IT WAS in the early 2000s, around the time they founded the Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab (J-PAL) at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), that Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo did their path-breaking research in India on “Teaching at the Right Level”.
The research, done over a period of more than 10 years, showed that the approach developed by NGO Pratham — where children were grouped and taught on the basis of their learning levels and not according to age or grade — consistently improved learning outcomes.
Another recent work has been Duflo’s research on early child education, especially the impact of math games among preschoolers. As part of the research, Duflo has been collaborating with psychologists at Harvard University, who work on the cognitive development of young children, to study if the innate math ability of 4 to 5-year-olds can be developed so that they are not left behind when it comes to formal math at a later stage.
For this, the researchers did three randomised control trials in Delhi, the third in Delhi government schools, and found that game-based curricula might work better when they are integrated with age-appropriate lessons in primary schools.
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For the “Teaching at the Right Level” programme, Banerjee, Duflo and other researchers at J-PAL did at least six randomised evaluations in seven states that demonstrated the effectiveness of the teaching approach that has since been adopted by several state governments in India. Drawing on the success in India, African countries such as Zambia and Nigeria have used the method in their schools.
“In India, lots of education interventions have been tried, mostly around infrastructure and learning inputs, but outcomes were not increasing. The hypothesis that was given was that in India, with large classrooms and overworked teachers, there was very little that was happening by way of learning. Abhijit and Esther’s research showed that by grouping children according to their learning levels and giving them targeted instruction, you could get them to their right level,” said Megha Pradhan, Senior Policy and Training Manager, J-PAL, South Asia.
“The team at J-PAL studied the different interventions in learning levels for around 10 years. They worked not only on studying the methods and interventions but also on the most effective way to build foundational skills,” said Jasmine Shah, Dialogue and Development Commission, Delhi government, who was earlier Deputy Director, J-PAL, South Asia.
After a series of iterative versions, in 2012-13, J-PAL evaluated the programme in Haryana government schools to see if it could be made more scalable.
While the attempt to improve learning levels is a flagship scheme of the Delhi government’s education push, Banerjee and Duflo are also behind its “Outcome Budget”, where Budget grants and promises are linked to deadlines — the AAP leadership sees this as its biggest exercise in accountability.
“Abhijit Banerjee’s pathbreaking work has also benefited lakhs of children studying in Delhi government schools. One of Delhi government’s most important education reform, ‘Chunauti’, has transformed government school classroom teaching. It is based on the model developed by him,” tweeted Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal.
In 2015, Banerjee and Duflo met Delhi Education Minister Manish Sisodia, after an assessment showed that nearly 74% children in Delhi government schools were lagging behind in reading levels.
“The number in the government school assessment established that there were problems in basic skills… In the interaction with the government, the research done at J-PAL was presented. Discussions were held on adaptation of the methods being used to remove learning deficit. They not only studied the programmes but also identified the best model based on similar interventions in Uttar Pradesh and Haryana by Pratham,” Shah said.
Under the “Chunauti” programme, children are divided into readers and non-readers, based on an assessment. Special classes, using material specifically designed for them, are held for the non-readers for an hour every day. Similar classes are held for those who are not performing in math.
“The Delhi government was convinced this was the best model for the intervention. It also has the component of teacher resources that ensures the set pedagogy is being followed in all schools,” Shah said.
“It is a matter of pride, not just as an Indian but also as an education and finance minister. We implemented Chunauti scheme and Outcome Budget with help from, and inspiration from, Dr Banerjee and Dr Duflo’s research,” Sisodia tweeted.
Besides Pratham, J-PAL affiliated researchers have partnered with multiple other NGOs in education in India, including Akshara Foundation, Gyan Shala and Room to Read, among others.