Armed with around 440 masks and 5 litres of sanitiser, Bapu Munghate, a government school teacher in Mahawada village, a remote area of Gadchiroli in eastern Maharashtra, tried to convince the gram panchayat members to allow him to teach the children there, despite the school closures since 2020. There are a total of 69 houses and a population of 442 in Mahawada village, in a slum area comprising of local tribes. Bapu Munghate knew if he and teachers like him didn’t push for children to continue learning, the loss would be incalculable. With some persuasion he garnered the support of the community. Starting with an empty house made available by one villager, to the local police patil providing a mat for children to sit on, with yet others contributing to repainting the house to make it safe and clean, he fashioned a makeshift school.  

Bapu Munghate had joined CEQUE’s Teacher Innovator Program (TIP) earlier that year. He had learnt new strategies to teach reading with comprehension and was keen to try them with his students. He received audio resources, student workbooks, and close to 20 hours of coaching to help in this journey. With the coaches he would share his frustrations and successes, personal and professional. Today, he reports with some satisfaction that students have learnt how to make meaning of unfamiliar words, helping them take one step towards reading with comprehension.

The Teacher Innovator Program of which Bapu Munghate was a part, is a professional development programme for teachers from government, government-aided and low-income schools. Through its unique ‘Learn, Do and Lead’ model, the programme skills teachers to learn and implement new methods of teaching and bring an improvement in student learning.

India’s children are facing learning poverty.

A term introduced by World Bank in 2019, ‘learning poverty’ is defined as an inability to read and understand a simple age-appropriate text by the age of 10. If children do not learn to read by the age of 10, the door to learning is most likely shut for them forever. In India, 55% children suffer from learning poverty.

The Annual Status of Education Report (ASER) states that only 44.2% of all Class V students in government schools in India are able to read a Class II text. The situation is worse for numeracy: only 22.7% of all Class V students in government schools are able to do division.  

The situation has been exacerbated due to the pandemic. A report published by Azim Premji University in February 2021 revealed that, on an average, 92% of children have lost at least one specific language ability and 82% have lost one specific mathematical ability across all classes during the pandemic year.

CEQUE addresses this issue of learning poverty. It responds to India’s learning crisis through skilling teachers with teaching methodologies to arm even the most underserved children with the 21st-century skills of enquiry, reasoning, critical thinking and collaboration.

CEQUE believes that teachers are the biggest factor in changing the quality of learning. Good teachers make a fundamental difference not just to students’ outcomes in school but to their life after school as well. Academic research supports this.  

Teacher skilling, therefore, is key to improving the quality of learning. However, most of the current models for professional development of teachers tend to follow a top-down hierarchical approach. Teachers get limited hours of professional development in a given year, with no year-round support to help them internalise and implement the new skills. Largely input-driven, they also remain very dependent on the skill of the facilitator. These inputs are disconnected with the learning outcomes and do not eventually lead to a lasting behavioural change. The models fail to quickly adapt to the demands of preparing teachers to teach children in changed environments.

At CEQUE, the team is seeking to change this. They go beyond training workshops, to focus more on providing solutions that help a teacher to adapt her classroom practice and measure the change in student learning. Indeed, a teacher feels motivated to continuously learn when she sees improvement in class, much like how one is encouraged to stick to a diet plan when one inches closer to the desired weight, even if just in small amounts. Seeing improvement in student learning gives the teacher a sense of her own efficacy. To quote a teacher from CEQUE’s Teacher Innovator Program: ‘I gained confidence that there is something I can do to help my students improve and learn.’  

Keeping student learning at the heart of the teacher capacity building, CEQUE supports teachers by working with the system. They partner with government educational bodies, coach teachers and school leaders in innovative teaching methods, impact student learning with measurable change in student learning outcomes, and sustain the change through continual support to teachers and leaders.

A key component of the Teacher Innovator Program is the curriculum. The content and learning outcomes are aligned closely with the state curriculum. Experience has also shown that for a shift in teacher practice, the teacher needs sustained support. To provide this support, coaching forms an integral part of the programme. During coaching, teachers look at student learning data, identify the gaps, and take measures to address those. They reflect on their own practice and are encouraged to find solutions to address the gaps. The innovative teaching methods that teachers learn during the programme equip them to teach better and make student learning visible in the form of exhibitions. These exhibitions serve as a powerful way to engage with the community: from parents to the gram panchayat members to government officials.

At CEQUE, the team recognises that a teacher does not work in a vacuum. They make it a point to work closely with school leaders, enabling them to provide support to teachers and thereby fostering an environment of mutual trust and respect. Specifically, right at the beginning of the programme, the school leaders are oriented to what they may expect to see as outcomes, what the teachers will be doing with the students, and the support they can provide. Regular progress reports are provided to co-opt the school leaders in the skill development of the teachers.

Measuring the impact
Since the initiation of the programme, CEQUE has worked with 408 teachers and impacted 8,807 children across 7 districts of Maharashtra – namely Pune, Palghar, Nashik, Thane, Mumbai, Gadchiroli and Chandrapur. The average teacher competency has improved by 32 percentage points and student performance by 17 percentage points.  

To measure impact, TIP uses a 4-point scale that maps teacher competency on 5 indicators of teaching and learning. Adapted from the 5D framework of teaching and learning developed by the Center of Educational Leadership, University of Washington, Seattle, the framework measures teacher competency along 5 dimensions: purpose, student engagement, curriculum and pedagogy, student assessment, and classroom environment and culture. Baseline and endline tests are administered at the start and end of the programme to measure whether teacher skills have improved.

TIP focuses on specific student competency during the programme cycle. All strategies that teachers learn are aligned with the selected competency. Student baseline and endline tests are administered to measure if there has been an improvement in student performance in the selected competency in math and language.  

All of the learnings

  • Sustained engagement with teachers is necessary for teachers to fully understand and implement newer methods of teaching.

Anecdotal evidence along with conversations with teachers and school leaders revealed that teachers needed continued support to sustain the skills they learn. With this in mind, TIP is now being offered as a three-year model.

  • Providing a structured platform to showcase student learning helps build community support and bring student learning into focus.

As part of the ‘learn by doing’ TIP model, teachers hold exhibitions in which children show and talk about what they have learnt in math and language. These exhibitions elicit tremendous participation from the community: parents, gram panchayat members, and block and cluster education officials. For teachers, it helps them connect what they have learnt to its impact on student learning.

  • Teaching how to analyse student learning gaps helps teachers to support students better.

As part of the TIP model, teachers are supported to assess the learning levels of their students, analyse errors, and come to a granular level of understanding where the students are struggling.

  • Practice is essential for teachers to internalise the new methods.

Prior to using new teaching methods in class, teachers need adequate practice to understand those methods. Through assignments and peer learning, TIP facilitates this process to strengthen their understanding.

  • Coaching works.

Since the time TIP was conceptualised, coaching remains a core component of the programme. Coaching helps the teacher to better understand her classroom practice, bring changes in her practice, and become a reflective practitioner.

  • Leadership plays an important role in encouraging teachers to innovate, especially when faced with challenges such as the pandemic.

For teachers to truly make a change in their classroom practice, they need a supportive environment. TIP works with school leadership to co-opt them in the capacity building of teachers.

  • Given the opportunity and training, teachers are keen to share their knowledge and practice with others.

TIP works closely with teachers to develop them as teacher leaders. They participate in professional learning circles where they come together to discuss issues on student learning and take the lead in sharing their understanding. This is now embedded as part of the programme.

Challenges in the Covid year
The pandemic and the school closures created challenges for teachers and children all over the world. In India, the digital divide was all too real and few children were learning. With low or limited access to devices or network, a vast majority of children found themselves cast out of the learning fold.  

Working side by side with teachers, the team at CEQUE doubled their efforts to reach the unreached. In six districts where CEQUE’s programme is being implemented, while only 35% students attended class at the start of the pandemic, today 91% are in the fold of learning.

The team’s Covid response was driven by a ground-up understanding of the challenges and their potential solutions. Teachers, district officials, parents and community members came together to support their children’s learning.  

How did it happen? Here’s the story.  

  • Identifying the challenges
    Teachers are the foot soldiers who comprehend the ground realities of their student communities like no other in the education system. CEQUE engaged with 300+ teachers in their programme from six districts. The team asked them about the challenges their students faced and engaged on possible solutions to support them.  

At the start of the pandemic, teachers said that they were able to regularly reach approximately one-third of their students. With the rest, they had either sporadic or no contact because students either lacked connectivity or devices, or their families did not have the financial resources to recharge their devices.  

How to reach the remaining two-third of the students seemed like an uphill task. But one thing was clear: a fresh pathway was needed to reach the unreached.  

  • Finding solutions that worked
    Teachers suggested that low-tech resources and workbooks would go a long way in helping them engage with students on the other side of the digital divide.

Collaborating with them, the team at CEQUE created 120 audiovisual resources that required low bandwidth. They also created workbooks in math and language. These resources were aligned with the students’ textbooks at the specific grade levels.    

The audiovisual resources were made available to students on YouTube. However, the workbook distribution, particularly during the lockdown, was a huge logistical exercise.  

Interestingly, the teachers took to innovative means to distribute the workbooks to students, with the support of CEQUE’s staff. Some distributed them to parents at ration shops or when they came to collect food grains at school. Others took the help of galli mitras or went door to door themselves. Still others figured convenient locations where they could meet parents to hand over the books.  

  • Integrating new resources in teaching
    Once the resources were in students’ hands, teachers integrated them in their teaching. Children who could join online regularly continued to do so.

Teachers now had more flexibility to engage with students who faced connectivity challenges. With them, teachers were able to assign tasks on Whatsapp or through phone calls. Students were expected to complete their workbook assignments and submit their work to their teachers. Teachers then followed up with them, clearing doubts where necessary, and provided feedback.  

Parents and community members played an invaluable role in this effort. Teachers convinced parents that they needed to ensure their children completed and submitted their work. At times, when children needed support and teachers were not able to reach them, teachers organised community members to teach them. At other times, where teachers were able to, they formed small groups and taught them at community-based locations organised by villagers.