“I will tell you this, I do not understand what Pragna is, and neither do my students!” declared Shashi Patel*, a Class 1 teacher in an Ahmedabad municipal school. “I teach my class as I have been taught to.”

Her students sat fidgeting in neat rows in front of her as she dispelled any impression that she might be open to the idea of moving them around the classroom or being divided into study groups.

Pragna is Gujarat’s version of activity based learning, a teaching methodology for primary school. Several states, seeking solutions for poorly performing government primary schools, adapted a model devised by the Rishi Valley Education Centre – the non-profit run by the Krishnamurthi Foundation – for its rural schools. Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Chhattisgarh, Andhra Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan have all experimented with this model. It works on the principle that children learn better in small mixed-age groups and through activities, with groups changing as each child moves at their own pace up a learning ladder – which divides the learning process into small steps.

A 2015 Unicef report on activity based learning in six Indian states found a statistically significant difference in learning levels of students in classrooms that used activity-based learning and those that did not, suggesting that students from activity-based learning classrooms were doing better.

Though Pragna was introduced in Gujarat’s government primary schools in 2010, its principles seem to have been quickly abandoned. The 2015 Unicef report found that less than 25% of schools in Gujarat followed the prescribed method although 85% of teachers understood its mechanics.

In several government schools this correspondent visited across five districts of Gujarat last year, only a few followed some version of Pragna, and these were focused on workbooks rather than activities. Pragna was “not the correct way”, it created “chaos in the classroom” and “there is no way to control students who are disruptive and don’t want to learn” was the refrain among teachers, principals and district officials interviewed for this report.

So why has Pragna foundered?

(Photo credit: Anjali Mody).

Teachers: A barrier?

Introducing activity based learning in Gujarat was a means of complying with the National Curriculum framework, 2005, which called for child-friendly classrooms, and a shift from textbooks and tests that promoted rote learning to activities and continuous comprehensive evaluation.

Initially introduced in just over 250 government-run primary schools, Pragna was extended to 20,000 schools within five years. Officials in state capital Gandhinagar said that the push to scale up came from the Union Human Resource Development Ministry, which was keen to disburse Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan funds to promote what looked like a good idea. The rapid expansion meant that there was no time to grow support systems necessary for the successful transition to the new methodology.

A Pragna core team member, also a teacher, said that the indifferent response of his colleagues to activity based learning was, in part, a consequence of their education. The Rishi Valley model is designed for conditions where teachers with formal qualifications are hard to find. But government teachers in Gujarat, as in other states, are hired on the basis of formal qualifications that prioritise traditional teacher-dominated classrooms and textbook-based teaching. These teachers are reluctant educators, a significant proportion having failed to secure other forms of government employment. In so far as they have a professional identity, it is framed by their qualifications. Shashi Patel seemed to assert as much in her rejection of Pragna.

Said Yagnesh Joshi, a sub-block level official, for Pragna in Gandhinagar district: “It [the teaching methodology] is good for children. But you must have willing teachers. Teachers are unable to cope with groups and children moving around the class. Their egos are hurt when they are asked to sit on the ground with the children.”

Prakash Gohil, a school principal in Ahmedabad concurred: “If the teacher is not dedicated, activity based learning becomes a burden.”

These explanations echo what this reporter heard in Tamil Nadu, where the official reasons for introducing activity based learning were framed in the language of idealism, with equity as the stated goal. In Gujarat, it is “good governance” and not equity that that is the dominant phrase.

Previous interventions

Pragna is just the most recent education intervention in Gujarat to have come a cropper. The state, like much of the country, is a graveyard of failed education policies. What is common to all such policies is good intentions and a disregard for school yard realities.

Two professors from the Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad, in a study titled Reformulating the Primary Curriculum: A Progressivist Approach, provide an overview of the types of changes in Gujarat’s education policy since it became a state in 1960. The authors, Vijaya Sherry Chand and Gita Amin-Choudhury, showed that each education intervention was overtaken by the next one before it was properly introduced or given sufficient time to get established. The study also alludes to the fact that often major changes and their timings were determined by the Union government and driven by international organisations like the World Bank or Unicef.

The programme that preceded Pragna in Gujarat was the World Bank-funded District Primary Education Programme that started in the late 1990s with the broad aims of providing universal access to primary schools, lowering dropout rates and improving in quality.

According to the IIM-Ahmedabad study, the programme’s pedagogic approach was: “Learning through activities and games rather than rote memory, group learning and self learning and not just whole class learning, interactive and fun filled class rooms rather than passive teacher-centered ones”.

In other words, exactly what Pragna claims to be.

Under the District Primary Education Programme, new textbooks, children’s workbooks and teachers’ editions with creative classroom solutions were developed for primary school and were in use by the early 2000s. A senior official of the Gujarat Council of Educational Research and Training said the material produced was “very good quality and very rich in activities”.

The official said that Gujarat possibly had the richest history of child-centered and activity based education in India because of the influence of educationist Gijjubhai Badheka and Mahatma Gandhi’s Nai Talim. Badheka, a lawyer-turned schoolteacher hugely influenced by the Montessori method, had experimented with child-centered education in pre-Independence Bhavnagar. His book, Divyaswapna, about a teacher who rejected traditional modes of education, is recommended reading in teacher education programmes in many states. It was also made into a short film.

Subir Shukla, the Union Human Resources Development ministry’s consultant for the District Primary Education Programme in Gujarat, acknowledged that Badheka was referenced in the preparatory workshops for the programme’s new textbooks in order to give teachers who developed the texts a sense that the programme’s pedagogic goals were not alien, but drawn from the state’s traditions.

But within a few years, the books and learning material developed for the District Primary Education Programme were abandoned and replaced by Pragna cards and workbooks.

An official with experience of working with both the District Primary Education Programme and Pragna said that the older programme failed because the teachers’ editions produced “were never implemented”. The Gujarat Council of Educational Research and Training did not provide teachers editions of textbooks free of cost because of funding norms. Teachers had to buy them themselves and most were unwilling to do so.

In other words, then as now, classroom practices did not really change. Teachers taught in the old manner from the new textbooks, and there were no activities in the majority of classrooms, and presumably no “child-centered learning” either. Badheka’s influence clearly did not go far.

By the mid-2000s the project’s funding had ended and its pedagogic goals were dead in the water. State governments were also under a new form of pressure – the Annual Status of Education Report’s by the non-profit Pratham which, starting in 2005, focused public attention on low learning levels in government schools. Gujarat was rated middling to poor.

In conjunction with Unicef, Gujarat had piloted activity=based learning in 100 schools in 2003-’04 even as the District Primary Education Programme textbooks were being introduced across the state. According to one government official, Pragna’s activity based methodology was a solution to the older programme’s problem: teachers unwilling to change how they taught. It would make teachers do what they had thus far refused to

In the Pragna model, activities are built into the learning ladder. An official explained that activities are specified for each rung of the ladder. For example, the teacher would have to read out a story or demonstrate place value using an abacus. While this is not the entire explanation for why Pragna was introduced, it is fair to say that the methodology was designed to engender classrooms in which teachers were required to use activities to teach.

Except, it did not work.

(Photo credit: Anjali Mody).

Self-motivation is the key

So what works?

In the early 1990s, a few years before the District Primary Education Programme started in Gujarat, Vijaya Sherry Chand, had begun documenting strategies and innovations that government school teachers in Gujarat had devised.

Sherry Chand holds that government teachers work in especially trying conditions, particularly since universal education was made a goal in India. Solutions from other contexts do not work for them, and they must rely on their ingenuity and learn from each other to cope with what is thrown at them in order to transform their schools.

The testimonies Sherry Chand documented affirm that successful teachers are those who are intrinsically self-motivated. They find ways to engage their students and their communities, never mind changing education policies. Activities, by the widest definition, are things they do instinctively.

In a run-down school in Kalol in Gandhinagar district, Sonalben’s name came up the moment activity based learning is mentioned. A teacher for 40 years, Sonalben has always used activities to teach. Her school principal said she was “always outside the classroom”, for example, “using the staircase and columns to teach”. Sonalben, does not understand what the fuss is about. She says: “It keeps them and me interested.” She dismisses comparisons to the work-a-day style of her colleagues, saying, “to each his own”.

Sherry Chand’s documentation of teacher experiences shows that teachers like Sonalben are scattered throughout the government school system.

Recently, in conjunction with the Gujarat Council of Educational Research and Training, IIM-Ahmedabad created online and social network platforms for government school teachers to share their innovative practices. The hope is that this will inspire their colleagues. Annual education innovation fairs are also held for government teachers at block, district and state levels, where the winning entries are decided by peer ratings.

An innovation showcased at one such fair inspired a teacher in a rural elementary school in Mehsana. Dakshaben uses puppets to dramatise lessons. She says she got the idea from an entry at the district education innovation fair. Her puppet theatre is made from styrofoam and fabric, and the puppets are mostly hand-coloured paper cutouts. But this method has been a hit with her students, who take turns with the puppets and were keen to demonstrate how it worked.

Badri Pathak, a teacher closely involved with the IIM-Ahmedabad study, says there are not many teachers like Dakshaben. Wanting to innovate or change has to come from within, he said, and very few teachers take new ideas back to their classrooms from the fairs or the online platforms. “They would rather keep doing what comes easily to them,” he said.

The testimonies collected by the IIM-Ahmedabad study highlight an aspect of government schooling that is most often ignored. Children in government schools, by and large, come from poor communities with no stake in formal education. Often a teacher’s first hurdle is getting children to school and keeping them there. Pedagogic innovations and activities come after innovations and activities to make school attractive to children, their parents and communities. Since communities differ, so do the problems schools have to overcome.

For instance, Dakshaben’s school serves a relatively prosperous Patel-dominated village. Better than most private schools, it does not want for anything. It has a covered lunch area with stone tables and benches and pristine grounds where children linger after school to play. It has a full complement of teachers, the majority with post-graduate degrees, a well-appointed laboratory and audio-visual room. At least one teacher has both his children studying in the school, unheard of among government school teachers.

In the same block, down a dirt road is another school, where Manas Solanki, the teacher who invited this reporter to visit warns, “It is the harvest season and many students will not be in school.” This cheerful elementary school, built from scratch over the last 15 years, was the village’s first pucca or permanent building until last year. It serves a scattered community of subsistence farmers. A block official who was present on the day this reporter visited said, “Parents tell me, you pay me the Rs 200 a day for labour and I will send my child to school.”

Over the years, without any wealthy benefactors, the school has acquired many of the modern conveniences that the best schools take for granted: a projector, computers and recently even tablets for children in Class 6 and Class 8. Actively supported by the principal, Solanki believes that children who labour on their families’ farms should experience what other children take for granted. They might be criticised for not focusing their entire attention on making children read, write and do arithmetic, but learning, says Solanki happens in all sorts of ways.

He pointed to a small, newly-built brick house next door – the village’s first pucca home, built over the last year. This, he said, was a symbol of the school’s success. The young man who financed it is a former student. Six years ago, he became the school’s first student to continue on to high school. He is now a trained paramedic with a hospital job. The principal hoped that the former student’s new house will lead make parents in the village see that it is worthwhile to send their children to school.

Re-inventing the wheel

The government does not see the different landscapes that Dakshaben and Manasbhai work in. It measures success or failure by standardised test results. When the results are not what it expects, it looks for strategies to improve them. Consequently education policymaking for government schools has become obsessed with interventions inside the classroom. The government now decides not merely what is taught, but how it is taught. Pragna was only the most formalised all-encompassing classroom intervention in Gujarat to date.

But the fact is that successive governments and their army of consultants ignore the piled up corpses of failed interventions. Instead, they continue to obsessively test, survey and amass data. The average explanations that these exercises provide form the basis of their average solutions.

If they mean to deliver quality education, the government needs to shift focus from endless testing to communities, schools and the people in those schools. Instead of looking for mechanisms to control classrooms they could start by finding out who the students are, and why the majority of teachers the government hires end up like Shashi Patel and too few like Manas Solanki.

* The names of teachers have been changed on their request.

This is the first part of a three-part series on elementary education in Gujarat. Read the other parts of the Educating India series here.