I have noticed that there is a strong sense especially among administrators that grade-wise Learning Outcome statements are important and useful in helping improve learning levels. Some states have also mandated painting them inside classrooms. Examples of such Learning Outcomes statements are:
By Grade 1 learner:
- names familiar objects seen in the pictures
- recites poems/rhymes with actions
- recites number names and counts objects up to 20, concretely, pictorially and symbolically
- counts objects using numbers 1 to 9
By Grade 3 learner:
- recites poems individually/ in groups with correct pronunciation and intonation
- compares numbers up to 999 for their value based on their place value
- identifies simple observable features (e.g. shape, colour, texture, aroma) of leaves, trunk and bark of plants in immediate surroundings
- identifies relationships with and among family members
I have found international funding agencies supporting the idea especially for India. These seem to come from a management thinking that clearly visible and set goals help them being achieved. But do these ‘grade-wise Learning Outcomes’ really represent clearly visible and set goals?
Our own experience of doing assessments for over 15 years with large government systems as well as private schools suggests something else. At one point of time, we did think that these documents were useful, and I believe they were useful then and for a specific purpose. Today, we feel they are not that useful, rather they need to and can be replaced by something more comprehensive and more useful for teachers.
Right from the Minimum Levels of Learning (MLLs) of the early 1990s, to various state documents of recent years, these documents can be useful if they can give a clear message that learning has to be focussed on understanding and not getting children to simply be able to solve certain types of questions. When a document says that students should be able to “recite number names and counts objects up to 20,” in Maths or “differentiate between small and capital letters” in English, there is a danger that these statements are interpreted mechanistically. At the same time, these are important competencies children need to develop – but there is a real danger of these statements being misinterpreted and there seems to be no clear protection against that.
A competency like children should be able to “estimate sum, difference, product and quotient of numbers” could be represented by both these types of questions shown below:
Most educationists would agree that children should become competent not only in the above two types of questions but many more including real life situations representing this competency. But how do we explain to a teacher who does only traditional problems, say like the one in the left, and feels that he is doing justice to the competency or believes that the children should be proficient only in the textbook-type of questions.
Often, statements in Learning Outcomes documents are not unambiguous and clearly pointing to what teachers need to do.
Another point is whether Learning Outcomes documents have really helped especially at scale. Can the process by which they are expected to help be described more clearly? Or can we have a companion document for teachers showing clearly ‘How to use this Learning Outcomes document’ – an attempt to do that will reveal these serious shortcomings. Can ‘use cases‘ be defined of how teachers use it say while teaching, or while assessing, etc.? Attempting to do these itself would highlight the inherent gaps in such an effort.
Do we have any reason to believe that states or schools that made better Learning Outcomes documents had improved learning outcomes? We must note that such documents have been used a lot and have not really yielded any notable results. We worked with a state as they did assessments annually for over 5 years. After the 3rd year, there was a directive to create these kind of ‘grade level competencies’. The document was prepared. Note that assessments were done before the document and similar assessments were done after it also. After the document was available, the questions in the assessments were mapped to the statement. Both to us, and other external observers, there was no other difference or impact from the availability of such a document.
As I mentioned, we did see Learning Outcomes documents as useful many years ago, and this is the reason: Such documents if written well, can guide teachers on what their focus should be and examples of what would constitute good learning. We were impressed in 2001 by the Japanese Learning Standards documents. They DID NOT list out most or all of what children should be able to do. The document could not have been used to set questions in a test or map questions of an existing test to determine if everything had been tested. Rather, it gave broad guidelines. It explained that the purpose of grammar is not to test rules in sentences, but that children should be able to construct correct sentences. The test of vocabulary comes from checking if children can understand authentic texts they find in the world around them. While teaching measurement in Maths, the importance of estimation and how it can be developed were emphasized. Good Learning Standards documents (that term is more suitable than Learning Outcomes) actually guide teachers and answer the doubts they face when deciding how to handle a topic in class. Such a document can help improve the quality of teaching by genuinely building teacher understanding and capacity.
What we believe is needed today: The world is very different today from what it was in 2001. The version of the Learning Standards described above would now be documents, videos and forums teachers can access and get inputs and guidance on. Please note that I am not suggesting that these materially are not made centrally – the first version should be, and most of what gets on to the site should be rigorously approved. But there is much more we can do to concretely improve Learning Outcomes today.
I am quoting from our comments to an international effort to develop Learning Outcomes document: (We) now believe that merely a list of standards or competencies is not very useful either for teachers or researchers. Rather we believe that what we must have is a large pool of questions and activities linked to every skill or competency. This can be used both as a teaching as well as an assessment tool. Gradually a list of misconceptions should also be provided again linked to questions.
Such a listing of competencies linked to questions will helps plan the way ahead and address the learning gaps before they become misconceptions for life. The questions chosen would have representations of ‘straightforward’, recall questions, those that check deeper understanding, application and higher order skills. In the absence of linked question examples (ideally the pool of questions for each competency should be large, at least 20-30 on the lower side, hence in an electronic database format) and if a variety of questions are not there, educators are not able to relate precisely merely to competency statements.
In other words, today ‘Learning Outcomes Document’ could actually be an electronic database of lists of competencies, explanations of their importance, sample questions, their performance data, and ideas to teach and assess that teachers can access. One use case would be as follows:
A teacher is about to start teaching Polynomials in class 9. She refers to the Learning Outcome Database first reading the section on ‘Why Polynomials’ and then ‘Difficulties Students Face’. She notes the 15 commonly made errors and glances through some of the question examples. She downloads a 25 question test which she decides to use before her first class, noting that it actually tests the pre-requisites children need to understand polynomials. She also realises that the test will clearly show her where her class and individual children are. For every question answered incorrectly in the test, the database provides a series of graded questions and examples to help children getting those questions wrong. As usual, she feels a bit overwhelmed with the number of questions available, but knows from past experience that she can use as little or as much as she wants! Even in the one hour she spent, she got 3-4 question ideas which she decides to use in her introduction in class the next day. This way she not just benefits from knowing what students should achieve at the end of the lesson, but also gets clear indicators that could be used to measure success of her lesson.
(A version of this article has also been published in Deccan Herald | ‘Addressing Learning Gaps’ dated 8th August, 2019.)