New learning methods, old teaching constraints

Since early 2000s, India has moved away from rote learning

Updated - December 13, 2016 06:01 pm IST

Published - December 13, 2016 03:10 am IST - KRISHNAGIRI/DHARMAPURI:

An Activity Based Learning class in progress in a panchayat union elementary school in Krishnagiri.

An Activity Based Learning class in progress in a panchayat union elementary school in Krishnagiri.

Laminated chequered charts glisten in the daylight streaming into the doorway of the classroom. Each chart bears an array of activities – painting, singing, thinking, playing, writing, and reading -punctuated by pictorial milestones. At the end of the 21st milestone, a ladder signals successful completion of levels I and II.

This is the chart for the combined classroom of Classes I and II under Activity Based Learning (ABL) – the pedagogy followed by the State-run elementary and middle schools in Tamil Nadu, which is arguably the most reviewed in recent history in the country, according to educationists.

Across the block, the headmaster of a panchayat union middle school casts a frustrated glance at the elementary class. "Sometimes, I end up teaching Tamil alphabets in Class VIII. Who thought up this ABL?" he sighs.

The Annual Status of Education Report, 2014 flagged a fall in learning outcomes in rural areas across the country. It was a mixed report for Tamil Nadu. About 51 to 70 per cent of Class V children could read Class II text; but, in arithmetic, less than 40 per cent of Class V children could do division.

Learning outcomes depend equally on pedagogy and the assessment system.

ABL, first introduced in select corporation schools in Chennai, evolved as the State methodology for government primary and middle schools by 2009.


An ideal ABL class room is a multi-age; multi-activity classroom, divided into six groups. The groups are divided into teacher-supported groups and peer-supported groups. Learning is through pictorial card-supported activity. In peer-supported groups, the eldest child helps the rest of the group. Textbooks are peripheral.

A tour through the rural blocks of Tamil Nadu reveals constraints in the practice of the ABL philosophy.

"We find attention issues with children, when they have to start reading text in Class VI after five years of ABL,"says Yamini, a middle school teacher. "The classrooms are rarely multi-age; it is difficult to teach a combined class and children do not help each other," says Usha, an elementary teacher.

According to a senior department official, the methodology became diluted after teachers began focusing on "documentation" of the method under Continuous Comprehensive Evaluation (CCE) under the Right to Education Act rather than actual teaching.


In Kaatinayanapalli Panchayat Union Elementary School in Krishnagiri, Julie picks up a bunch of fliers, filed carefully in a corner shelf of the ClassV. "I collect these from newspapers for students to read aloud. "It is for the teacher to think up activities to make children learn," she says.

For a pedagogy that hinged on the imagination and activism of the teacher, little was done to overhaul the teacher training system. "ABL demanded detailed lesson plan, creativity on part of the teacher and periodic teacher orientation. But primary school teachers, with a diploma in teacher training (DTE) in irregular curriculum, lacked that," says M. Baskaran, former Chief Education Officer.

There are limitations to group-activity and best practices of the traditional classroom were ignored, says Aruna Rathnam, Education specialist with UNICEF, also part of ABL methodology early on.

"Earlier, Math table was learnt by recitation - we see, hear, recite and learn. Focus on cards meant not reading continuous printed matter. Nuance was lost. ABL slowly became an IAS officer’s methodology. With every new bureaucrat, the structure got simplified, not allowing complexity to hone the mind," says Aruna Rathnam. Today, Simplified Activity Based Learning (SABL) is practised in government schools.

There is also a fall in the teaching-learning days in government schools. "Earlier, 180-188 days were teaching-learning days, and 24 days were test days. But under pressure from the private-matriculation lobby, the teaching-learning days is cut to 140 days. A 180-day syllabus is now rushed in 140 days," says a high school teacher.

On the other hand, centralised moderation of marks to shower higher learning outcomes in Tamil Nadu board have cast shadow on the competency of students passing out, as recent news reports show. "Marks moderation is no secret and helps project higher outcomes," says a Chief Examiner.


The State government’s school education welfare schemes also drain the teaching workforce. "The government school teachers are saddled with the management and distribution of 14 flagship schemes for school children, apart from employment and Aadhar registrations, pinching into considerable teaching hours," says a school headmaster.


State Avg. in Language (Third Standard)  

Fourteen States scored significantly above the national average, of which the high performers were Tripura, Daman & Diu, Puducherry & Mizoram

15 States scored significantly below the national average, of which the low performers were Chhattisgarh, Bihar, Jammu & Kashmir, Rajasthan & Haryana

Among States, Tripura & West Bengal students were best in Listening ability, Mizoram & Kerala in Word Recognition and Tamil Nadu & Mizoram in Reading Comprehension State Avg. in Maths (Third Standard)  

The national average score in mathematics is 252, on a scale ranging from 0 to 500

Tests in mathematics included basic arithmetic, shapes and money problems.

Fourteen States scored significantly above the national average, of which the high performance was in Daman & Diu, Tamil Nadu, Puducherry, Karnataka and D&N Haveli

Twelve States scored significantly below the national average, of which the low performers were Chhattisgarh, Bihar, Rajasthan, Haryana and Jammu & Kashmir

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