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Pratham: a movement, born in India, spreading in Botswana and beyond

by Noam Angrist, Moitshepi Matsheng, Thato Letsomo, and Sunshine Ntshambiwa, leaders of Young 1ove, one of the largest youth NGOs in Botswana. Young 1ove is committed to scaling-up health and education programs backed by rigorous evidence.

The first time we saw Pratham in action was in Zambia in June 2016. We were attending one of the first trainings Pratham had ever conducted in Africa. Usha Rane and Meera Tendolkar were the head trainers, both long-time Pratham leaders, and sisters, whose motherly affection captured the room instantly. The room was cramped, filled with dozens of government officials committed to improving basic literacy and numeracy skills for their students.

Pratham was training on Teaching at the Right Level (TaRL). TaRL is an approach to teach basic literacy and numeracy through fun activities targeted to the level of each child. For example, reading a word or doing 2-digit addition, rather than teaching to a uniform grade-level curriculum. The program has been evaluated for over 15 years by the Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab (J-PAL) at MIT and shown to be one of the most cost-effective ways to improve learning.

Thato Letsomo, our training manager, and Noam Angrist, our co-founder, left the training with over 20 activities buzzing in their heads, a bit unsure on where to start, but inspired to do something.

So, we did.

We conducted an assessment, a census in two regions, to see if the program was needed in Botswana. The findings showed a pressing need: 90 percent of students could not do 2-digit division in grade 5, and 40 percent could not read a simple story.

With a clear need identified and motivated to act, we partnered with the Ministry of Basic Education and UNICEF. In the last few years, we have reached 10% of primary schools in Botswana.

The results have been striking: In the most recent term, almost 70% of students learned to do division just 30 days into the program.

Since the first initial trip to Zambia, Pratham has twice visited Botswana to support our scale-up effort with the government. We have also partnered with Pratham and J-PAL to be an innovation hub for an Africa-wide scale-up effort supported by Co-Impact. But we had not been to India.

In November 2019, supported by the People’s Action for Learning network, we jumped at the opportunity to see Pratham on their home turf where Teaching at the Right Level was born and developed over decades.

We weren’t sure exactly what we were going to learn — we had already been trained, supported, had been in the implementation trenches for three years and seen strong results — but we knew we would learn something.

The trip started with a flight from Nepal where we had attended the People’s Action for Learning network conference. Rukmini Banerji, Pratham’s CEO, Wilima Wadhwa, the Director of the ASER Center, the sister organization of Pratham that conducts large-scale learning assessments across India, Thato and Noam flew to Delhi together.

After a brief flight delay — which we took advantage of to hop out of the airport and eat a delicious lunch in Kathmandu — we arrived in Delhi, where our colleagues Moitshepi Matsheng, Young 1ove’s co-founder and the chair of the Botswana government’s National Youth Council, and Sunshine Ntshambiwa, a Young 1ove training guru, met up for an action-packed 10-day trip.

A warm welcome

We met with Sarvendra Vikram Singh, a senior government official in the department of education in Uttar Pradesh. He had recently overseen a rollout of Teaching at the Right Level to over 8 million children in hundreds of thousands of schools. He was so invested that he had sent direct messages to teachers implementing the program to show he was paying attention and cared.

The program was now slowing down, due to reforms being rolled out, but Pratham and the Uttar Pradesh government had seized the opportunity to massively scale-up and countless lives had been changed for the better.

When we shared that Botswana had 750 primary schools in total, he looked at us with a smile, and asked, ‘Why are you not already in all of them?’

We spent time in schools in urban areas in Lucknow and the rural villages of Uttar Pradesh, followed by more field visits in Nagpur. Students sat in circles on the floor, alongside friendly instructors, including teachers and young volunteers. Each student’s eyes were wide and fingers pointed along to number and word problems scribbled all across the room.

Noam joins students ‘at the right level’

Seeing teaching at the right level where it was born, with nearly every child hyper-engaged in the learning progress, made it look easy. But having just started to rollout teaching at the right level in Botswana, we could appreciate just how hard it must have been to have achieve such a seismic shift from the status quo in the education system.

In Botswana, when we asked students to sit on the floor, we had to send letters home to each and every parent to ensure students packed extra clothes to change out of their uniforms.

In order to convince instructors to sit on the floor with students and let the child speak more than the teacher, we had to convince them first to practice delivering the program, to appreciate the magic of doing things differently.

We had to get large-scale community buy-in to eliminate corporal punishment so students were not fearful of being wrong and were comfortable revealing when they didn’t understand a concept – after all, you can only teach at the right level if you know the right level.

Once corporal punishment vanished, the students were free, but little learning was taking place as the students treated the classroom like an indoor playground. So we introduced positive behavioral management strategies, such as call and responses and instructional song and dance, to combine learning and fun.

We even tried some tricks of the trade in India. While it was hard to make all of these things happen, once we did, it worked. And that was the most remarkable thing of all – worlds and cultures apart, our students in Botswana and the students in India were similar: With a dose of targeted, playful, instruction, their eyes lit up as they relished the opportunity to receive a quality education.

In schools in Nagpur, we were accompanied by Usha who introduced us to the district commissioner, school management, and joined us in the classroom.

In the middle of a riveting TaRL session, Usha noticed one of the math problems was too hard. She immediately sent a Whatsapp message to headquarters. That’s Pratham –– even the most senior leaders are deeply connected to the day-to-day learning process.

We are obsessed with helping kids learn ever better, unsatisfied with their already research-backed, Nobel-worthy, world-class results.

In each city and village we visited, we had the opportunity to meet staff who had been with Pratham for decades. They beamed with pride as they shared their Pratham journey. Somraj Giradkar, state head in Maharashtra, has been with Pratham for over 16 years, starting as a volunteer, then leading a district, a division and being promoted to state head in 2012.

Sunshine, Thato, Tshepi, Sam and Usha appreciate learning materials in the school

Every organization is an amalgamation of its people, and the Pratham team members we met were leaders of practice in every sense of the word — expert, inspiring, and committed.

We also met Shobini Mukerji, Executive Director of J-PAL South Asia, and her team, including Harini Kannan and Meghna Pradhan. Shobini and Harini had been directly involved in multiple Teaching at the Right Level randomized trials.

We got their take, including the breakthrough trial where the government education system delivered the intervention at scale with strong learning outcomes. Key features included government leaders conducting practice classes directly and dedicated coaching support.

The symbiotic relationship between J-PAL and Pratham, and thus between research and large-scale action, was palpable. Shobini herself had worked at Pratham before leading the J-PAL South Asia office.

Thato, Noam and Devyani join the  ECD program

In addition to seeing Teaching at the Right Level in action, we saw many other Pratham programs. Devyani Pershad, head of International Collaborations, showed us Pratham’s newest PraDigi platform for digital self-teaching in remote areas using tablets, and their early childhood development (ECD) programs delivered in government Anganwadi centers.

While each program was unique, there were striking similarities. The ECD program has an assessment tool to enable targeted instruction and closely track results on a continual basis. Pratham facilitators worked hand-in-hand with government leaders in a public-private model that married innovation with scale.

Beyond the work, we enjoyed food and reflections with the Pratham leadership team. Over lunch with Samyukta Lakshman and Manushi Yadav, we reflected on India’s history and explored ancient forts. Rukmini gifted us kurtas, which we duly wore to a laugh-filled dinner at Devyani’s home. Usha dashed to the market one evening after a packed day of meetings with senior government officials and school visits to ensure we had stylish scarves. We enjoyed delicious dal over dinner with Rukmini and Madhav Chavan, co-founder of Pratham. A few days later, once the lentils had digested, Madhav pushed us: Why not scale faster?

Our greatest takeaway from the trip ties directly to that question. We saw with our own eyes Pratham’s vast reach, and an organizational DNA that had cultivated scalability.

Pratham is committed for the long haul and develops leaders of practice from within over decades. Pratham has seized and adapted to opportunities rather than followed a linear, staged path, in the form of state government rollouts to millions when the time was ripe, and ambassadors who set up Pratham chapters almost entirely on their own accord.

Devyani, Rukmini, Manushi, Thato, Samyukta, Sunshine and Noam

Sunshine, Noam, Madhav, Thato & Moitshepi

In a sense, this approach is consistent with the philosophy of Teaching at the Right Level – rather than follow a curriculum, better to adapt to each and every situation and seize the moment.

Rather than carbon copy a standardized package, Pratham’s leaders spread seeds with a common fiber, observe where they start to sprout, and water the soil until the flowers bloom.

Our biggest takeaways from our trip to India weren’t programmatic; they were organizational. We saw how Pratham is, in the truest sense, a family, bursting with passion, hearty debate, and a life-long commitment, in schools and at the dinner table.

Second, Pratham — one of the largest education organizations in India — is in fact not an organization, it’s a movement. We’re excited to have joined it.

Now, it’s time we reach all schools in Botswana, and beyond.

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