36 Gordon Square
London WC1H 0PD

T +44 (0) 20 7958 8251

LIDC Podcast: A New Approach to Education in India

The switch from rote learning to activity-based education in Tamil Nadu, India, has been rapid and successful. M.P. Vijayakumar - a pioneer of the child-centric scheme - tells Development Matters how a pilot project for 13 schools has now been adopted by 39,000 schools. The approach is being used to teach five million primary schoolchildren in the state, is gaining supporters elsewhere in India and is attracting attention from abroad, including from China. Professor Angela Little, of the Institute of Education, is also asked in this latest podcast about her experiences observing Activity-Based Learning (ABL) in the classroom.
Click here to listen to podcast

Weaknesses of traditional education
Vijayakumar, of Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan – the Education for All movement in India – and former director of the ABL programme in Tamil Nadu, begins by explaining the shortcomings of conventional ways of learning (children sitting in rows, rote learning and testing). He charts how the Indian government has successfully managed “quantitative inputs” – building more schools and classrooms, employing more teachers and boosting enrolment. However, this investment has not been accompanied by marked improvements in the “quality of education.” Vijayakumar refers to figures showing how 30-40 percent of children could not read or write fluently in their mother tongue after five years of schooling; in maths, 60-70 percent could not perform basic sums. He says: “The biggest challenge – the biggest problem – is to enhance learning outcomes. The fact remains that children do not learn in our classrooms up to primary level.” Vijayakumar describes the disparity between states in terms of their resources for education (Tamil Nadu is one of the forward-looking states), but emphasises that deficiencies in the quality of education are found throughout the country.

The philosophy of Activity-Based Learning
Drawing on principles of child psychology and pedagogy, Vijayakumar explains how children learn-by-doing, whether it is finding out how to use a mobile phone, or learning how to sing. Such active participation in the learning process is the essence of ABL. A child at a school using ABL methods  carries out an activity using attractive learning materials at their own pace before progressing to the next on their own learning “ladder.”  The teachers sit among the children and provide support in a much more interactive and personalised setting. When learning English, for example, children learn words from a series of pictures and then learn the alphabet after about six months. Evaluation is also part of the system as a child can only advance to the next activity once they have acquired a particular skill. Vijayakumar says:  “We realised that the process of the class had to change: it had to be child-centric, where children learn-by-doing. In ABL, there are no failures; some children move faster, some move slower. Since there is no failure, there is no fear of failure. The system should encourage children to learn.”

Growing popularity of new method
Vijayakumar led a project introducing ABL into 13 schools in Chennai in 2003. Its success led to the scheme being rolled out to 264 schools in the Chennai municipal corporation. Then 40,000 teachers were brought to Chennai and told about the scheme. They were not forced to work with the new materials, but the vast majority were convinced by them and the responses of the pupils.  Currently five million children – 80 percent of primary schoolchildren – are being taught with ABL methods, and most teachers have embraced the approach.

In the podcast, Little describes a visit to an ABL school in Tamil Nadu, how she was impressed with the children’s involvement in different learning activities and the benefits of “individualised graded learning.” She says the child is at the centre of the learning process and is supported effectively by the teacher, learning materials and the peer group. Instilling such independence at an early age is positive, according to Little, as it will help these children demand their rights later in life and equip them with the appropriate tools for the wider world. Little says: “The key message in all of this is helping young people to become independent, self-directed and self-motivated learners.”

This episode is based on the lecture given by Vijayakumar at LIDC on 29 June. The event was organised by the Consortium for Research on Educational Access, Transitions and Equity (CREATE). 

By Guy Collender, Senior Communications Officer at LIDC, and Valentina Tartari, work experience placement student at LIDC
Additional resources
Activity-Based Learning (ABL) in Tamil Nadu, PowerPoint delivered by M.P. Vijayakumar on 29 June 2010
Kapil Sibal bowled over by teaching methodologies, R. Krishnamoorthy, 13 July 2010, The Hindu
The Silent Revolution (Short film about Activity-Based Learning): Part 1, Part 2