ET | Conquer Mt Self Learning

Jul 03, 2023


When we look back at the 2020s, will we be able to conclude that this was the decade in which India completed its long journey to ensure universal foundational literacy and numeracy? Can we promise this to the 250 million children, many of whom are still waiting to join the rest on the journey of self-learning?

If at any time this was going to be achievable, it is now. The next three years are critical. And many windows of opportunity have opened up together to make this happen.

Successive governments have made progress on the road with programs like GoI’s Sarva Shiksha Abhiyaan (SSA) and Karnataka’s activity-based learning programme Nali Kali. These have culminated in the New Education Policy (NEP), launched in 2020 to create a new pedagogic and curricular structure of 5+3+3+4, the first stage being the foundational stage covering children in the ages of 3 to 8 years. For this most important age group, there is  the National Initiative for Proficiency in Reading with Understanding and Numeracy (NIPUN Bharat), launched in July 2021during the pandemic, amid fears of severe learning loss during one of the longest periods of school closure in the world.

Luckily, the fears were somewhat belied. Children have recouped sooner than predicted, thanks to organized efforts. The National Curriculum Framework for Foundational Stage (NCFFS) was released in October 2022, in both physical and digital formats, creating a searchable document that helps demystify foundational learning.

NIPUN Bharat has set out clear and concise learning goals and outcomes. This has galvanised several state governments to put in much needed resources for relevant teaching-learning material, teacher training and most importantly, a more structured inclusion of parents. This must be celebrated and convert to a broadly embraced societal mission for the country.

Along with sarkaar, the bazaar too has stepped up in a big way to boost access to educational tools. Edtech companies and content platforms have created multiple offerings to teachers and learners, with content, accreditation, testing tools and more. The 600 million plus smart phones and access to digital technologies have created unprecedented opportunities. A new imagination has been unleashed. Market forces have internalised the reality that India’s ambitions for its economic development need a functional workforce, standing on a solid foundation of the ability to learn and adapt to changing needs.

Over decades, hundreds of civil society organisations (CSOs)across India have also worked tirelessly with communities and the school system to understand what children are learning, what the gaps are and then to experiment with filling them.

NGOs like Pratham have, for 28 years, provided evidence-based tools for teaching and learning at the foundational stage when there was little attention paid to this issue. Through the Annual Status of Education Report (ASER), they have, since 2005, kept our collective attention on the crisis in early learning. The Azim Premji Foundation (APF) has through its relentless support of  the public education system enhanced teacher capability and the development of communities of practice around learning outcomes. The Central Square Foundation (CSF) has long nurtured an ecosystem for the foundational stage, and has pioneered programmatic support for various states across the country. 

EkStep Foundation has created open, digital public goods to enable a national digital infrastructure for learning. GoI’s Diksha platform has used this technology to create billions of learning sessions on its platform.

Together, samaaj, sarkaar and bazaar  are now in the best place we could possibly be. There is more difficult hiking ahead. But you can see the summit clearly. As India’s population growth stabilises, the number of new children entering the learning universe will continuously go down from the current 25 million a year. And if society takes up this challenge seriously –  as a joyful responsibility – it is very doable.

Think about this. With parents and grandparents included, these 25 million children already have about 100 million caring adults totally vested in their success. Plus, this is the first fully literate cohort of parents in India, who have all completed at least a few years of schooling and want even more for their children. We have to find new ways to include them, along with the whole education system, from anganwadi workers to school principals, education secretaries and ministers, to achieve our societal goal.

We must innovate and incorporate play as a serious method for young children to learn naturally. This time, we must learn to do this by ensuring inclusion and diversity, and by making foundational learning sustainable and irreversible. We can use digital goods and services to generate relevant data for quick course correction.

It is early days, but AI tools can also help us leapfrog over some legacy obstacles, and create a unified but not uniform response, especially when it comes to local languages in which children learn best. If we do all this, we will have a generation of confident, eager young learners, able to enhance their own well-being and therefore immeasurably add to the prosperity of our beloved nation.. Together, let’s celebrate the children of India. Let’s celebrate childhood itself. Bachpan manao, badhte jao.