Teaching at the right level might seem obvious but rarely happens

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CHRISTINE APIOT 

Policy makers and academics convened in South Africa to consider strategies for Teaching at the Right Level (TaRL).

TaRL may sound a natural and logical approach to teaching, one that is undertaken by all school systems. However, surprisingly it is often considered innovative and is far from being a widely adopted approach.

It is assumed that pupils at the lower levels of early childhood development and primary are taught the fundamental skills of literacy and numeracy to be able to adapt and understand the mainstream curricular in the higher classes.

However, research has found out that this is frequently not the case and that there are pupils who have missed out on some of these skills are finding difficulty learning.

This is often a situation exacerbated in developing countries, such as Uganda, where cultural barriers, affordability; migration and family circumstances often means that children join school late; have sporadic attendance or miss years and find themselves in classes that correspond to their age but not their learning levels.

 As such, TaRL has become a more prominent issue in the education sector since citizen led assessments are pointing to the fact that children are not learning despite many government’s having improved statistics on pupils’ enrolment.

It is a conversation that has become ever more pertinent since global organisations have shifted benchmarks of success from access to outcomes.

Organizations like  J- Pal and Pratham in India have lead the way in research and innovations on how to support pupils who have missed out on the fundamental skills of learning and enable them to catch up with their peers.

The TaRL conference was a bid by J-Pal and Pratham to share with various educational stakeholders the evidence and learnings from their various programs and initiatives. Uganda is one such country that could benefit from these learnings.

 The Overseas Development Institute (ODI) indicates that following the introduction of Universal Primary Education (UPE) in Uganda, gross enrolment in primary school increased from 3.1 million in 1996 to 7.6 million in 2003.

This amounts to an increase of 145% (4.5 million children), compared to an increase of 39% (0.9 million children) between 1986 and 1996.

However, despite this, the findings go on to highlight that results from the National Assessment of Primary Education Performance taken between 1996 and 2000, for example, suggest that education performance in terms of pupils’ numeric, reading, science, and social studies knowledge and skills deteriorated following the introduction of UPE.

 Consequent national assessments like those done by UWESO Uganda, a partner of the J-PAL network, published  reports in 2016, indicating that 32 out of 100 Primary.3 – Primary .7 pupils were more likely to be able to read a Primary .2, level story.

The report goes on to say learning outcomes are consistently low with only 3 out of 10 pupils of Primary 3 – Primary 7 able to read an English story and do division in lessons designed for Primary 2.

This implies that children in Uganda have learning levels often do not reflect their age and subsequently their class level. Often, this is due to the reasons outlined earlier.

Consequently, this affects their ability to understand the content from the national curriculum which is often being taught for their age range and not their learning level.

The ODI recommended that recognising this and adapting policies to ensure that children are being TaRL must be a policy priority to ensure children can actually learn.

In order to explore these issues and create new strategies and approaches, Twaweza in partnership with Kyambogo University, Makerere University and Curriculum, Assessment and Certification Systems Architects – Australia (CACSA) successfully convened the 1st National Conference on Learning Outcomes in Uganda in 2017.

The conference brought together over a hundred academics and practitioners, including Bridge.

As part of the discussion, Bridge shared a number of studies it has carried out to support pupils learning, one such study is the Rapid Cycle Measurement of P3 Literacy for Programme Improvement.

Through this rapid-cycle measurement, we found that pupils in the 3 Bridge schools studied were making more gains in early grade reading than their peers attending neighbouring schools.

By analysing a small number of schools and pupils, Bridge could implement data-driven feedback into learning materials in a way that is responsive to pupils’ needs.

While this was a limited sample, it however provided on the Bridge’s differential impact.

Subsequently Bridge pupils have sat the national primary leaving Exam (PLE) and 100% of its pupils passed.

This is unprecedented and delving further into the data shows that over 93% of Bridge pupils scored in division 1 or 2 compared with just 56% nationally.

A TaRL approach is one of the factors underpinning these scores.

 Many studies have investigated the benefit of teaching at the right level and its impact on learning. One such study was done by a Harvard Professor, Michael Kremer, in Kenya.

This study resonates with the studies done by J-PAL and Bridge.

The study attests to the fact that Lower-achieving pupils are particularly likely to benefit from tracking when teachers have incentives to teach to the top of the distribution.

It further identified that while the direct effect of high-achieving peers is positive, tracking benefited lower-achieving pupils indirectly by allowing teachers to teach at their level.

It is from such studies that our instructional design team has created two supplementary programs that allow our teachers to better meet the needs of their pupils based on how they are performing.

In South Africa, I learnt a lot from the evidence and learnings happening in countries that have already piloted teaching at the right level in their schools and communities.

I hope to take some of those learnings back to Uganda, drawing them into our instructional design work and our approach to TaRL.

As always, the goal is to ensure that pupils attending Bridge schools in Uganda, are learning.

The author is the Academics Director at Bridge Schools, Uganda and a Fellow at the Brookings Institute.

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