Abirami complained that teachers at her children’s highly rated private school “are not up to the mark”. “Daily they give worksheets and reading sheets,” she said, “so at least it is a guide to parents on what they have to do.”

Abirami teaches at a government middle school in Pudur in Kanchipuram district. Like most government school teachers in Tamil Nadu’s, and the rest of the middle class, she sends her children to private school. All government school teachers interviewed for this report agreed with Abirami that their private school counterparts were “less qualified” than them and “do not teach well”. So, they have to help their children at home or send them for “subject tuition”.

Even parents of children at the best schools in Chennai play an important role in their learning, a senior state official with a school-going child observed.

In Tamil Nadu’s government-funded schools, however, most children are from poor families with parents who lack formal education, or do not have the time to help with schoolwork.

The gap is greater than merely parents who cannot help children with schoolwork. It is about resources, too: children who have access to newspapers and books and those who do not. Children who are part of family and idea-forming community conversations and those whose families have time off work only enough to feed and clothe them.

Can state schools in their current form, the official asked, mitigate such disadvantage?

Over 10 years ago, Tamil Nadu made some changes that it believed would compensate for the disadvantages. The changes were in the way children were to be taught in government schools. Out went the parallel rows of tables and benches, teachers lecturing children and asking them to copy from the blackboard, textbooks, homework and tests. In came floor mats or low tables, children divided into small groups in mixed-age group classes, low-level blackboards for the children to write on and tactile three-dimensional learning material. Teachers attentive to each child explained or demonstrated ideas and concepts, which the child then worked through with the help of her peers, until she could apply them on her own. There was no homework as all the formal learning was to happen in school.

Trainees at a teacher training institute. Photo credit: Anjali Mody

This was the Montessori-inspired child-centered Activity Based Learning method, adapted from the rural schools run by the Rishi Valley Education Centre founded by the philosopher Jiddu Krishnamurti. In Tamil Nadu, it was first tried in 2003 in schools run by the Chennai Corporation, and expanded to all state-funded schools by 2008. The new method was expected to transform public schools by making learning child-friendly, teachers approachable and turning out self-confident and creative children with firm foundational knowledge and skills necessary to learn with ease.

Within a year of its statewide implementation, a Joint Review Mission of the Sarva Siksha Abiyan hailed it a success. “The introduction of Activity Based Leaning and Active Learning Methodology in all the upper primary schools in Tamil Nadu has been a successful intervention in transforming the classrooms,” the mission’s report stated.

Tamil Nadu’s system, the report added, “has evidently been able to successfully upscale the pedagogical programme without diluting its quality”. Further, it was a system that supported children with special needs “because of its individualised curriculum”.

Surveys of Class 2 and Class 4 students in 2007, when the system was extended across the state, and 2008 found much improvement in average scores in Tamil and Mathematics. The average scores for Class 4 students in Tamil went up from 36.53% to 63% and in maths from 37.93% to 63%.

Chennai, where the system had the longest run, had the lowest average scores. The report explained it away thus: “The majority of the children [in Chennai] are from some of the most deprived sections of the state’s population.” The very children who were expected to benefit from the change. This remains true of government schools in Chennai today and, indeed, in much of the state. Parents who can afford it choose fee-paying private schools over free public schools.

Middle and high school teachers in Tamil Nadu complain that a large number of students cannot read or comprehend what they read and lack understanding of even rudimentary arithmetic.

How does this fit with the general improvement in State Level Achievement Survey test scores? Officials admit to pushing grades of many students who did poorly “to average”. Very few students achieved high scores. This mirrors trends in other states where the blackboard and lecture or the “chalk and talk” method of teaching is still the norm. Clearly, something is not going quite right.

Under the Activity Based Learning system, mats have replaced benches and tables. Photo credit: Anjali Mody

Classroom trouble

Saraswathi, a Class 3-4 teacher at an elementary school in Kanchipuram district, pointed to a group of children sitting distractedly on a mat near the door of classroom, “Slow learners. They are stuck on the first card,” she said, referring to the starting point of a six-step process that involves children learning a concept, applying it and confirming they have understood it before moving on to the next step.

Saraswathi seemed to have given up on them. She was more engaged with others higher up the learning ladder working on three digit additions on the low blackboards. Saraswathi’s frustration with her students’ varied pace of learning echoed in school after school in the state.

In most classrooms, the activity part of Activity Based Learning was missing. Where creative activity was displayed, it was all nearly identical. In many classrooms, the low blackboard did not exist or was not in use, in others furniture was piled up against the board or the board had pitted and unpainted surface. The maths kit, including the abacus, sat mostly untouched on a shelf, even in classes where children struggled with simple addition.

Almost all teachers, like Saraswathi, divided their students into “fast learners” and “slow learners”. Nearly all teachers, principals and district education department officers, when asked low learning levels, said, by way of explanation, that the students in public schools were “children of coolies, ayahs, auto-drivers”. Citing children’s social background for poor formal learning is one with attitudes in states without Activity Based Learning. This suggests that few in Tamil Nadu’s education system actually accept that Activity Based Learning can negate or even minimise the impact of social disparities on how children learn.

Nearly all teachers interviewed seemed confused when asked if they had found innovative ways to teach the children they called “slow learners”, or those from difficult family situations. They complained instead of having to repeat themselves. A 2011 evaluation conducted by the National Council for Education Research and Training listed teachers’ “sense of monotony” as a negative outcome of the Activity Based Learning system. As a faculty member at the District Institute of Education and Training in Vellore put it: “Teaching every child individually may be good for the child but the teacher may not be willing.”

The teachers also complained that the new learning system “increases work load” as they have to give attention to each child and manage six groups of children and learning material. Many officials and teacher educators too cited this as the reason the system is less effective than it should be. “The teachers are also human beings,” went the common refrain.

Teacher educators, however, claimed the problem lay elsewhere. “Before 2004 we got class toppers, even those who had qualified for medical entrance exam,” said a lecturer at the District Institute of Education and Training in Chennai, referring to trainee teachers. “Now we only get the last layer of students.”

A large number of trainee teachers, many educators said, are first generation learners from poor families who “only want a job”. In other words, teachers recruited in the 1990s and early 2000s were inspired and more dedicated. However, this explanation does not tally with the facts, however. For those, the older teachers had actively resisted the new learning system, and continue to do so. Also, going by standardised test scores, the older teachers’ students, on average, did worse than the students today.

Children are organised in dynamic groups based on their learning stage. Photo credit: Anjali Mody

Working system

Policy innovations often flounder for lack of political support. A change in government usually entails change in policy priorities. In Tamil Nadu, however, successive DMK and AIADMK regimes have put their weight and resources behind Activity Based Learning. This commitment was only cemented by the introduction of theActive Learning Methodology, which builds on Activity Based Learning’s strengths, for Classes 5 through 8 in all state-funded schools.

State officials and education consultants maintain that the way classrooms are organised under the new learning system – children in dynamic groups based on the learning stage they are at – is a leveller. This structure and the new methods of learning minimise the gender, caste and economic barriers, which, in traditional classrooms, left children at the mercy of the teacher’s prejudices. Every child gets at least some attention from the teacher and help from older or quick-learning fellow students. Besides, as most teachers pointed out, children in this kind of classroom are not afraid of them, unlike in a standard classroom.

MP Vijaykumar, who is credited with introducing Activity Based Learning to corporation schools in 2003 as commissioner of the Chennai Corporation, and later to schools across the Tamil Nadu as director of Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan, said there was no doubt that “things today are 200% better than in 2003”. Subir Shukla, an experienced education consultant, who did a study for the government in 2012, said that while basic skills – reading and arithmetic - showed some over all improvement, higher order thinking (for example writing an original sentence, applying concepts, etc.) was “bad across the entire state”.

An education department official was emphatic that the average teacher gets better classroom results with the new system. But she conceded that the system has been less than transformational. One reason, she said, was that the pre-service training of teachers – the D.Ed programme in the case of elementary school teachers – left much to be desired. No amount of in-service training or retraining, she added, could make up for a teacher’s lack of education, skills and attitude.

Credit: Anjali Mody

Teacher training

But then most teachers themselves are victims of an education system that sets the bar low. Merely passing the school board exam is now sufficient for college admission in Tamil Nadu’s vast private higher education industry. A university degree is a matter not of aptitude but of affordability. A diploma in elementary education at a District Institute of Education and Training, straight after school, is only for those without academic, social or financial options.

Places in public and privately-funded teacher education colleges go a-begging. At the District Institutes of Education and Training in Chennai and Vellore, the state’s largest, 25% to 50% of the seats remained unfilled in 2016. Of those who join these institutes, the majority do not really want to be teachers. Twenty five of the 45 first year trainee teachers at the DIETin Vellore, for example, said they were studying for the D.El.Ed because their parents, and in a few cases their husbands, wanted them to. Only six said they actually wanted to be teachers.

That is only part of the problem, though. The educators at the district institutes are mostly former high school science and mathematics teachers who have no direct experience of teaching elementary school. The academic culture of the institutes, from the curriculum to how classes are run, seems only to reinforce the worst practices of traditional schooling such as rote learning and conformity, something that was noted by the Kothari Commission in the 1960s. The trainees have to wear a uniform and listen to lectures. The educators closely direct project work and trainees only read what is prescribed. The majority of the trainees interviewed said they used the library only when directed by the educator. The faculty members confirmed this.

Besides, the educators at the district institutes are not all convinced about the merits of Activity Based Learning, which their student teachers will have to employ if they get appointed as government school teachers. Their assessments of the system ranged from “it is a good system for children who are irregular in school like children of migrant workers, they are not affected by missing class as they continue where they stopped” to “it is teacher-dependent, if there is a good teacher it can work”. The presumption being there are few good teachers.

Credit: Anjali Mody

Bureaucratic meddling

A 2014 review of teacher education in Tamil Nadu stated that while the state was the first to adopt the National Curriculum Framework of 2005 and develop a new Curriculum and Syllabus for Elementary Teacher Education”, “there was an absence of understanding of child centered pedagogy…and everything is structured with no space for creativity and originality with the use of Activity Based Learning”.

This is damning criticism of a policy that the Joint Review Mission had cited as innovative change only five years previously. Vijaykumar agreed that “the philosophy and logic of Activity Based learning has been diluted”. An education consultant involved with the early implementation of the system was more emphatic: “Its pedagogical logic was lost through changes by administrative decree.” Basically, the state took an idea whose working philosophy requires fluidity and local adaptation and turned it into a rigid standardised model.

Critics have termed these “changes by administrative decree” as “reactive”. However, an official in the Directorate of Elementary Education described them as “trying out things to see what will work”. For a state committed to a child-centred pedagogy, its experiments seem driven mostly by teachers’ complaints and administrative exigencies.

The multi-grade classroom is now two-grade, subverting the idea of learning from peers. This was done, according to the education department and the teachers’ union, because teachers complained about having to manage classes that had children from ages six to nine.

Activity Based Learning cards and how they are organised have been changed multiple times. Government officials said because teachers complained of too many cards, evaluators of poor content and then the state had a new “samacheer kalvi” (equitable education) syllabus. Textbooks were re-introduced apparently because “parents wanted them”. This has led many teachers unconvinced about Activity Based Learning, or unwilling to put in the work it requires, to abandon it altogether.

Where creative activity is displayed, it is all nearly identical. Photo credit: Anjali Mody

The syllabus and learning materials and textbooks have been ‘trifurcated’, with the introduction of trimesters. Mid-term and term tests are also conducted because teachers do not understand “continuous comprehensive evaluation” and there is pressure from the Union human resource development ministry to have standardised tests and annual learning outcome surveys. This has put paid to a child learning at her own pace.

The changes have been so drastic, in fact, that Activity Based Learning was rechristened “Simplified Activity Based Learning”.

In May, the education department introduced project guides and worksheets designed to improve children’s “conceptual understanding”. As it is clear that most students still cram without comprehension and teachers focus only on improving test results, it is hoped that the new worksheets, which are essentially tests, will force them to focus on students’ learning. It is a desperate ploy to make teachers teach.

The questions that this raises are: Can a one-size fits all change in pedagogy be transformational? Can poorly educated, ill-trained and often reluctant teachers be taught new tricks to do a job that requires a sound education and masses of empathy? The answer, quite clearly, is no.

As politicians, bureaucrats and policy influencers once again cast around for solutions to the continuing downward spiral in elementary school education, they should pause to consider whether the problem lies in the classroom or far away in state education departments and the human resource development ministry, where education policy is made.

Most teachers and officials interviewed for this report asked not to be identified for fear of sanction from higher authorities. For the same reason, some of the names mentioned have been changed.