The following write up explores and describes the outcomes of an innovative educational service that a local school in Dhading district decided to try out and which contributed to retention in the primary grade in ways that was not anticipated and which transcended expectations. The service started in 2010 and this write up is based on the outcomes emerging about three to four years after, which allowed sufficient time on which to assess the effectiveness of multi grade learning and of coaching as well.
The members of a School Management Committee of a local school in a VDC near Dhading Besi were in a “Welcome to School” meeting just before starting the new academic cycle of 2010. They were discussing issues that came up in the past academic year, emerging needs, along with the way forward for the upcoming year. One of the agenda items was about ensuring retention in the context of certain students from primary grades three, four and five, who the primary school teachers felt were exhibiting signs of lagging behind, and needed some extra assistance to catch up in class. These children had a high absenteeism in class the previous year/s as a result of which their class performance was declining, and far from meeting expected standards. The teachers were expressing their concern over the declining performance as in the past such trends had led to drop outs.
They referred to the national official data, according to which the dropout rate in grade one is over 19 percent, almost 5 percent in grade two, and 4 percent in grade three. Similarly, repetition rates for grade one hovers near 40 percent, about 19 percent for grade two and 15 percent for grade three. By the time a child reaches grade four, the statistics become even more disappointing.
Having fewer students in the primary classes would bring in less revenue besides having an adverse publicity and less grounds for continued government support for pre-school classes.
Reasons were being debated about the declining performance of students. Attention was directed to the Government of Nepal’s education policy that allows for auto-promotion of students till grade three, following a Continuous Assessment System (CAS), in which a pass or a fail in the year-end examinations are no longer the basis for moving on to the next higher grade. Moving to CAS while was a much needed step in the face of alarmingly high dropout and grade repetition rates among primary school students, for both of which failure in examinations has been identified as a major cause, it was also seen as having unintended consequences.
A few teachers did feel that the promotion provisions were both making the students lax in their learning thus causing them to fall behind, and it was also making the teachers lax in their teaching as a student’s performance was no longer an issue, and would not be a yardstick with which to measure the teacher’s teaching standards either. It could thus be one reason for declining performance, and that it merely delayed the “inevitable”, for when a student with poor performance faces the year-end examinations in grade three, if s/he does not pass, it could still catalyze a drop out in grade four.
Possible solutions to this issue, which was seen as a critical one, were being explored. After some discussion, one solution that would incur the least of expenses on part of the school, but would involve some additional time on part of the student was put forward and agreed upon on a trial basis. The solution proposed was providing “coaching” services to students identified as needing this boost to catch up and be motivated enough to continue schooling even beyond grade three.
This proposal came from a representative of a local non-government organization, who was also one of the discussion participants. The NGO had been provided some funding by a donor to use for improving education access of children from deprived and disadvantaged groups. The SMC, relieved that a solution that was both acceptable to all and which relieved the school of any financial burden, was more than happy to help initiate arrangements to start the coaching.
The parents of students who were identified as needing coaching were called to school and the situation explained to them. While a few parents were willing to send their children to school for a longer time the days the extra coaching was to be held, not all parents were convinced of the use of extra classes for their children. Many baulked at the thought of sparing their children at a time in the day when their assistance in doing household chores was much in demand. Some of the parents also expressed skepticism, questioning the rationale of coaching and how receptive a child would be after hours of schooling, citing mental exhaustion as a possible deterrent to absorbing knowledge imparted during the coaching time.
After a series of discussions with parents, participation of only about 8 of the identified 24 students needing coaching could be confirmed. Of these 4 were from grade three, 2 from grade four and 2 from grade five. This required the SMC to have some additional meetings to discuss about this unexpected challenge – of having too few students from each grade to warrant separate coaching classes. Thinking out of the box was called for and another change from the traditional pattern of coaching students from each grade separately was proposed - that of having all the children, irrespective of their grades, attend one coaching class, with one of the primary school teachers best suited to manage the different scholastic demands would be given the responsibility to manage this multi grade coaching class. The school went one step further and decided that a few students from grade six – who could benefit from coaching would also be included. In total now, there 12 students were identified for coaching classes.
The students were being coached in all the subjects taught at the primary level - Maths, English, Nepali, Sciences and Social Sciences. The teacher realized that academic performance of all the students who were in the coaching classes began to improve within a month of their participating in the coaching class. While improvements were quickly discernible in Maths and English, the improvements the other three subjects took longer to materialize.
During one of the field visits to observe how the coaching classes were structured and conducted three features stood out.
1. The teacher adopted a cascading strategy and first coached the students from the senior most grade who then became immersed in their studies. After this the teacher coached students from the next grade and so on, with students from grade three coached in the end. Those from grade six were seated on one side of the room, those from grades four and five in the middle and those from grade three were seated on the other side of the room.
Besides a practical way of dividing groups being coached, this arrangement had an added benefit. When coaching the students from grade six, those students from grades four and five could hear what was being said and as the level of difficulty of Maths and English from grade four or five to six was only incrementally higher, those from junior grades benefited from listening to the coaching instructions and explanations for their seniors.
2. The teacher also encouraged interactions between the seniors and the juniors, getting the juniors to think of the former as their “mentors”.
In a way the seniors felt this assigned responsibility as a mentor was a mark of respect for them, and it helped lessen their embarrassment of being placed in the same coaching class as the juniors. Their motivation to learn increased. Their teaching the students from junior classes also helped them to retain their learning better for somehow answering the queries from the juniors helped them understand the subject better. The juniors too felt immensely happy at having someone less threatening than a teacher who could also assist them with their learning. In this way a shared bonding was being formed, arising out of similar situations the students found themselves in. The juniors also realized the senior students would be available even when the coaching classes ended.
3. The teacher, in addition to getting the students improve their subject marks, also did a bit of counseling after the first few months, getting the students to open up about reasons for their declining performance.
Focusing on the studies in the initial weeks and gaining the children’s trust once they started improving in the subjects they were weak in, did create a sound basis for counseling. The children now had someone who believed in them, who had helped them improve and gain respect of their peers and in the case of the students of grade six and seven, also of the juniors. The children also saw the teacher as someone who would listen to their life situations and reasons for declining performance with an open and understanding mind, together with solutions to improve their performance.
There was a fourth feature, not entirely tied up with the structure. It was to do with the duration of the coaching. As the coaching period was intended to be a long term intervention, continuing for about six to seven months out of a ten month academic period, it provided continuous inputs. The timing of the coaching class – in the afternoon when there were fewer distractions from other students playing or simply conversing outside the windows, and the duration – about an hour and half, provided a reasonable time in which to learn. Mental fatigue was not an issue for the students once they realized they were improving their academic performance. In fact, many of the students said they looked forward to the coaching classes as much or more, than their regular classes.
These observations also find an echo in literature when it comes to learning curve being determined by class size as much as the teaching style. Most importantly, a non-competitive fosters an active learning environment, which is found a coaching class. A multi grade coaching class also has multiple sources of learning – from peers, from senior as well as the coach. Such a learning environment increases the chances of a student accessing varied pathways to understanding the same subject matter. It also prompts a student in junior classes to becoming more receptive to higher levels of learning, while listening to how their seniors are being coached.
Multi grade classes also develop a sense of belongingness and camaraderie between students. It helps develop social skills on part of the seniors, minimize alienation, and increases self-awareness of students when it comes to their academic strengths and ways of controlling their own success.
At the end of the first year of coaching, the parents who had initially refused to allow their children to attend the coaching classes were asking why their children were being left out. Even more interesting was the reaction of parents of students whose performance was meeting expected standards. These parents also demanded that their children be given coaching opportunities as well.
After the third year of coaching, retention for primary school was not a critical issue, at least not for the boys. The students who were identified as poor performers were by the end of the academic year among the high scorers in Maths and English, providing evidence based data that coaching is effective, and that a small class size is highly conducive to accelerated learning. Improvements in Social Sciences were most challenging. One of the reasons probably relates to the content of the course, and the second to the way the content relates to their real life situation. Improvement in Nepali had a certain pattern, with slow progress initially that picked up pace by mid year and remained steady till the end. Improvements in forming letters preceded any improvement in marks. A similar pattern was also noted for Maths and for English, particularly when it came to the homework assignments. These were now being done in very neat handwriting, using rulers to underline key terms and drawing straight lines to separate different sections of the answers. Care was also taken to have sharpened pencils compared to before when poor performers also tended to have broken pencils or pencil stubs with which to write during class work or home work. Neat work was often rewarded with “Good Work” or “Excellent” from the teacher, spurring an interest for continued rewards and thus continued good performance.
Another interesting feature was related to girls who ordinarily would not have come to school for about a week when menstruating as it was difficult for them to be in school for an extended five hours, were found to have made tentative requests for opportunities to attend the hour and half coaching classes temporarily so as to catch up. This tentative request was completely unexpected. It did however, shed light on an emerging need, that of finding solutions to girls dropping out from school due to declining performance during their early adolescence which also coincides with their reaching puberty.
By the time the funding for coaching classes ended at the end of the third year, the SMC was realizing the importance of seeking funds for continuing this “best practice”. Discussions with the district education office for some funds under the provisions for “targeted group budget” – in this case, the 10% VDC budget allocation for children – had been initialized. However, there was some skepticism expressed on part of the district officials who had difficulty in envisioning effectiveness of a multi grade class. While the LDO was all for it, his transfer to another district halted the progress made in the discussions.
While this local school in Dhading formed the basis for this write up, anecdotal evidence from other parts of Nepal echoes similar outcomes from coaching. Given that there are 34, 335 schools having grades 1 – 5 and 14, 924 with lower secondary; 8,814 secondary and 3,695 higher secondary, there is ample scope for replicating and scaling up the benefits of coaching that will go a long way in enabling students from primary grades to excel and develop a passion for continuous learning.