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Work in Progress

The Hewlett Foundation Blog




Learning to Improve Learning 

March 12, 2014 — By Dana Schmidt

For the first time in history, nearly every child has a chance to go to school, no matter where they are born or how wealthy their family. On the face of it, global efforts to educate the world have been a huge success. But although classrooms are brimming with children, the students are, more often than not, struggling to learn. Even basic literacy—arguably the fundamental skill acquired in school—is elusive for many students. In India, half of fifth graders cannot read a simple story. In Uganda and Mali, only one in fifty second graders can read. Tests administered internationally reveal that the average learner in a developing country performs at the level of the worst performers in countries like the U.S.

In June I visited Aber Primary School on the outskirts of Lira, in northern Uganda. The first grade classroom I visited, pictured above and here, had over 100 eager children tightly packed in, five or six sharing each small desk. The walls were mostly bare, save for the blackboard in the front of the room. I could tell that many of the children, barefoot and in well-worn uniforms, came from poor households. Seeing a classroom like this makes it easier to understand why national achievement data suggests that only two of these first graders are likely to be reading by the end of second grade.

Though their room looks like a typical Ugandan classroom, the instruction these students are getting is unique. Their teacher was given special training and support in teaching children how to read by an organization called Mango Tree. As a result, these first graders are reading at levels a year ahead of their peers in neighboring schools that haven’t gotten this support.

Mango Tree’s pioneering work in northern Uganda is part of a growing body of experiences across the world that show what it takes to improve learning outcomes for children in resource-constrained settings. Since 2007, the Hewlett Foundation has funded eleven school-level approaches to improving early learning, including Mango Tree’s. We have also funded ten external evaluations of these approaches to build evidence on what it takes to improve learning. Overall, these experiences have shown that when you teach children well, they learn. Although the particularities of local contexts will define what “solutions” look like in any given place, at least four broad principles seem key to giving all children a fair chance at learning:

Aim at students’ learning levels. Too often children are being taught with curricula that do not target their learning level. For example, despite the fact that half of Indian fifth graders have not mastered what they were expected to learn in second grade, their instruction moves in lockstep with a curriculum that is far more advanced. This has devastating consequences as children simply fall further and further behind. Rather than teaching the curriculum, we should be teaching children. This requires setting clear goals for the skills we want them to master, measuring where they are now, and providing instruction that bridges where they are today to where we want them to be tomorrow. This can be as simple as grouping children according to their current learning levels and concentrating instruction on activities that will help move them to the next learning level—a concept that has been demonstrated powerfully by Pratham in India (e.g., in Jehanabad), and replicated elsewhere.

Build structured lessons and teaching tools. In most classrooms in Uganda—and many other countries—teachers are given the official government curriculum and textbooks to follow, but are expected to figure out the exact lesson plans that will help children learn critical skills, like how to read. Organizations like Mango Tree heave made teachers’ jobs easier by giving clear guidance on steps to follow and activities to use to teach reading. They have sequenced the curriculum to show teachers exactly what letters to teach when. And they have given teachers low-cost reading materials for every student in the class that map to the lessons. Instead of leaving teachers with a vague charge to teach the children how to read, we need to provide a clear approach, alongside materials to help children learn.

Communicate in a language students understand. Children at Aber Primary School have another enormous advantage over many of their peers in the developing world: they are being taught in Leblango, the same language they speak with their families at home. They are not being asked to master a new language and a new skill at the same time. Furthermore, the words they are learning to read have meaning for them. This greatly increases their chances of success at learning to read in Leblango and improves their chances of reading in another language, like English, down the line. Fortunately efforts to instruct children in their home language are expanding, including through a major initiative in West Africa. In Senegal, Associates in Research and Education for Development is looking for opportunities for the government to scale up their tested model for instruction in three local languages.

Develop teachers. Making any of the first three principles possible—to aim at students’ learning levels with structured lessons in a language students understand—rests on what teachers do in their classrooms. The training that teachers currently receive is often theoretical, superficial, and stops before they ever enter the classroom. Giving teachers training and mentoring to develop these skills requires practical hands-on training and regular visits to the classroom to observe teachers in practice and offer suggestions for improvement.

In the synthesis report on Learning to Improve Learning, we call these principles the ABCs of improving learning and provide more details on the research underlying each of them, drawn from these individual studies. The principles are corroborated by numerous other studies and implementation experiences from around the world, including in a review of randomized evaluation findings completed in 2013 by Patrick McEwan. They point to several urgent policy issues, including the need to simplify the curricula, develop a structured approach to teaching, reorient teacher training, and align teacher incentives to student learning.

These experiences also teach us that a shift towards improved learning requires not only a change in teacher skills, but also a change in teacher and system will. We must break down systemic barriers to change in order to truly make good on the international community’s promise of education for all. One critical way to do this is by actually measuring whether or not students are learning. As the Center for Global Development’s 2013 Study Group on Measuring Learning Outcomes finds, “expanded assessments can not only measure progress, but can motivate broad engagement for reform to improve educational outcomes in the developing world.” Global efforts like the Learning Metrics Task Force are making significant progress in helping to define what outcome indicators to measure and how—some of which may be globally relevant, but many of which will be country specific.

With growing awareness among governments and donors that children are not learning what they should be learning in school, there is demand for tested solutions. The Foundation’s investments provide an important contribution towards building this evidence. We are delighted that governments around the world—and organizations like the Global Partnership for Education, the World Bank, the U.S. Agency for International Development, and the U.K. Department for International Development—are working to improve student learning in bold and ambitious ways. Incorporating a focus on access and learning in the global goals that succeed the Millennium Development Goals in 2015 would help ensure that programs that look at how to support children’s learning attract sufficient attention and resources. As the international community persists in its explorations on how to improve student learning, we are confident that children across the globe will be given a fairer chance at a prosperous future.