From hub-and-spoke to classroom libraries: lessons from Akshara

India and South Africa could learn a lot from each other, particularly when it comes to education.

Both have made great strides with primary school enrolment over the last few decades, but still struggle with the quality of learning outcomes – with a significant proportion of children in upper primary school who essentially cannot read. Both countries’ school leaving certificates – the SSLC in India, and the NSC in South Africa – have low value and do not signal competence or skills to employers. Both seek to balance the new opportunities technology affords with the reality that the poorest have limited access to smartphones, data and airtime.

This week, I’m in India to see for myself. I’ll be spending time in Bangalore, Mumbai, Aurangabad and New Delhi, meeting with organisations and visiting programmes that are pushing the boundaries in education. I plan to post throughout the week, and afterwards, about some of the things I’m learning.

On day one, I spent the afternoon with the team at the Akshara Foundation. Today I’ll outline the evolution of Akshara’s library programme, from a hub-and-spoke system to classroom libraries, and rave about their innovative way of tracking book checkouts.
Background of the library programme:
The Akshara Foundation was established in 2000, based on the belief that quality education is the undeniable right of every child. Over the last 15 years, its work has touched the lives of more than 1 million children in the state of Karnataka in South India. It focuses on preschool and primary school education.

While most government schools in Karnataka have libraries, these lack age-appropriate, attractive books and a working process. Teachers are not trained as librarians, and view extra work as a ‘burden’ they do not want to take on.

In 2007, Akshara launched a library programme using a hub-and-spoke model, where each “hub” – a physical library with a dedicated librarian – served a number of “spoke” schools, which were visited regularly by a mobile librarian. Books were colour-coded by difficulty, and librarians in hub schools ran additional activities to stimulate learning.

But after a few years, Akshara changed tack. It realised that there was no viable way to keep librarians in schools unless they remained on Akshara’s payroll – which was not a scalable or long-term solution. Usage met expectations: overall, 81% of children visited libraries at least once a month, and in most months, 60% borrowed at least one book. But what if kids could access the books whenever they wanted – not only when their class visited the library or the library came to them? And – while RCTs cannot provide the full picture of a social intervention’s effect – a 2012 randomised controlled trial (RCT) of the programme found no impact on student scores on a language skills test administered after 16 months.

In 2014, Akshara replaced its hub-and-spoke model with classroom libraries – which our South African partner Biblionef also increasingly advocates as the most effective model to get kids reading in schools. To date, they’ve placed libraries in 3 250 classrooms at 1 000 schools.
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The libraries themselves are cleverly designed: foldable book kits (which can be put away overnight) that hold about 100 books. Teachers receive a simple, half-day training in how to use the libraries and monitor usage.

A classroom library has a few benefits, compared to the hub-and-spoke model. First, it doesn’t require an extra person, though the burden on teachers remains low. Second, books are closer to kids, and more accessible on a daily basis.
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And third, progress is public, through an innovative and incredibly simple M&E system Akshara has developed. This got me most excited – as I’ve seen partners struggle to collect and manage data about library use at the school level.

Each library comes with a histogram, blocked out by month, which teachers hang on the wall (usually with a pencil hanging nearby). When a child checks out a book, the teacher – or sometimes the child herself! – marks it on the histogram, noting the month and the level of the book.

Once a month, teachers take and submit a photo of the histogram, which is then captured digitally to enable large-scale comparison and analysis. (What’s more, the data is all public on the Karnataka Learning Partnership – but that’s for another blog post!)

Ideally, as children use the library more often, and as their reading improves, the histogram will show both an increase in the number of books checked out per month, and in the difficulty of books children are reading.

Over the last year, this was indeed the case: the team told me that the average number of books checked out per learner per month rose from 2.5 at the start of the school year to 5.5 at the end of the year, and difficulty typically increased.

One shortcoming of this method is that it doesn’t tell whether one child is a big reader and another isn’t reading at all. Still, this could be addressed in other simple ways, such as reading logs.

Even with libraries in classrooms, closer to kids, schools close at 3:30 pm, which limits access to books. As an experiment, Akshara also hung 50 libraries at village tea shops in rural areas – the social spaces where everyone congregates after school and work. They aren’t tracking this methodically, but they’ve heard very positive feedback: kids read, adults read, adults read with kids. I love this idea of sparking reading in community spaces, simply by bringing books to where people are – and I wonder what the equivalent of the village tea shop would be in rural South Africa.
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Thank you to Ashok, Asha and Vaijayanti at Akshara for so generously sharing your time!

via Head & Heart, by Katie Huston 

My first visit to a government school in rural India.

Seeing the schools in Kushtagi and Mundargi was the favourite part of my time with Akshara. Our school visits were unannounced, like the house visits, so we were able to see a real school day in progress, and Akshara was able to check on the students’ progress.

Another reason Akshara came to the schools was to see how, if at all, classrooms were utilising their GKA Kits. These kits contain educational resources for mathematics and English classes, such as counting mats and blocks and conversation sheets, that seem as if they should be standard in every classroom – especially the math tools. These are tools that helped me, as a younger student, visualise operations like addition and subtraction. They helped me learn when I was starting my primary education, so it made me optimistic to see the students in Mundargi and Kushtagi using the same tools so effectively.

When we initially arrived at the schools, the first thing that I noticed was the resourcefulness. The same resourcefulness that I saw in the residential areas is found in schools; class bells are made from small hammers tied to thick metal trays, small pillows are attached to blackboards by string to create erasers. Making do with what you have is a concept that has grown increasingly rare in countries like the U.S. and big cities, where shortage of resources is rarely felt.

Classroom copy

One area where this scarcity is not felt, however, is in style. By this, I mean the uniforms and book bags each student was equipped with, provided by the state government. Regardless of the poverty they encountered at home, every young student was clad in a blue and white uniform.

In the United States, most state-run school systems do not have uniforms, instead opting to set general dress codes (which are usually just lists of ‘do not’s, for example: girls, do not wear skirts or shorts more than four inches above the knee in length. Boys, do not wear your hair long … or shorts more than four inches above the knee). However, in private schools, like the one I attend, uniforms are standard. Most of us private school students love to hate the uniforms impressed upon us by the school administration because we have plenty of our own, more comfortable, clothes that we would much rather wear.

Despite this scarcity, these students thrive when given the opportunity. The bright (and adorable) students in the primary schools of Mundargi and Kushtagi share an enthusiasm for learning and a competitive spirit that shined through the dimly-lit classrooms when the Akshara team and I arrived.

Students copy

Whenever a math problem would be presented to the class, the children would rush to open their notebooks and solve the problem first, handing over their work for checking as soon as they finished. In the event a student was wrong, they would just as quickly start working the problem again. When a passage in English was to be read, virtually every student wanted to show us their ability to read and write in English, a refreshing difference from the culture of primary schools in America, where conformity is too-often valued over exceptionality.

To feed into students’ eagerness and curiosity, Akshara has set up libraries both in classrooms and local tea shops. Each library is stocked with age-appropriate books in both Kannada and English, to encourage students to expand their familiarity with both their local language and one more widely spoken.

I visited the villages on the right day because I was present for the inauguration of one such library, an event that attracted the Gram Panchayat of the village, as well as parents and students to the small café. Each person present was given a few books to put in the library, so no one was left out of the celebration. The concept of tea shop libraries is, I think, brilliant; the availability of books in both tea shops and schools expands opportunities to read for both students and parents and encourages parents to read with their children.

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These visits to Mundargi and Kushtagi showed me a side of life I could never have imagined. They made me thankful for my plentiful life in the United States and optimistic about India’s future. India is a complex country with a variety of cultures and traditions. To lead in tomorrow’s world, it needs something or someone to help it achieve its vast potential – a good education is that something and Akshara is that someone.

– Ajay Dayal

Emerging Readership

Anuradha Nagaraj writes about how rural libraries have been taking the extra effort to reach out to children who had no access to them.

Via Open
“It’s the best thing that could have happened to these children,” says HP Siddharaju, headmaster of a government higher primary school in nearby Arralikatai village. “Now in the evenings, instead of running wild and staying out till late at night, the village children, including those who don’t study in this school, come to the library. The access to good reading material gives them access to the world of reading and it has impacted their performance in school also.”
The Akshara Foundation first started its reading programme in 2006 in government schools in Bangalore urban district. It began by redefining what a library meant. “The library is not just about borrowing books; we wanted it to be a multi-functional space linked to classroom learning,” explains Ashok Kamath, chairman of the foundation.
Akshara started by creating simple laminated reading cards that a child could also take home. Like Hippocampus, it developed library-related activities, got storytellers to spin yarns for the children and at the end of five years achieved “significant results”.
“Between the first phase of the programme and a follow through the mop-up phase, nearly 86 per cent of the children were converted to ‘reader’ category, [having] acquired the ability to read unknown sentences or paragraphs,” says Kamath, adding that most of the libraries have now been handed back to the government to run.
Read the entire article here
Read more about Akshara’s library programme here

Take a sneak peek at Akshara’s Library Programme