How TN plans to tackle learning gap in young kids with Ennum Ezhuthum Mission

TNM spoke to Merlia Shaukath, founder of Madhi Foundation, an NGO which is collaborating with the Tamil Nadu government to implement the Ennum Ezhuthum Mission.
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The Tamil Nadu government recently announced a foundational literacy and numeracy programme called the Ennum Ezhuthum Mission, to be implemented in government schools across the state over the next five years. Working with children in Class 1, 2 and 3, the ambitious project aims to ensure that by 2025, all students in Tamil Nadu’s government schools are able to have reading and arithmetic skills appropriate for their level by age 8 (or Class 3).

Studies have repeatedly pointed out that many school students in India were unable to demonstrate learning skills appropriate for their age. The Annual Status of Education Report (ASER) 2018 found that only around 25% of the students in Class 3 were able to read texts meant for their level. The Ennum Ezhuthum Mission is being launched at a time when children have lost out on nearly two years of schooling due to the pandemic, resulting in immense learning loss especially in early childhood, which is bound to aggravate further learning in higher grades.  

While presenting the revised budget for 2021-22 for the state on August 13, Tamil Nadu Minister for Finance and Human Resources Management PTR Palanivel Thiagarajan announced an allocation of Rs 32,599.54 crore for school education, of which Rs 66.7 crore has been allocated for the Ennum Ezhuthum Mission, or the Tamil Nadu State Foundational Literacy and Numeracy Mission. Madhi Foundation, a non-profit organisation that has been working on foundational learning in Tamil Nadu for the past five years, will be the Chief Management Partner, collaborating with the state government in implementing this mission. TNM spoke to the founder of Madhi Foundation, Merlia Shaukath, on how their past projects will inform the Ennum Ezhuthum Mission, and designing context-specific solutions to bridge the gap in foundational learning skills.  

Context-based solutions 

Madhi Foundation has worked in Chennai Corporation schools, as well as government schools in Tiruvannamalai district. Merlia notes that more than 80% of classrooms in Tamil Nadu are multi-grade (with students of more than one grade seated in a single classroom and taught by the same teacher), multi-level (with students at varying learning levels, within and across grades) and even multilingual (with English and Tamil medium students being taught together). It is in this context that the organisation has carried out multiple projects that involved curriculum design, teacher training and data tracking through remote classroom observation, working with around 2,000 teachers, 60,000 students and 3,000 officials to evolve scalable programmes. These projects will be considered as pilots that have worked, which will now influence larger state policy when it comes to the Ennum Ezhuthum Mission. 

“With most classrooms in government schools, particularly in rural areas, being multi-grade, very often there is one teacher teaching three grades at the same time. We need to look at this seriously as the most prevalent model while building the curriculum framework and teacher training syllabus. What works in conventional classrooms like Chennai Corporation schools which have a separate teacher for each grade cannot work in a rural government school,” she says. 

Madhi Foundation’s pilot projects were designed to account for multi-grade classrooms with students of varied learning levels, while also ensuring that the teaching model doesn’t become an undue burden for the teachers, Merlia says. “The program has been designed to lessen the teacher’s burden in many ways, by using technology, simplifying grouping methods for students etc.,” she adds.  

Rural schools often also have English and Tamil medium students being taught by the same teacher. In such cases, while the language subjects can be taught separately when it comes to Math, the teaching approach must ensure that literacy doesn’t affect numeracy, Merlia notes. “A child may understand math well and be numerate, but because the question is asked in English, they may not be able to answer it effectively. Those nuances are something we pay close attention to, and factor into teacher training and lesson planning,” she says. 

Differentiated instruction 

Merlia notes that while there is ample research to suggest that teaching children at their learning level can yield tremendous results, students are usually forced to learn according to the grade assigned to their age. “Based on existing research around differentiated learning, we have shown through our pilot projects that it can work in Tamil Nadu’s context. Meeting the child at their level is something that we have strongly advocated for, and the pandemic has probably hastened the decision for the state to say that teaching will now be more child-centric.

It will be taught as per the child’s level, and not simply based on the age-based grade assigned to the child. A decision such as this requires enormous will on the part of the political and bureaucratic leaders, and there seems to be a lot of progressive thought and willingness to act on the part of the leadership,” she says. Differentiated teaching is an approach where a lesson is designed in such a way that students at different learning levels can receive instructions appropriate to their level. 

While the specific details of the mission are yet to be announced by the state government, the mission will approach foundational learning in Class 1, 2 and 3, with a focus on critical literacy and numeracy levels, moving away from teachers’ usual targets of portion completion for the academic year. Not just teachers, but parents will also have to be made aware of the expected learning outcomes for a child who is six to eight years old, and be equipped to quickly test for these skills, Merlia says. 

With a comprehensive approach that includes altered ways of teacher training, teaching and learning methods, classroom support and monitoring and use of data by teachers, the Ennum Ezhuthum Mission aims to bring children’s learning skills to a grade-appropriate level over the next two to three years, so they are well-equipped to move on to higher grades, without a learning gap continuing to widen each year.

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