A Peek into Four months of Research Fellowship with PAL Network

by Steffi Elizabeth Thomas, ASER Centre, India

I am a Research Associate (Data Analyst) with ASER Centre, the research wing of Pratham Education Foundation, India. Having dealt with numbers and research in education and working with the architect and pioneer of Citizen Led Assessments (CLAs) for over two years, my interest in the PAL Network Fellowship Program (2018) was only natural. As a research fellow, I will be devoting four months to an independent research project that aims to explore the impact of multi-grade teaching on student learning levels in India and Pakistan.

What is Multi-grade teaching?

Globally, the majority of education systems assume that children enter school at a certain age, where they progress through the system of schooling with a group of peers of the same age, being promoted from one ‘grade’ or class to the next as they get older. It is generally assumed that each ‘grade’ or class has one teacher who is responsible for teaching a curriculum approved by the government, supported by approved learning materials. Each subsequent class is taught at a slightly higher level of difficulty from the last. These classes may be referred to as ‘monograde’ classes. The majority of education systems around the world prepare teachers to teach in monograde classrooms.

However, large numbers of teachers and students learn in classroom settings where two or more grades are taught together in a single room. This is what is known as ‘multi-grade’ teaching. Multi-grade classrooms are common in developing countries, particularly in regions that are sparsely populated and rural. Multi-grade classrooms often arise from necessity, for a number of different reasons. For example: where schools have low total enrolments, a school may only have one or two teachers responsible for teaching children of different ages and abilities. In other cases, schools may experience high teacher absenteeism, in which case, children are grouped with another class to learn. In some cases, there may simply not be enough classrooms to allocate one classroom per ‘grade’ and so children from different ‘grades’ are seated together. In some cases, the decision to organize students in multi-grade classrooms arises from a pedagogical choice as part of curriculum and pedagogic reform. This is the only example of multi-grade teaching as a choice, rather than a necessity.

The Linkage: How do children perform in multi-grade classes?

My research paper takes India and Pakistan as case studies, where multi-grade teaching is born as a necessity resulting from inefficiency in teacher deployments and political patronage exercised by teachers to avoid transfers to remote locations[1] or due to a rise in the number of small schools (schools with a total enrolment of less than 60 students). It is stated in the ASER report (2016) that the percent of small schools have increased from 17% in 2010 to 28% in 2016[2].

Curriculum framework and teacher training are the link between classrooms and learning outcomes. In most countries, teacher training does not include how to teach in multi-grade classrooms and in most instances, the approved national curriculum is designed for monograde classrooms[3]. This makes the job of a teacher in a multi-grade classroom challenging, as they are trained to teach a monograde curriculum and are often under pressure to complete the syllabus resort to recitation and memorization, promoting rote learning[4].

This can result in classroom environments where teachers cater to the most capable students, neglecting students who are lagging behind. It has been found that learning deficits in lower grades tends to widen in higher grades and if coupled with conditions of poor household and illiterate parents, the child has little opportunity to catch pace. Thus, multi-grade teaching can be speculated to be one of the cause for stagnant learning outcomes in India and Pakistan.

Significance of the Research

While there is evidence of the effect of household affluence, school characteristics (availability of infrastructural facilities) and parent’s education on child learning levels, there is little evidence on multi-grade teaching practices born out of necessities and its impact on learning outcomes in general and specifically using CLA data for India and Pakistan.

My research will be an additional evidence on the impact of multi-grade classrooms on child learning levels, using citizen-led assessments (CLA) data. Furthermore, the similarities in the process of data collection, the assessment tools and the survey formats in the CLA surveys of India and Pakistan, allows one to produce evidence on a common matter of concern at a multi-national level.

What does the next four months have in store?

Entering back into secondary analysis of existing data and academic writing after two years of working with primary data, I am looking forward to some intense sessions on data analysis and research methodologies from the Research Directors of ASER Centre, India and PhD scholars from Cambridge University, UK. While I am familiar with the ASER survey in India, being a PAL Network Research Fellow brings a wonderful opportunity to better understand the functioning of the wider PAL Network and its 13 member countries I am less acquainted with.

In addition to the research, I am looking forward to exploring the culture of Kenya: the wildlife and the infamous beaches of the country. I wish to be in three places at once (if I dip my feet in the waters of Lake Victoria). I am a shopaholic so I would love to explore the street markets of Kenya and take back with me to India some authentic stuff as souvenirs.

References:

  1. ASER Pakistan Policy Brief (2011)
  2. ASER India (2016)
  3. National Curriculum Framework (2005) and In-service teacher training in primary schools of rural India (August 2013, Working Paper)
  4. N and Diwan.R. (2007) Small, Multigrade Schools and Increasing Access to Primary Education in India: National Context and NGO Initaitives. Consortium for Research on Educational Access, Transition and Equity