research programmes jointly funded by ESRC and FCDO: the Joint Fund for Poverty Alleviation Research and the Raising Learning Outcomes in Education Systems Research Programme. Other blog posts are imported from related websites and programmes. 

The views expressed in these blogs reflect the opinions of each individual and may not represent the Institute of Development Studies, the University of Cambridge, ESRC or FCDO.


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