‘Post-pandemic education needs us to be open-minded and to experiment’

Education has been hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic. The Global Education Evidence Advisory Panel (GEEAP), co-hosted by the UK’s Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office (FCDO), UNICEF, and the World Bank, has prepared a comprehensive report ‘Prioritizing Learning During COVID-19’. Nobel Laureate Prof Abhijit Banerjee, the Co-Chair and one of the panel members of (GEEAP), speaks to Ayesha Kabir of Prothom Alo about the report, the losses done to education during the pandemic and the way ahead

Economist Abhijit Banerjee, winner of the 2019 Nobel Prize in Economics.

Education has been one of the hardest hit sectors during the COVID-19 pandemic. In this regard, the Global Education Evidence Advisory Panel (GEEAP), co-hosted by the UK’s Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office (FCDO), UNICEF, and the World Bank, has prepared a comprehensive report ‘Prioritizing Learning During COVID-19’. Nobel Laureate Prof Abhijit Banerjee, the Co-Chair and one of the panel members of (GEEAP), speaks to Ayesha Kabir of Prothom Alo about the report, the losses done to education during the pandemic and the way ahead.

Q :

Education has been one of the sectors hardest hit by the pandemic. The GEEAP report suggests one year of lost schooling for a Grade 3 child could mean three years' worth of learning in the long run. But in Bangladesh, schools were shut for 18 months at a stretch and then another month later. This is perhaps the longest closure of schooling globally. How would that translate into losses for the children?

I think that actually, unfortunately, it was similar in West Bengal where schools were closed from March to November and then again one month. Very similar to Bangladesh actually. And the others parts of India too, have had very long closures. So I don’t think it is that exceptional to Bangladesh.

The reason why the report says what it says, is that we have some interesting evidence from, for example, the earthquake in Pakistan. The reason why that earthquake was important was that it created a relatively temporary break in schooling. If you look at the impact of that, you will see it was much more, much bigger than it should have been. The reason why that happened is that the school system does not seem to notice that this has happened. It acts as if you are in Class 3 and have not been in school for 18 months. You should be in Class 4 now and so they treat you as if you are in the end of Class 4 rather than somebody who has basically not had any education in that time. That means you don’t adjust the pedagogy to where the child is. This idea is also in the report, about teaching at the right level.

The idea is that kids are heterogeneous even within classrooms. But teaching is targeted at the grade level rather than targeted to the child. When you do that, the children who have dropped out of school for one year or 18 months, you are pretending they have not had a major break. Then what you do is you teach them material that they have no access to.

I am not sure of the data for Bangladesh, but the data in India and Pakistan are similar. Many of them are not at the grade level. The kids in Class 3 are actually in Class 1. Nonetheless, you assume they are. These kids were already struggling. Now you teach them a Class 5 text or an end of Class 4 text. That is entirely further way from where they are. So the child feels this is nothing to do with what I can do, it is entirely irrelevant to me. I am not going to learn anything from this. They will give up, the teachers will give up because they find it impossible to communicate this material with the children. As a result, the children will fall much further behind.

The key is to focus on where the kids are and be realistic about it. Start by testing them, make sure you know where they are and start the pedagogy with the assumption that they are not where they are assumed to be. This is especially so with the disadvantaged children. The ones with educated parents, and who have access to classes online, maybe they are still okay, but not for the children from the less privileged background. Some were already in Class 1 or 2 level, maybe Class 3. Now they have fallen behind if anything. But we are pretending they are a year and a half older. They are a year and a half older, but they did not get much of an education in this period. So that means you really need to figure out, is the child in Class 1 level, 2 level, 3 level or 4 level and start teaching they are based on that. That is not a radical idea but an idea that requires systemic participation.

The syllabus needs to be adjusted, you need to somehow send the message through to the teaching community that it is their responsibility for the child to be able to participate in the class and not teach the syllabus. In our experience that has not been done.

Q :

Such measures would entail a whole lot of things – policy, teachers’ training, government action and so on. Does the GEEAP report have specific pointers or guidelines in this regard? How could all this be implemented?

It has the general idea of what I have been saying. About Bangladesh, I can say from our experience of working on these kinds of things in India for 20 years now, what really matters is how it is implemented. The teachers by themselves are not going to necessarily step out of the system. The message needs to come from top down. They need to be trained.

One thing is that it is not actually that hard to test kids. The NGO Pratham in India has these tests which they use and which do a pretty reliable job of diagnosing which kids are really not in grade level. It takes 5 or 10 minutes. In 10 minutes you can tell if a child can only read haltingly or can only recognise letters. And then you don’t assume he is in Class 5. You assume he is in Class 1.

The second thing what makes me optimistic (if the government is going to put its weight behind it) is that older children learn faster. It turns out that a fifth grade student who is not at that grade level, but is given instruction and help, will catch up faster than a second grader who has a gap. The fifth grader has the maturity to learn quite fast. It is matter of focusing on that and implementing it.

We did a study in UP India where we find that 50 days of focused teaching for a half a day does more than a year of catching up. So it is not impossible to do it. It just needs the commitment to do it. Right now, suspend the syllabus. We don’t care about learning geography or about China or whatever. We need to learn how to read, we need math, we need fluency and then we pick up from there, focusing attention on a specific set of instructions which are set down not ambiguously, but unambiguously to the teachers, saying that is your job now. I think that is achievable.

Q :

Online classes were an alternative, but naturally in a country like Bangladesh only a privileged percentage could avail that during the pandemic, thus accentuating the already existing inequities in education. Can we take away any lessons from this pandemic period where we can address these inequities? The rich-poor divide in education only serves to widen the divide in society as a whole. Can education, if fixed, make a tangible difference?

All the evidence is that it can make a difference. People estimated that the impact of a year of an additional education is 7 or 10 per cent. That means your lifetime earnings every year is higher by 7 per cent or 10 per cent. This is an enormous number and means an additional year of actually delivered education. The problem is that in the education system, the teachers pretend to deliver, the students pretend to learn, but it doesn’t actually happen.

We learned many lessons from the pandemic. One thing is about some version of online education supplement of what is taught in school has the potential of being egalitarian. This is quite an old idea. There was radio teaching in Nicaragua in the late 70s in math. There was an impact evaluation of that by the World Bank that showed there were major gains in learning just from exposure to the radio. It doesn’t have to be hi-tech. It can be radio, it can be text messages.

Most people in Bangladesh have phones, not smartphones, but they can get text messages. Radio is easily available, very cheap technology. Using radio, using TV, using all the other things – text messages, whatever you can. It doesn’t have to be smartphones or laptops or tablets. The evidence of tablets is more mixed that you would imagine. There are evaluations -- one laptop per child, they don’t find that much. I don’t think one should make assumptions. We should be open-minded about what technology means. It doesn’t have to mean laptops. It could be radio.

During the pandemic, some of the countries, Cote d’Ivoire and many countries in West Africa produced 250 different lessons on radio. They focused on radio. There is diversity of experiments and you should try to figure out what is feasible, what can reach the largest number of people. Those are useful supplements. When they come home from school, they can still learn from a radio. Those are useful they can be learned from radio or TV. This is much more likely to reach a lot of people because a lot of families have them.

I think maybe the one lesson I would take away from the pandemic is that there is actually scope for doing many things, not using just the conventional education system with school being the centre. School is important partly for socialisation. It’s very important for kids to be with other kids, education is important and all of those things. But for children falling behind, could there be radio classes, could there be TV classes and would this actually help them catch up? Could there be text messages with little puzzles in them coming to their parents or their elder brother or someone? All of these things might work. One of the things we insist in this report is that we need to be open-minded and to experiment and evaluate the experiments and not start with the premise that it has to be this technology or that way of doing things. It is neither -- let’s do everything one way or only traditional schooling. Rather we should be experimental.

Q :

The extended school closure has affected the girl child in Bangladesh. School closure, economic hardships and the prevailing uncertainties have increased child marriage rates manifold. Can you share your thoughts on education for the girl child, something of which Bangladesh had been so proud given the high enrollment rates?

I guess at this point I am mostly saying that reopening schools and making them attractive are the questions to be addressed. Take the children who have already got married and try to bring them back to the school. We should not give up on them. It would be criminal to give up on them. So priority has to be given to persuading the community to act and bring them back to school. If you are now 14 and you have not been in school since you were 12, and you feel like you have lost all connection to it, it’s going to take some effort to convince you that school is going to be rewarding for you. So part of what I was saying before, is making education at the level of the child. That also addresses this issue. You can be a 14-year-old, you stopped learning at 12 and now let’s say you got married and just have no connection to the education system for two years. At this point, what would it take to make education actually accessible to you? It is not that you can just switch back to where you were. Something else has to be done, whatever that this.

Q :

So can you help us see some light at the end of the tunnel in this rather bleak situation?

I think there is light. I can’t give it to you, but if there is commitment, there is light. The commitment has to come from the policy makers.

Q :

Thank you Prof Banerjee.

Thank you. It was my pleasure.

*The Bangla version of this interview will appear in the Prothom Alo print edition on Sunday.