Mapping Learning through Outcomes: Understanding the amendment to the RTE
The focus of education policymakers on outcomes, especially learning outcomes, is steadily rising. This is the third blog in a blog series to discuss paradigm shifts in the field of assessments in India’s public education system.
Almost a year ago, on 20 February 2017, the Right to Education Act, 2009 was amended to include a new landmark provision- learning outcomes. These aim at improving the quality of school education and increasing accountability in the teaching system. If implemented well, learning outcomes could mark a paradigm shift in India’s approach towards teaching and assessments and play an important role in the way India’s students learn in the years to come. In this blog, I discuss the idea behind the introduction of learning outcomes, progress made till now and some of the challenges involved in their implementation.
What are learning outcomes and why are they important?
As per the amendment to rule 23(2)(c) of the RTE, all states have been mandated to prepare “class wise, subject wise learning outcomes” for all elementary classes (standard I-VIII), and to develop guidelines for putting into practice evaluation mechanisms that can achieve defined outcomes. The decision came close on the heels of a meeting of the Central Advisory Board of Education (the highest advisory body on education in India) held in October 2016. States were advised to create their own framework of outcomes based on a draft document prepared by the NCERT, (which were deemed as a “minimum”) on which different state councils could build as per their specific requirements.
Learning outcomes, in the NCERT framework have been defined as “assessment standards indicating the expected level of learning that children should achieve for that class”. Simply put, learning outcomes indicate what a child should, ideally, have learnt by the time he or she moves from a grade to a higher one - or what the outcome of the year’s education should have been.
At first glance the idea may seem simple, but the notion of measuring learning outcomes and using results to drive policy decisions marks an important shift from a policy perspective. This is so because conceptually, learning outcomes are not just about testing a child for comprehension or rote memorisation linked to the syllabus (which has been the practice till now) but about testing a student’s understanding. This includes the capacity to learn, make meaning of, build upon, and apply knowledge gained inside the classroom.
The use of outcome-based evaluation has gained traction in many countries across the world in recent years, based on the idea that education must not only be seen as a process of transmitting basic competencies or knowledge to students, but as an overall, holistic development process where the teacher’s role is limited to that of a facilitator in the learning process.
Viewed in this light, the MHRD’s push to codify and mandate learning outcomes as goals for all schools (public, private and aided) across the country demonstrates a concerted effort to highlight the question of student learning.
RTE and Learning Outcomes
For many years, the RTE Act has been lauded by educationists as a progressive legislation for improving access to education in the country, universalising education as a right rather than a privilege, and focussing on students being taught in a stress-free environment. Yet the absence of uniform assessment standards to check what students had actually learnt remained an issue till now. Despite conversations around pedagogy shifting over time from ‘what teachers are teaching’ to ‘what students should be learning,’ there were few ways to measure progress on this in a uniform manner across schools. The issue of quality of education in public schools, as a consequence, was neglected.
With this amendment to the RTE, the MHRD attempts at course correction. The shift towards mapping learning outcomes is expected to provide teachers a “tool to understand what exactly the child should be learning in various classes, how to teach this through activities, and how to measure and ensure that children have reached the required level”. Learning outcomes are thus expected to act as checkpoints to assess student understanding at different intervals in a year (not only at the end of the academic session), to explicitly guide teachers to teach as per student needs, and to fix teacher accountability.
Concerns raised and way forward
Learning outcomes cannot be implemented successfully, however, without a larger change in assessment mechanisms. Currently, teaching-learning inside schools is geared largely towards syllabus completion and ensuring high pass percentage rates, which are used as markers to assess performance of teachers. Examination patterns also rely heavily on testing fact-based knowledge and retention ability rather than student understanding and ability to apply concepts.
In light of the learning outcomes, it becomes more so important to train teachers on how to prepare test papers that can carry different levels of questions to test these. In fact, the purpose of setting learning outcomes would stand defeated if test papers do not see reforms in a context where written tests are being re-prioritised.
Till now, country wide implementation of outcomes appears to have been laggard. Reservations around the execution of this idea continue - many states in the country have still to adapt to learning outcomes comprehensively because of confusion regarding what these outcomes imply, the abstract nature of the larger goals they espouse, and scepticism around how they can be, if at all, measured. It is important that such issues are resolved through extensive training and preparation for all stakeholders, and an overhaul of examination cells. Some states like Delhi for instance, have taken steps in this regard. These include conducting workshops to familiarise teachers with the reasons for introducing these outcomes, creation of model test papers and linking attainment of grade-wise outcomes with teacher performance. Such models can be adapted to the requirement of different states as well.
Learning outcomes are an opportunity to implement the RTE Act both in letter and spirit by embracing a child-centric pedagogic approach. They must not be allowed to become just another marker in a report card. By arming education providers with a thorough understanding of the current learning levels of students and their needs, they provide a useful tool to reorient the end-goal of classroom transactions. Let us hope that the process of implementing learning outcomes is successful in leading us down that road.
The next blog in this series will shed light on what the promotion of different policies such as learning outcomes represent vis a vis the simultaneous scrapping of policies like the NDP and CCE, and our take on whether these decisions are in sync with each other or represent a contradiction in the MHRD’s approach to education.