The problem of scale (Part II)

Systems & Scale

Way back in 2009, with 2 centers, it was easy to deliver on our promise of personalized learning for every child. However, as we started to grow (and grow exponentially), we urgently needed effective systems to deal with both center operations and academics. Some of the questions we were being faced with every day were – How can we train 400 leaders (not teachers) to deliver personalized learning every day to every child? How do we get our own people to internalize the concept of personalized learning? How do we shift  teacher role from content disseminator to mentor? How do we track and monitor the growth of Aditi-aged 3- in Thane? How do we know if our dream is working?

It wasn’t enough to go down the well worn path of training the teacher any more. We needed to institutionalize personalization, whether through curriculum or through infrastructure! And it was no easy task.

Since our basic aim was to change education from standardized to personalized our Minimum Viable Product needed to have these features:

1.    Look at the development of each child holistically

2. Find a way to record the progress of each individual child

3. Find a way to make those records actionable for the teachers

4. Speak a common language between all stakeholders – parents and teachers to act together in the best interests of each child

We christened our MVP “Development Diary”. We chose the name because we wanted to communicate that it was nothing like a report card of old. The name, we thought, ought to indicate that it was a rethink of the very purpose of assessments – from judgements to a tool to help each child move forward.

Our diary is essentially a simple structure divided up into four key skill areas (Linguistic, Socio-Emotional, Cognitive and Physical). Each area is further broken up into fundamental objectives  (e.g. book familiarity, which is a linguistic skill). The levels of proficiency for each objective are very tightly defined and is backed up with an Action Plan. Now suddenly we have a system which makes the teacher part scientist.  Every single activity that the child does is compiled in this diary as evidence of development (categorized into its appropriate skill bucket) along with the teacher’s observations against each objective. So the teacher can’t just pass any judgement she wants, but is trained to collect evidence for her observations. She is also forced to break the yoke of traditional teaching and really pay attention to the development of each child . For example, last month, Aditi was observed on the linguistic objective of ‘Recognising Name’. Currently Aditi is at level 3 -which means she recognises her name often but not always. Her action plan says that labelling the objects that she owns (with her name) will gradually help her improve in this metric until she can recognise her name – always, and without fail. Voila! Aditi’s teacher (and parents) now knows her path of development down to the smallest details, and she has an easy way to record it instantly. Our teachers have suddenly become observers, mentors, and facilitators of development, rather than disseminators of information.

Given the techtonic shift in the process of teaching that this diary required, to our own astonishment, the initiative took off like a shot! Teachers and parents both loved the diary.The diary gave them a structure for this new form of learning, and it really put their child at the center of the learning experience. It celebrates what is unique about their child.

After the launch, we kept our ears close to the ground to see what we could improve to drive adoption. We also are keeping an eye on the future and want it to integrate with our other systems soon.

We realized early on that the diary needed to be more teacher-centric to increase adoption. We had initially built a recording system that was too intricate. It became repetitive for teachers and took up a lot of their non-teaching time. We’ve, since then, moved the complexity away from their end to ours- with more precise definitions, action plans and  rituals  (e.g. observe 5 kids in detail a day)  so it’s no longer an overwhelming task. .Simplicity was even more important for parents. The addition of graphics, icons and colour codes helped the final output so much that now our parent can, at a glance, figure out the child’s pace, abilities and skill development levels.

The development diary works admirably at each school to change teacher behavior, to convert parents into partners and bring back the focus on the development of each child. But to harness its full potential we need to aggregate the vast amounts of learning data each diary holds. At the aggregate level this data could help influence everything, from curriculum development to business strategy ( like center level understanding of child development, the impact of staff to child ratios on academic development, adaptation of curriculums for different regions etc.).

In the end, we’ve also realized that systems  and culture need to go hand in hand. Each reinforces the other. We would not be able to change the way this country learns until we redefine teaching, but that will not scale unless we have systems like the Development Diary that reinforce this change. There is a reason that education doesn’t have many examples of scaled excellence, the marriage of these two is hard, but at Wunderbar we are up to the challenge.