The Learning Crisis
Students all over the globe are sitting in classrooms, day after day, but are not learning. UNESCO has dubbed this the ‘learning crisis’: 617 million young people are in school but unable to reach minimum proficiency levels in basic reading and mathematics.
Botswana is no exception. While access to education is at an all-time high, with a net enrollment of 93%, learning levels are low and stagnating. We at Young 1ove, conducted an assessment in partnership with the University of Botswana and the Ministry of Basic Education, which found that ninety percent of students could not do long division – the grade level expectation in grade 4. A fifth could not read a paragraph.
A Program That Works
In an attempt to change the status quo, we have started to pilot an approach called “Teaching at the Right Level (TaRL).” The goal is to tailor instruction to a child’s level and use fun, level-tailored activities to enable students to learn basic literacy and numeracy. This is in contrast to the typical approach in which students are taught lecture-style using over-ambitious curricula and are treated as a uniform mass, promoted automatically from one grade to the next regardless of ability.
TaRL is simple, scalable and effective. Pratham—an NGO in India—developed this learner-centered approach. Over the past 20 years, TaRL has been evaluated in multiple randomized trials across Kenya, India and Ghana in partnership with the Jameel Poverty Action Lab (J-PAL) and proven to be one of the most cost-effective ways to improve learning.
Young 1ove can attest to this first-hand. The learning environment in our pilots was electric.
Students were engaged in their own individualized frontier of learning. A student who didn’t know how to subtract with borrowing learned place value by bundling piles of ten sticks. A student who couldn’t recognize numbers, chanted from a number chart and traced numbers in the air with peers at his level. Students buzzed in small groups, making place value tables with sticks and stones - whatever material was available in the community, enabling learning to happen anywhere and everywhere. Facilitators sat on the floor side-by-side their students and on the same literal level as they learned together at the right level.
A Training Conducted ‘at the right level’
Inspired by our initial pilots and eager to learn more, we recently spent ten days with Pratham absorbed in the ‘teaching at the right level’ world at a workshop in Kenya. The workshop was hosted by the People’s Action for Learning (PAL) Network from April 14th to 23rd. We were in good company. Organizations spanning six countries (Nigeria, Kenya, Botswana, India, Mozambique, and Uganda) who are passionate about identifying gaps in learning and using those insights to drive action came together to share and learn about the Teaching at the Right Level approach.
We learned that the Teaching at the Right Level approach has a few core components: First, instructors assess students on basic numeracy and literacy skills using a simple one-page tool. Then, instructors group students by level of learning rather than age or grade. The relationship between assessment and action is symbiotic; the assessment tool is used to group and re-group students by level of learning over the course of 30 days, and simultaneously enables monitoring progress of the child’s basic literacy and numeracy level. In this way the tool can both measure impact and drive action. Finally, instructors use a suite of level-tailored, fun and interactive activities to teach basic numeracy and literacy for 30-40 days. It works when delivered by young volunteers or by teachers, during or after the school day, inside the school or under a tree.
During the workshop, we embodied the approach we were being trained on. We were put in the shoes of the students, participating in and then leading hands-on activities—tossing stones and drawing with sticks in the sand. We got our hands dirty and sat on the floor. We iterated in whole groups and small groups. We spent much of the time in the field working directly with students. We danced during ice-breakers, and learnt from one another as well as our facilitators. Every person participated and every person learned.
Taking it to the next level
We’re excited to announce that here at Young 1ove in Botswana we recently signed a four-year Memorandum of Understanding with the Government of Botswana to scale up Teaching at the Right Level nationally. We are currently demonstrating a proof of concept model in partnership with the Ministry of Basic Education and UNICEF.
The early results are promising. The percentage of students who could not do any basic operations plummeted from 26% to just 7% in just 30 days; the percentage of students who could do division jumped from 9% to 36%; and the percentage of students recognizing three or four digits increased from 77% to 97%.
The impact goes beyond the numbers. Naledi, a mother of one of the students in our pilot, shared that her son, Katlego, couldn’t do any operations before the intervention. After a few days, he started to grab the receipts out of her hand every time she went to the grocery store to show off his new subtraction with borrowing skills. He would beam with pride every time.
We were taught at the right level in Kenya. Now, it’s time to pay it forward here in Botswana and take our pilots to the next level. Our students deserve it.
 UNESCO Education For All National Review – Botswana (2015)
 Names changed for confidentiality.