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The Pratham Column: Never take learning for granted

It's important to ask whether your child is actually learning in school, says Maria Grazia Pastorello - because this could impact their future aspirations more than we think.
BY Maria Grazia Pastorello |   17-04-2013
Pratham: Every Child in School and Learning Well...

As a child, I dreamt of becoming a biologist.

However, when in secondary school, I never excelled in the core scientific subjects such as Math or Physics. Although my parents were aware of it, the school never addressed the issue nor did they provide additional help. This was interesting as most of the students were actually in the same situation, either having performed poorly or just about making the cut in the core subjects. A few students in my class, less than 25%, performed very well in these two subjects. This situation, where only a few would excel in some subjects, was more or less accepted and there was no questioning whether this was a consequence of something lacking on the part of the school or teacher.

Funny, as I think that my classmates and I were not less able than those who did well, or more stupid.

So, at the end of high school, when the time came to decide which university course to apply for, my scores in Math and Physics were low. Although in Italy you could enrol in any university course regardless of the scores you got in your final exam, I, like most other teenagers, given my low marks in Math and Physics, did not feel confident enough to enrol in Biology. My family was not supportive either - they argued I would struggle a lot to cope, especially at the beginning. So I decided to drop that aspiration.

Many years have passed since then, and I am now living in India working with ASER centre in New Delhi, looking at the learning achievements of children across rural India. What ASER survey has been trying to do for the past eight years is to make sure that Indian citizens care and try to intervene in what children learn at school. Apart from indicators on enrolment and access in reporting performances of children at the district level in basic Mathematics and regional language, ASER has succeeded in initiating a debate and raising awareness on a very basic question: once our children are in school, are they learning?

In Italy, we fortunately do not have to worry about gender gap or enrolment rate, at least not on a scale which India should. However, we do have to worry about quality of learning. When I was in high school, nobody (our parents, our teachers, our politicians) ever wondered why so many students were not learning, let alone question whether teachers and head teachers could have done things in a different manner.  And certainly, issues of lowly-educated parents or low SES (socio-economic status) were not at all relevant, as I attended the best state-funded high school in Rome, the capital city. So even though all our parents were “empowered”, the culture of assessment or at least, questioning, was not in place. Was I going to school regularly? Yes, and therefore I would automatically learn. That was, and still is, the assumption.


We would wait for the mid-term and end-term results - and that was it. No further questions on what was happening in the classroom were asked. Some people are aware of the existence of PISA and TIMSS international tests and these are considered the main data sources for learning achievements of children across many different countries. However, these tests are conducted once every 3 (PISA) to 4 (TIMSS) years. With such a long time span between the tests, the data is hardly usable for planning purposes. Additionally, the data is only available at the state level, assuming that there may not be significant difference or different patterns across regions.

ASER survey, year by year, state by state, district by district, by monitoring what happens in the school, makes citizens aware of their right to education. Sometimes I still think about Biology and what I would be doing now if someone had made an effort to address the reason for my low scores at that time. My mother told me that as a child, I used to read Biology books and copy the design of cells. And then I look at the percentages of tables I fill here as part of my work and I think that maybe in India, because of ASER’s effort, citizens will eventually care about what happens in schools. Hopefully fewer children will have to put aside their dreams because of negligence in the education system.

The awareness that ASER spreads is a lesson to the rest of the world, a lesson that every country that cares about its own development should emulate and support: learning at school is a serious matter, never take it for granted.

 
A graduate in Educational Planning from the Institute of Education, University of London, Maria Grazia Pastorello has been working as a Senior Research Associate with ASER Centre-New Delhi since September 2011. She is involved in data analysis and management, and capacity building.
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Nicely written.
11 May 2013


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