Why aren’t students in Asia getting the education they need?
Local decision makers, civil society, teachers, and parents need to be engaged with and driving reforms if teaching is going to shift sufficiently to tackle Asia’s learning crisis.
Even before COVID-19, the world was facing a learning crisis with vast swathes of the world’s children not even learning to read and the fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic will inevitably make this situation worse. While school attendance has increased worldwide in recent years, hundreds of millions of children are attending school without achieving even basic learning outcomes.
Why aren’t these children getting the education they need and what can countries in Asia and the Pacific do to improve their prospects? Our analysis of teaching practice research reveals crucial lessons for consideration moving forward.
The most striking finding is that teaching is poor quality in large parts of the region. Some economies in the region have very low levels of learning; in at least six Asian countries, more than half of children are not even achieving basic literacy and numeracy by the end of primary school. It is widely accepted that poor teaching quality is a major reason for these low learning outcomes.
In low- and middle-income economies the predominant teaching approaches are didactic lectures and whole-class repetition with few attempts to check whether students are learning. In some countries, even the teachers have low levels of literacy and/or mathematics, making it almost impossible for them to support student learning.
To address this, basic education programs in countries such as India, Sri Lanka and the Lao People’s Democratic Republic are working to focus on the improvement of teaching practice. However, we need to be aware that many previous efforts to shift teaching practice have been unsuccessful.
Our recent paper highlights a number of cases where teachers underwent training to implement more ‘learner-centered’ teaching and expressed commitment to the principles they had been taught but, in practice, displayed no signs of interactive teaching in the classroom.
This suggests that some interventions are more successful in transmitting the ideology of learner-centered teaching than in actually changing practices in the classroom. We need to acknowledge that many current approaches are failing before we can shift to better ones.
One hopeful case study compared teaching practice in areas of the People’s Republic of China where a new curriculum had been rolled out to those areas still to receive the update. Teachers in the reform areas performed significantly better on building higher order thinking and relied less on rote learning.
While our paper highlighted that a great deal of teaching practice is unambiguously poor quality, the question of exactly what high-quality teaching looks like is less clear-cut. It is a more complex equation than: learner-centered equals good or teacher-centered equals bad. In fact, among economies achieving high learning outcomes, there are some using more teacher-centered and some using more learner-centered approaches. Similarly, you can have both effective and ineffective learner-centered approaches.
The appropriate mix between teacher-centered and learner-centered approaches depends on many factors - some generalized and some context-specific. If we take the case of early years’ teaching, we know that young children need to develop basic socio-emotional skills (for example to allow them to regulate their behavior in a classroom) and it appears play-based learning is a particularly effective way to achieve this.
We suggest that rather than pushing a specific type of teaching,
development partners could aim for effective
and context-appropriate teaching.
In addition, for development of foundational literacy and numeracy, repetition and practice are needed and therefore pupils also benefit from some (high-quality) teaching that may be seen as more ‘teacher-centered’. Therefore, the best approach will include a mixture of more learner-centered and more teacher-centered approaches.
However, the precise nature of this mix will also be influenced by context-specific factors, including cultural values and learning objectives. Decision makers may explicitly use education to push against a cultural norm in order to achieve a learning objective – for example, some Asian economies have attempted to use education to increase ‘failure tolerance’ in order to improve innovative capacity.
However, in other cases, cultural norms that educational planners wish to maintain will influence pedagogy. For example, in contexts with very hierarchical decision-making styles, approaches where students play a role in planning the curriculum may not be well-accepted.
Development partners have often supported the blanket aim of making teaching ‘learner-centered’ and we found many examples of externally driven teaching reform efforts that failed because the implementation was poor quality and/or because local populations were never ‘bought-in’ to the change.
We suggest that rather than pushing a specific type of teaching, development partners could aim for effective and context-appropriate teaching. Of course, it is often very useful to learn from external evidence. And we know from the evidence that effective approaches will likely include a mix of more learner-centered and more teacher-centered elements.
The bottom line is that it takes a village to educate a child and there is a need for local decision makers, civil society, teachers, and parents to be engaged with and driving reforms if teaching is going to shift sufficiently to tackle the learning crisis.