India has had the longest school closure in the world – schools closed in March 2020 and have opened in a staggered manner across states between September 2021 and January 2022. There is overwhelming evidence of learning loss due to this long school closure, warranting treating the situation as a national emergency.1 Learning loss comprises both regression or forgetting of what was learnt and the loss of curricular learning that would have happened if schools had remained open.
The impact has been particularly harmful in the early years of learning, when the foundational abilities that are critical for later learning across subjects have not been acquired or have been lost. As schools reopen, this learning loss must be addressed on priority, otherwise learning gaps will accumulate across school years, impacting completion of school education, and the preparedness of an entire generation to take up higher learning and meaningful employment.
Initiatives towards learning recovery can be categorised into efforts at the level of the Centre and state-driven efforts. Some examples of the former are the 100-day reading campaign, and the focus on foundational literacy and numeracy through the FLN Mission. States have adopted the initiatives taken by the Centre while also taking other specific measures.
Most states have reduced the content of textbooks, based on either identification of essential learning outcomes or concepts. The curriculum has been systematically refurbished in a couple of states through prioritising learning outcomes, and a few other states are in the process of doing the same.
Bridge courses have been designed from class 2 onwards in a few states, focusing on foundational abilities from the class students would have been in while schools were closed. School readiness programmes have also been designed for classes 1 and 2, for students who enrolled during the pandemic and hence have never attended formal school.
A few states have developed programmes for learning recovery, ranging from developing workbooks to tracking student learning, undertaking remedial programmes, and supporting teacher efforts towards teaching ability-based groups of students. Orientation of teachers for school reopening has been done in both face to face and digital mode in some states, while a few others have conducted capacity building programmes for specific interventions.
However, thus far, efforts have been uneven across most states. While some states have taken up systematic, long-term efforts, others are still looking at one-time short-term programmes and/or supplementary materials as being sufficient to address this crisis.
However, whatever initiatives may be taken, it is undeniable that teachers are central to the effort of addressing learning loss. Therefore, it is important to understand efforts made by teachers –whether individually or driven by state initiatives – towards learning recovery. This study focuses on teachers who have been known to make exceptional efforts towards student learning over a long period of time, including during school closure. The intent was to study the efforts these teachers were making towards learning recovery after schools reopened.
Teacher efforts: this subsection indicates key findings from teacher interviews and classroom observations related to efforts teachers are making towards recovery of learning loss.
• Teacher efforts towards engaging students: In the classroom, 89 percent of teachers were observed to make space for students’ narratives and experiences in their daily interactions and teaching-learning processes. This was part of a special effort towards getting students into the routine of classrooms and schools, particularly those in Classes 1 and 2, who were coming to school for the first time. 81 percent of teachers reported the use of fun games and activities throughout the day, while 83 percent of teachers reported efforts to convey a sense of the school as a safe space for newly enrolled students through personalised conversations.
• Working with multilevel classrooms: In attending to multilevel classrooms, or even multigrade multilevel classrooms — a reality in most public primary schools — 72 percent of teachers were seen to divide students into logical learning groups. They used different materials, activities, and pedagogic techniques to engage with these groups through a differentiated approach within the same classroom session.
Other practices reported by teachers included activity-based learning in school (69%) and making learning opportunities available for students beyond school hours through community-based group projects and worksheets (64%). Teachers also reported having undertaken specific efforts to prepare themselves for the anticipated challenging situation once schools reopened, with 95 percent of teachers reporting participation in online forums (seminars, workshops, trainings).
• Classroom practices: 81 percent of teachers encouraged and allowed students to use local dialects and made conscious efforts to connect with the home language of the students, which was often different from the medium of instruction in the school. 75 percent of teachers were observed to rely on a variety of teaching-learning resources, including worksheets, library books, contextualised local teaching-learning materials (TLMs) and charts, to engage students better with foundational abilities in language and mathematics.
• Student assessment: 38 percent of teachers were observed to use multiple tools for assessment, including self and peer assessment in the form of worksheets, group discussions, role play, class work, home assignments, observations, project work, in oral, written and mixed modes. 87 percent of teachers reported using oral assessments, with other strategies including worksheets and observation, with a specific focus on each student after schools reopened. Teachers also reported using games and activities for assessment, and conducting assessment after school reopening for determining student learning levels for creating learning groups.
Learning levels and learning recovery: Students were assessed at the beginning of the study period – this assessment indicated the status of learning related to the specific abilities from the previous two classes (with the exception of class 2). Students were assessed again at the end of the study period to understand how learning recovery was progressing, given that the chosen sample of teachers were expected to put in the required efforts.
- Demonstration of previous class abilities in language at the start of the study period: 53 percent, 70 percent, 58 percent and 61 percent of students, from classes 2, 3, 4 and 5, respectively, were not able to demonstrate abilities in language from the previous two classes at the start of the study.
- Improvement in demonstration of previous class abilities in language at the end of the study period: 41 percent, 46 percent, 50 percent and 41 percent of students, from classes 2, 3, 4 and 5, respectively, showed improvement in abilities from the previous two classes in language during the duration of the study.
- Demonstration of previous class abilities in mathematics at the start of the study period: 29 percent, 57 percent, 52 percent and 54 percent of students from classes 2, 3, 4 and 5, respectively, were not able to demonstrate abilities in mathematics from the previous two classes at the start of the study.
- Improvement in demonstration of previous class abilities in mathematics at the end of the study period: 52 percent, 54 percent, 47 percent and 63 percent of students from classes 2, 3, 4 and 5, respectively, showed improvement in abilities from the previous two classes in mathematics during the duration of the study.
While in no way attempting to establish a simple causal relationship, it is clear overall that the efforts of teachers included in the study have had some impact on learning recovery, although much work is still required.
Also, it may be recalled that the abilities assessed in this study are from the previous two classes (with the exception of class 2) and not class-appropriate abilities. Even as students are now in the process of moving to the next class, they are still not proficient in the abilities of two classes below. In other words, hardly anything has been learnt in the past two years, and if we go on with a business-as-usual attitude, the loss in learning will soon be insurmountable.
Thus, there is need for well-coordinated multi-pronged efforts at the systemic level to address learning recovery. The approach must be holistic and long-term, with teacher capacity and support in focus, as well as dissemination of practices that can be adopted by all teachers.
It is critical at this point to refurbish the curriculum – to identify the essential learning outcomes that are critical for further learning. Content must be selected thoughtfully based on these essential learning outcomes. Continuously assessing students is also critical to determine learning levels on which to base plans for providing focused attention, either individually or in groups, as well as to modify teaching-learning.
This requires time — at least one full year must be provided for these efforts. Needless to say, teachers will also need customised capacity building, both on-site support as well as orientation to the refurbished curriculum and pedagogical strategies that support multilevel classrooms. The efforts cannot be cosmetic — a consistent effort at this critical juncture is required to not only address the current crisis but to enable a shift to teaching-learning that enables success for each student.
The teachers in the sample of the study have been purposively chosen based on their understanding of how students learn and their commitment to making necessary efforts for student learning. While they are working in the same conditions as the majority of teachers – they have access to the same infrastructure, resources and professional support, and the size and composition of their classes are the same – they are in no way representative of the majority of teachers who, however well-meaning they may be, lack this understanding.
At the same time, while we are in no way attempting to establish a simple causal relationship, it is clear overall that the efforts of these teachers have had an impact on learning recovery in the short duration of the study (given the few months students spent in the current class when schools reopened before moving to the next).
However, it must be pointed out that the abilities that were assessed are from the previous two classes (with the exception of class 2) and not class-appropriate abilities. Also, students are now in the process of moving to the next class – they are doing so while they are still not proficient in the abilities of the previous two classes, thus creating a gap of not just the present but also the previous two classes – this loss will only keep accumulating. In other words, hardly anything has been learnt in the past two years, and if we go on with a business-as-usual attitude, the loss will soon be insurmountable.
The good news is that the narrative of the need for learning recovery has entered the educational discourse in the country. States are making plans to address this crisis. However, these efforts must not be cosmetic. Cosmetic changes will only give the appearance of recovery for a short period, hiding the graver gaps that must be treated with urgency.
Thus, there is need for all states across the country to take up systematic efforts to address learning recovery. The approach must be holistic and long-term. As often happens, multiple programmes are being implemented in all sincerity by states. These often end up confusing teachers, with a best-case scenario being that teachers then choose what they want from the various resources and strategies offered, and a worst-case scenario wherein teachers get confused and are unable to effect change in their practice. Thus, a policy for learning recovery must be developed at the state level, which may be reviewed often but must set a consistent course for the next few years in terms of approach and priorities.
The curriculum must be refurbished – with a systematic prioritisation of learning outcomes and selection of content based on this exercise across classes. This refurbished curriculum must be implemented over the next few years to ensure all students have comprehensively acquired the foundational abilities necessary for them to achieve the goals of school education.
The study shows that even the committed and capable teachers who formed the sample of the study are in need of help where assessment is concerned. This is consistent with field observations, which have repeatedly indicated the need for capacity building of teachers in the area of assessment, particularly ongoing formative assessment in the classroom.
Another critical area is to enable teaching-learning in multilevel classrooms. A systematic plan for capacity building of teachers — both face-to-face and online — and for on-site support must be developed immediately and implemented with due contextualisation at the level of districts and blocks, if not clusters and schools. Teacher learning communities must be formed for sharing and learning, comprising teachers within close geographical proximity.
One part of supporting teachers to enable recovery of learning loss is to ensure that the best possible material is available to teachers; states are already making efforts in this direction. However, the main focus of these efforts must be to capacitate teachers to exercise autonomy in classroom processes — this would require a change in the current culture of ‘monitoring’ by educational administrators.
It is important to note that the indicators described above are not observed in isolation — they have been emphasised to illustrate teachers’ efforts in these extraordinary circumstances. It is also important to note that these are good practices that should be observed in every classroom at all times, not just during the pandemic. A consistent effort at this critical juncture is required to not only address the current crisis but to enable a shift to teaching-learning that enables success for each student.
1 Azim Premji Foundation. (2021). Loss of learning during the pandemic. https://cdn.azimpremjiuniversity.edu.in/apuc3/media/publications/downloads/Field_Studies_Loss_of_Learning_during_the_Pandemic.f1622994202.pdf