Universalisation of Primary Math in India

Nobody is urging today that since many children are failing in the educational system therefore education should be made optional. However, it is being argued very seriously, by some, that since so many children are failing in mathematics at the High school, math should be made an optional subject at the high school level.

Let us look at the consequences of such a decision, if it is allowed to happen. Today lakhs of children every year quit math because they fail the exam. If math is made optional, an even larger number will not learn math year after year, because they were never taught it in the first place. The result is the same. Lakhs of school children, mainly from the poor, backward classes will be systematically denied access to mathematical knowledge and skills.

Nobody argues that education itself should be made optional, because it is commonly accepted that education is necessary. What about math ? Is it so unnecessary that it can be made optional ?

In today’s world, denial of access to good math skills is laying the foundation of exclusion from the world of science. Everyone knows that mathematics is the language of modern science. It is not only the language of the physical, chemical and engineering sciences. It is also necessary for the life sciences like agriculture, medicine, pharmacy and biology, because all these sciences are increasingly being based on an understanding of the structure of matter. A student who is not comfortable with mathematics will always feel handicapped in the world of modern science.

What needs to be pointed out additionally is that a child who is not comfortable in math, will also feel handicapped in the world of modern commerce, banking, administration , management etc. In fact, any position of responsibility today generally requires good quantitative skills, which are the basis of rational decision making. Without mathematical skills and understanding, a young citizen is being prepared to accept second class citizenship in a life of subordination

“But doesn’t mathematics require special talent and aptitude, which everyone does not have?”, it is often asked. Becoming a mathematician like Ramanujam obviously requires special abilities. But it does not require any special abilities to learn and be comfortable with high school math skills. Let us argue this point more closely.
Many children who attend Mumbai’s municipal schools learn to speak and understand three languages before they start school. They ‘pick up’ these language skills ‘naturally’ from their home and surrounding environment, playing with family, neighbours and friends. These same children then fail math in school. Clearly, the problem is not with their mental abilities. The problem lies with the teaching and learning process in the schools.

Is it possible to have a teaching/learning process in school so that every average child does well ? This is possible in mathematics. The government defines ‘universalisation’ as 85×85 – 85 percent of the children in the class must achieve proficiency in 85 % of the competencies for that class. This, and better, has been achieved repeatedly in many experiments in many classes of many schools, both urban and rural, both private and government schools. What is possible in a hundred classes is also possible in a hundred thousand.

Since mathematics is a highly structured and logical subject, universalization of high school math will not be possible unless we can achieve at universalization of math at the primary school . Why is it possible to universalize primary school math ? Unlike other subjects, rote memorization is not needed to learn math. It can be taught and learned by understanding. Teaching and learning math by understanding is the road to math universalization. A child who has understood math will be comfortable with and do well in math. Is it possible to teach all primary math to all children in the class exclusively by understanding? How can this be done ?

The key to this problem is contained in the well known Chinese proverb : “I hear, I forget. I see, I remember. I do, I understand.” Today, most school math education is at the first level. Children hear the lecture , mug up the tables by rote, and forget. Even the so called ‘good schools’ are often only at level two : teachers do demonstrations, children see and remember. Doing the demo, the teacher may understand the concept, but that understanding may not reach the mind of the student. But if every child can do the experiment/activities herself in the classroom, then every child can learn by understanding.

Mathematics has many languages, and the alphanumeric language of numerals and symbols, of pencil and paper is only one of these. There is also the language of things, of actions, of shapes and sizes and patterns which can be made with things and actions, the language of sounds and of pictures. The language of things and actions is the natural language in which children can best and most easily understand math concepts. Once achieved, this conceptual understanding can then be translated into the language of written symbols and numerals. This two step process of learning by doing and then translating this understanding into alphanumeric language has been developed into a comprehensive and practical classroom system , ‘sakriya janganit’, which is being successfully implemented in classes one to four ,with upto 60 students. It requires 150 hours of classroom instruction each year, which is normally available in every class in every school.

Taking the entire primary school system to level three of the Chinese proverb is the necessary and sufficient condition for achieving universalization of primary school math. This can be done in existing circumstances, without any change in the primary math syllabus. It can be implemented within the existing budgetary provisions of the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan.

It should be possible to take most primary schools in every district of the state of Maharashtra to the level which defines math universalization within the span of four to five years in a systematic and rigorous plan of implementation. What is needed to make this happen ? Systematic training of the teachers will of course be necessary. But it will not be enough. Experience has shown that training by itself does not ensure rigorous implementation. Regular classroom monitoring, teacher facilitation, and evaluation of the children’s understanding is essential for achieving proper implementation. The block, district and state resource centers can be given the responsibility to perform this necessary function. In mathematics it is possible to evaluate very reliably and accurately what the students understand and don’t understand. It is our opinion that the current methods of gunwatta chachni would need some modification and improvement for it to become a useful tool for both teachers as well as the education departments to gauge progress towards the goal of universalization.

What needs to be emphasized is that while teachers must be held accountable for the results of their students, this is not enough to ensure universalization. Accountability must be there at all levels. School, cluster, block, district and state achievement levels should be monitored regularly and rigorously. This data should be made available in a fully transparent manner to parents, voters and other stake holders.The education departments and officers at all levels from top to bottom should be held accountable for achieving improvements, as much as the teachers are today. The non government organizations working in this area as well as the corporate houses who work in the field of education as part of their corporate social responsibility must also be held fully accountable for their inputs. It must be very clearly realized by all concerned that nobody is doing the children of this country a favour today when they work for providing them with a high quality education. What is a constitutional right of the young Indian citizen cannot be compromised in any manner by lowering standards.

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