An Academic Consultation Workshop

I recently had the opportunity to represent Educational Initiatives at an academic consultation workshop hosted jointly by Bodh Shiksha Samiti, Sattva Consulting and the Michael and Susan Dell Foundation (MSDF) in Delhi. The goal of the workshop was to review content for a project that the three companies are piloting in government schools of Rajasthan and Haryana. In this post, I would like to share my experiences and takeaways from the six-hour long workshop.


Studies highlight that the real positive impact of education on the socioeconomic status of a child and his/her family takes place only if the child completes his/her schooling. Here are some worrying statistics about government schools in India (these figures are taken from material shared with participants prior to the workshop and drawn from UNESCO reports):
  • the drop out rate between grades 9-12 is ~35%
  • of the 75% of students who pass grade 10, only ~17% score more than 60%
  • on similar lines, of the 93% who pass grade 12, only ~11% score a first division.
The companies working on this project identified the following as key reasons for high drop out rates and poor learning outcomes in these grades:
  1. Lack of quality inputs in primary grades => large percentage of students being 3-4 grades below the target level
  2. Lessons and material are planned for grade-appropriate learning => children who are already lagging behind gain very little in the classroom
  3. Lack of participation from students due to the cognitive load involved in attempting to understand concepts that are beyond their reach => low motivation
  4. Teaching methods adopted are conventional and lecture-based => do not always engage students fully
  5. Few/no targeted remedial teaching programs are conducted in these grades => further widens the learning gap
  6. School level challenges (including shortage of teachers, limited time spent by teachers in classrooms and varying capability levels)

Content and structure of the workshop

The context described above underlines the need for interventions in the secondary education domain in Indian government schools. This project, led by the Bodh Shiksha Samiti, is focused on grades 9 and 10. It seeks to develop strategic and pedagogic inputs that can address some of these learning gaps and academic challenges faced by children in these grades. With this in mind, the team at Bodh decided on developing supplementary material to the grade-level text book that will positively impact children struggling the most.

The supplementary content is being created keeping in mind the following aspects:
  • including foundational concepts covered in earlier grades for scaffolding
  • simplifying the way new concepts are introduced and reducing language complexity - attention to sequence/flow of content, vocabulary, activities/solved examples and instructional inputs
  • gradually introducing higher order skills to drive curiosity and interest
  • employing methods (such as the constructivist pedagogy) to encourage peer learning and discovery of concepts through inquiry and experiences
There were ~15 participants in the mathematics workshop excluding members from Bodh, Sattva and MSDF. Along with private companies (such as Educational Initiatives), there were mathematics teachers from secondary government schools in Rajasthan and representatives from the National Council of Educational Research and Training (NCERT). The range of experiences in the room made for some interesting discussions!

A representative of Bodh gave a short presentation highlighting the gaps and challenges in government schools to provide the background and need for the project. Then, we broke into smaller groups and began reviewing the content according to parameters provided by the Bodh team. The content had been shared with all the participants a few days prior to the workshop and hard copies were provided at the venue to help in discussions.

Working individually and in small groups to review the content. See if you can spot me!

One excellent aspect of the workshop was the presence of the three math content developers from Bodh. They were receptive to feedback, keen on discussing the rationale behind their decisions and active in moving around the room and interacting with each participant one-on-one. This kept the engagement levels high throughout the workshop.

Each participant was given a feedback sheet where he/she had to comment on the content. There was ample space for writing observations/suggestions and critically evaluating the material. The workshop facilitators wound up the session with a large group sharing where each participant called out one strength that they saw in the material and one area in which there was a scope for improvement. Tea and informal interactions ended what had been a fruitful day!

Content-specific takeaways

As someone whose interest lies in math content and pedagogy for K-12 students, it was thought-provoking for me to note the elements that different educators thought should go into strong, student-friendly content. Many of these ideas were posed by the participants as questions that were then discussed in groups with the content makers from Bodh.

First, content must be visually appealing with good illustrations, contain examples that children can relate to and be formatted differently from a regular textbook. Otherwise, where is the motivation for the teachers/children to pick it up? The content should make good use of white spaces to avoid clutter and possibly intimidating the child.

Second, branches of mathematics have a rich history - can children be drawn into learning topics if we can show how these fields evolved as solutions to practical problems?  For example, an introductory question such as "What will happen if algebra and geometry get married?" can be used to illustrate the origins of coordinate geometry.

Third, content could follow a conversational style of narration with simple language (called narrative non-fiction) to appeal to children. However, a balance needs to be maintained so that the concept doesn't become oversimplified in the quest for engagement. Employing humour at appropriate places was another suggestion to make content less monotonous.

Fourth, the content should contain sections that tell a student what he/she will be learning in terms that he/she can relate to. It must convey the why behind learning the concept so that the child can be emotionally invested in his/her learning.

General takeaways

  • Learning technical terms in mathematics was good fun! 😃 For instance, बारंबारता बहुभुज  (read as barambarata bahubhuj) means "frequency polygon". Having studied in English medium schools throughout my life, these technical terms were new to me!
  • While developing supplementary content could help, it is one piece of the puzzle. Working with teachers on how to integrate this material when faced with the pressure of time and "having to complete the textbook syllabus" is crucial to the success of this project. Otherwise, teachers/students may see the supplementary material as a burden that will defeat its purpose.
  • The exam is a powerful influence - teachers teach to it, children study for it and parents are concerned about how their children do in it. This is something I discussed in an earlier post titled "The Fear of Mathematics". As things currently stand, stakeholders need to believe that additional academic initiatives are going to positively impact exam scores if they are to truly buy in to and use the material.
  • Do educators in India need to evaluate how we think about children "practicing" questions in mathematics? Procedural practice without understanding can have a negative impact.

All in all, I gained a lot from the experience and, hopefully, was able to give the content team at Bodh useful feedback for the next iteration of content making! Such workshops are helpful in getting exposure to different facets of the education space and learning about the work of other companies.


  1. How do we align families and students to a vision of mathematics where procedural understanding is undervalued, and conceptual understanding is more (not over) valued?

    For example, I think parents are somewhat rational when they ask for the type of “procedural only” or “I do, we do, you do” types of pedagogy, as those often overlap with the proven standardized test skills needed to pass a multiple choice math exam like the SAT (or as is more revenant to my students) an entrance exam to high school. If the goal is merely external validation and exchange of math scores for placement, this method is depressing, but potentially effective.

    In other words, how can we align external validation of math ability to these same skills? Can we imagine an exam that tests for conceptual, not procedural knowledge? And if we were to do so, who might be the students most negatively impacted by such a choice in the short run?

    1. Thanks for the comment, Graham.

      The questions you pose reinforces the third point in the "General takeaways" section of the post - the exam being a powerful influence that decides what/how teachers teach and students learn. As long as school exams and standardised tests gauge speed and procedural knowledge, there is no incentive to undervalue procedural understanding and give conceptual understanding its due. In fact, as you pointed out, parents and children studying to the test is the rational thing to do as success in the test is what guarantees better opportunities in the future.

      While I can imagine an exam that emphasises conceptual knowledge over procedural knowledge, I can see multiple reasons why implementing such an exam might fall flat in India.

      First, designing such an exam requires strong content and pedagogical knowledge from the side of the teachers and, as mentioned in the post, teachers' expertise varies a fair deal across the spectrum.

      Second, evaluating such an exam would probably not be straightforward. There might not be clear "right" and "wrong" answers to questions. In many schools in India, a grade is divided into sections and each section has 40+ students. So, a teacher might actually be teaching over 100 students and evaluating 100+ such exams is probably not feasible.

      Third, such an approach would require sacrificing breadth of the syllabus for depth. This is more a mindset issue as quantity of syllabus is highly valued in India. There is a general sense that schools should impart as much information, superficial or otherwise, as possible to children. Modifying this approach is likely to face stiff resistance.

      Coming to your last question, I am not sure. Can I understand why you feel that some students would be negatively impacted by an exam that tests conceptual knowledge? Perhaps, if I can understand where you're coming from, I'll be able to stitch my thoughts into a response.

    2. I keep coming back to David Labaree, who argues there are (at least) three outcomes for education: public purpose (are students able to navigate the civic structures of the world they will live in?) private purpose (are students given the credentials to separate themselves from a larger field to achieve success?) and a blend (if America needs more teachers, do American colleges push most students to become teachers?)

      Exams, generally, skew toward the private aim of education: they are a data point often used to separate / categorize students. A conceptual exam, for all the reasons it would be tough to assess or implement, would serve ideally as a data point only to students / learners and teachers / educators, not as some external signifier.

      It's possible these two ideas aren't inherently related, but I'm predisposed to see them as such given how I see standardized exams used.

    3. Ah, I get your point Graham!

      Even in India, exams are primarily used to categorise and rank students. Besides the stress that introduces, the outcomes of exams as harbingers of future opportunities takes centre stage over the information about learning that can be gleaned from the exam.

      One point on which we seem to think differently: I think a conceptual exam CAN BE an external signifier as well. I predict a downshift in grades/marks where 'C' would be the new 'A', 70% would be highly regarded and so on. Isn't this a possibility?

  2. I wonder if the “key reasons for high dropout rates and poor learning outcomes” that you mention in the “Context” section are similar for the under-performing districts in the United States. If one of the top five reasons for a high dropout rate is school level challenges, which would include teacher quality, I would assume that with the new supplementary material to the textbook, teachers would receive professional development on how to effectively implement these materials in their classrooms. I think on top of developing additional interventions and resources for our struggling learners, we need to be training teachers to implement these strategies with fidelity in their classrooms. Does the content team at Bodh have plans for how to introduce this material to teachers?

    1. Thanks for the comment, Kerry.

      Your observation is closely linked to the second point under the section "General takeaways" where I wrote about working with teachers on how to integrate the supplementary material into their daily teaching.

      Currently, the team from Bodh has been executing the content as they are testing it to see how it can be improved. It has not been given to teachers yet. In the next phase when they plan to work with ~12 schools in Haryana and Rajasthan (both of these are states in India), they will be giving the content to teachers along with guidance on how to use it. Discussion about how they would introduce this material to teachers was outside the scope of this workshop but brought up by course participants as something that should be planned with care.

      Do you have any insights on how teachers in the USA are supported when they are asked to implement similar schemes/programs in their schools?


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