ONE hundred and seventy-odd children, four teachers, and two old and dingy rooms. We visited a government boy’s primary school in a village just outside Sargodha. The two rooms had been built quite some time back and were not really fit for classes. Most of the classes were held in the open with children sitting on the ground. The weather was pleasant at the time, but what must children go through in the summer or the height of winter?
Most children clearly came from very poor households: many did not have uniforms, proper clothing or even shoes. I could not spot a single overweight kid among the150-odd children that I could see — you would expect some in any sample of children. In fact, most of the kids were very thin, some looked emaciated and many appeared to have an unhealthy hair and skin tone. Some were clearly malnourished and stunted. Quite a few must have come to school without having had their breakfast.
But there was a silver lining. Even in these trying circumstances the four teachers were doing their best to educate these children. The system could help them more and the results could get even better.
Any group of children would have a certain diversity of abilities among them: some would be quick learners, others would take longer, some would be more coordinated than others, some would have a better memory, some would be good at physical activities, and so on. Teachers have to be not only aware of this, they have to make sure all children learn despite the diversity and, more importantly, they have to ensure that the diversity works to the advantage of the class they teach.
The coping mechanisms teachers offer in class cannot level the playing field for all students.
The diversity in children is not confined to ability differentials only. Household and community circumstances and differences also add to the diversity that children bring to classes and schools. Wealth and income level, level of parental education, gender of the child and occupation of the parents make a difference in shaping and determining what a child brings to class. A class in a rural area is likely to be quite different, in at least the background knowledge and preoccupations of children, than one in an urban area.
Household characteristics impact child ability issues at a deeper level too. If a child was not provided enough nutrition in the early years of her life, her mental or physical development might have been hampered by that deprivation. If a child is coming hungry to school, she is not likely to learn a lot in class. And our national level surveys are pointing out alarmingly high numbers for child malnutrition, even stunting.
Teachers have a responsibility to ensure all children in their class learn, and learn to the best of every child’s potential. But the job gets a lot harder if children are coming hungry to classes and/or are coming from more marginalised backgrounds.
One of our ongoing research projects is looking at the various forms of marginalisation that children encounter. Poverty, gender, geographic location and child health (including disability) are important in this regard. We are also looking at ways in which children, their families and teachers can cope with these challenges.
We find that teachers are not only aware of these challenges and issues of diversity, they, despite the constrained circumstances they work in, have some coping mechanisms for dealing with these issues. Teachers, on average, know the students who need extra help with their school work: in some schools we found that teachers had identified ‘slow learners’ in every class so that they could be singled out for extra attention. Giving extra time and/or attention to students who need help is the most common coping strategy. In some cases we found teachers experimenting with peer group mechanisms to ensure help for children with more challenges: classmates helping classmates through in-class interaction.
But, all these practices are happening at an individual teacher or school level. Student diversity is, as of now, not acknowledged as a concern by the education department and/or teacher-training department. Student diversity is a fact and we also know that given the economic and social circumstances of most Pakistanis, a large number of our children, especially in public schools, will come from marginalised backgrounds. We need to purposefully and explicitly train our teachers to deal with the needs of marginalised children.
Furthermore, teachers can only do so much to manage some issues of marginalisation. The coping mechanisms they offer in class or in school cannot level the playing field for all, nor can they address all concerns stemming from marginalisation issues.
Teachers cannot provide food to hungry children, and they cannot give uniforms and school supplies to children out of their pockets. Teachers cannot undo what malnutrition and deprivation in early childhood might have done to some of our children. For this, the government needs to step in with options like school-feeding programmes, cash-transfer programmes for poor families, nutrition programmes for young women of childbearing age, and early childhood programmes. If these are not offered, teacher efforts at ensuring that all children can learn, and explore their potential, will always be stymied.
Do we want all of our children to learn? Do we want education to level the playing field for all, give opportunities to all and allow each child to develop to his/her full potential? If so, a ‘same size fits all’ approach to managing classes and education will not do.
Children come from diverse backgrounds and bring a diversity of abilities to classes. This is especially the case for children coming from marginalised backgrounds. They need a lot more support and attention. Given the large number of children coming from such backgrounds, especially in government schools, the imperative to focus on both in-school and out-of-school interventions cannot be overemphasised.
The writer is a senior research fellow at the Institute of Development and Economic Alternatives and an associate professor of economics at Lums, Lahore.
Published in Dawn, December 2nd, 2016