Accelerated learning: the key to COVID catch-up?

The pandemic has left the most vulnerable and marginalized even further off track when it comes to access to quality education. The need to think flexibly and embrace alternative teaching and learning approaches to reach all children is more urgent than ever.

October 11, 2022 by Dr. Randa Grob-Zakhary, Education.org, and Dr. Elyas Abdi, Kenya’s Ministry of Education
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4 minutes read
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An accelerated learning session in Liberia, part of the Second Chance Program. Credit: The Luminos Fund
An accelerated learning session in Liberia, part of the Second Chance Program.
Credit: The Luminos Fund

As a new school year swings into life in many parts of the world, the impacts of COVID-19 on the global learning crisis are becoming ever more apparent.

Children worldwide lost an average of eight months of learning to lockdowns, but in many lower-income countries, the losses are much worse. According to figures from the World Bank, 70 percent of 10-year-olds in low and middle-income countries are now unable to read and understand a simple written text, up from 57 percent pre-pandemic.

The pandemic has further magnified the gap between the “haves” and the “have-nots” when it comes to quality education, leaving the most vulnerable and marginalized young people even further off track. These are children from the lowest-income families, who are often required to work, but also children in rural, remote areas, including pastoralist communities. Adolescent girls were particularly vulnerable: many countries saw a rise in teen pregnancies during the months of lockdown.

What has become clear is the need to think flexibly and embrace alternative teaching and learning approaches to reach all children, making the most of existing evidence.

Accelerated learning: what the evidence shows us

Accelerated learning, also often known as accelerated education, has matured across African countries, including Kenya, over the last decade. It’s been used with children missing school because of extreme poverty, child labor, teen pregnancy, conflict, refugee flight and even previous epidemic outbreaks such as Ebola.

Accelerated learning works by compressing up to three years of primary education into one school year.

It does this by paring down the curriculum to focus on literacy and numeracy and taking a strongly child-centered and interactive approach to learning - small, lively groups often led by specially trained local facilitators. Communities are actively engaged in support of their children’s education and well-being.

The results of the most effective of these programs speak for themselves: dramatic learning gains and large numbers of children drawn into education. In Ethiopia’s Speed Schools and Liberia’s Luminos Second Chance program, more than 90 percent of learners have transitioned directly into formal education, where they have often outperformed their peers.

Kenya, too, has partnered with several organizations to provide accelerated learning for vulnerable populations such as girls who have dropped out of school due to pregnancy, pastoralist communities, or refugees living in the camps of Kakuma and Dadaab in the far north.

During the pandemic, ministry staff travelled to schools to conduct assessments to establish learning loss and inform catch-up and accelerated learning programs.

The global evidence now indicates there is increased potential for using accelerated education principles in COVID catch-up learning, beyond their more traditional use as a means of integrating out-of-school children into formal systems.

A way forward for leaders and policymakers

Until now, the evidence for political leaders and policymakers on how to plan and implement catch-up and accelerated learning has been fragmented and lacking in country-specific context.

Education.org’s newly released analysis offers governments a Synthesis of the evidence to date, much of it unpublished, along with actionable evidence-based Policy Guidance on how to apply the principles of accelerated learning to national contexts.

This guidance is based on a global literature review, analyses of national policies, and a novel approach to rapidly crowdsource both published and unpublished evidence. We reviewed 136 sources, three quarters of them previously unpublished, for example, recent program evaluations and government policy briefs such as in Ethiopia, Kenya and South Sudan.

We conducted deeper analysis of eight countries in sub-Saharan Africa: Ethiopia, Ghana, Kenya, Liberia, Nigeria, Sierra Leone, South Sudan and Uganda.

The analysis and guidance signposts the importance of:

  • Starting with a thorough assessment of the national and / or local situation – there is no ‘one size fits all’ approach to accelerated education programs so each must be carefully tailored to local needs, taking into account all the barriers to education in a specific context for diverse groups.
  • Anchoring accelerated learning into existing national education sector plans, curricula and calendars. As the most successful accelerated education programs, such as Ethiopia’s Speed Schools, have shown, this allows learners to transition smoothly into formal education systems when they are ready.
  • Focusing on foundational skill development coupled with an emphasis on learner and teacher wellbeing.
  • Implementing policies for the flexible assessment, placement and promotion of learners – including training teachers and facilitators in how to conduct ongoing assessments so they can provide support in any weak areas and gauge when each child is ready to progress.
  • Supporting the role of communities in enrolling, teaching and retaining children in school – this means working with parents and community leadership, including religious groups, to make the case for education, and promoting peer support groups such as the ‘self-help groups’ created as part of Ethiopia’s Speed Schools, where more than 200,000 parents have organized to generate income to cover future schooling costs.
  • Including measures to proactively target the most marginalized students and to heighten support of teachers. Initiatives such as the USAID-funded Advancing Education in Northeast Nigeria program have shown how accelerated learning can succeed in a conflict zone by addressing the specific needs of adolescent girls, by working with communities, including religious groups, to prioritize their enrollment and employing “gender transformative” approaches in teaching and materials.

While COVID-19 has ushered in the worst educational crisis in history, with huge implications for the futures of a generation of children, the good news is that leaders can accelerate learning for all children if they put in place thoughtful policies based on the evidence.

For more information and country case studies, see: education.org/accelerated-learning

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It is true that we have to adapt to changing technology. This era requires people to be Conversant with new technology and effectively use the online communication platforms like zoom, google meet and Microsoft teams.

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