Of map making and whispers

Dr Sarah Richardson

Research Director

Australian Council for Educational Research, India 

On Monday 14 November I was fortunate to travel to North-East Uttar Pradesh with Ketan Verma from Pratham to experience the ASER household survey in practice. We travelled to a relatively well-off village comprising a range of brick houses from modest to grand, with a government school and a number of private schools. Remittances from family members in the Middle East had clearly made a significant difference to the wellbeing of a number of families but otherwise the village appeared to be primarily one based on agriculture. As an urbanite I was struck by the central role played by buffaloes – dung was drying all around the village to be used as fuel, buffalos were pulling carts, or standing by ready to be milked, or tending to their calves.

Another surprise was the starting point for the survey – map making. kv3My naïve assumption that maps would be available for villages was immediately challenged as the two volunteers – Nazia and Tanzim – moved painstakingly around the village, talking to community members in order to confirm the sketch they were skilfully compiling of streets and landmarks such as religious buildings and the post office. Once complete they met with the elected representative of the village to redraw the map and confirm its details, and then subdivided the village into four sections. The next stage was to find the central point of the first section and then visit each fifth dwelling, taking left turns as they appeared.

The local skill of the volunteers came to the fore as they were able to easily interact with initially somewhat skeptical householders. In most houses charpoys were pulled out and deployed as seats, with chai brought for the visitors. A surprise was that households without any children in the target age range were included in the survey. This meant that at one stage several households in a row were surveyed without the educational achievement element of the survey being used.

kv2Where children were present it took some time to establish who lived in the target house amidst a mixture of cousins, friends and passers-by. It was also difficult to discern appropriate ages. To my western eyes six year olds looked much younger, while teenagers appeared to have not yet reached puberty. With one or two exceptions the capacity of the children to perform the tasks in mathematics, English and Hindi at a level appropriate to their age was very limited. Many children were unable to read more than individual letters in English or Hindi, or to recognise double-digit numbers. Some were unable to do this at all, with one girl simply counting off 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 … and reading off A, B, C, D, E … even though this was not what was presented to her.

In one of the final households we visited I was particularly struck by a very shy little girl. kvThe sensitivity and skill of the volunteers had been very impressive throughout the day, as they engaged with parents and children, and coaxed the unwilling to participate. For the shy girl the female volunteer Nazia took her to one side and gently sat with her as she (accurately) identified all of the grade appropriate words and numbers in a very low whisper. It was truly wonderful to see a child be made comfortable enough to be able to demonstrate their skill when had less skill been used they would otherwise have been struck dumb in fear.

As the sun started lowering we finished our long day in the village, aching legs having pounded many miles of dusty streets and having met with half the village during that one day. On reflection I was impressed by the wonderful approach to measurement that enables those children who would otherwise fall under the radar of formal assessments, and the high level of commitment and skill of the volunteers and those who train and supervise them.

At a personal level it was a wonderful opportunity to experience – albeit very briefly – an Indian village and to see community-level data collection in progress. I would like to express my thanks to the volunteers, to Ketan and to all the others who helped organise my visit. I now have to work on my Hindi so that I can make a more valuable contribution in future years! As an education expert it is also my hope that the data coming out of the ASER survey helps lead to policies and practices that will raise educational achievement levels for all children in India, no matter where they may live.