Teaching Children Regardless of Grade


“This methodology addresses the last child in the classroom, even the last child who is a disruptive child, who is a slow learner, who is a regular absentee,” explained Rama Anumula, an educator who created the approach with her husband, Padmanabha Rao.In the Rishi Valley school when I visited, students in different grades were studying Telugu, the local language, side by side. At one table, a teacher helped six students, including a 5-year-old girl learning the alphabet with foam letters and a girl in fourth grade reading a song about diversity in India. At another table, a boy in first grade helped a girl learn the word for “muddy road.” Nearby, two fourth graders took turns rolling dice in a game with words they recently learned.At their school, the students work through the curriculum with hands-on activities they complete independently, as well as with teachers and peers. One decade after the approach was adopted in schools run by the Rishi Valley Rural Education Center, dropout rates were 30 percent lower than in nearby public schools, while student achievement in reading and math was up to 40 percent higher, according to the center. Now, Ms. Anumula and Mr. Rao, who lead the Rishi Valley Institute for Educational Resources, work with Unicef, nongovernmental organizations and governments to spread their pedagogy.The pair’s approach is based on the idea that traditional lecturing at children seated in rows and divided by ability or grade isn’t effective. That was their conclusion when they moved to the countryside to pursue farming after earning postgraduate degrees in English in the 1980s. In the rural area, Ms. Anumula met child laborers who had dropped out of school, yet yearned to be able to read the hefty novels she carried. Clearly, they were highly motivated. But when Ms. Anumula and Mr. Rao spoke with villagers, they heard complaints that local children couldn’t do basic math after years in school. When they visited rural public schools, they saw an unworkable system: lone teachers lecturing students across multiple grade levels in turn, plowing through textbooks even as few students understood the material.