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The tyranny of the textbook

Most teachers think education quality means completing the textbook on time

The tyranny of the textbook




 I love the stretch that runs along the Bhimtal lake on the way to Almora and envy the people who live in a palatial bungalow that stands tall on the peak of the hill beside the wonderful lake. While passing through the usual congestion at Bhowali and looking at some fresh fruit in the numerous fruit shops on both sides of the road, something that my colleagues were discussing in the car caught my attention.

Having collaborated with government education functionaries at cluster, block, district and state level for a very long time, my colleagues have a close rapport with them and have no hesitation in freely discussing even sensitive issues. One of them, who is in charge of a district, was narrating a recent conversation with the District Education Officer (DEO). The DEO told him that during a recent visit to one of the schools, he had asked a teacher about his idea of quality education. The teacher replied that it was about completion of the textbook during the year. This response greatly disturbed the DEO and led him to discuss the issue with not only many more teachers in the school but also with other education functionaries such as the cluster and block resource persons. The scale, depth and extent of lack of clarity about quality education among those dealing with development of children on a daily basis shocked the DEO.

The DEO queried that if education quality is all about completing a 40-plus-page textbook during the year, what is the entire elaborate arrangement in the education department for? If teachers and education functionaries are so confused about the quality of education, how on earth can they work towards achieving quality? Some teachers even said simply that they had to follow the rules! The DEO questioned: Which rules? Who laid them down? Where do these notions about education quality come from? Have they heard of or read the national education policy or national curriculum framework? They did not have clear responses. The DEO was highly concerned.

If it is all about textbook teaching, the entire rigmarole that the nation goes through for 250 million children across 1.4 million schools is unjustified. The existence and working of several academic and administrative institutions such as the National Council of Educational Research and Training (NCERT), the National Council for Teacher Education, the National University for Education Planning & Administration, the University Grants Commission, the All-India Council for Technical Education, the State Councils for Education Research and Training, the District Institute of Education Training, the Block Resource Centres and so on are unnecessary. Several programmes that the government announces from time to time such as continuous comprehensive evaluation of children, incentives for girl child education, promoting the education of children of disadvantaged parents and the like are meaningless if they are intended only to make children learn merely textbook lessons.

When we launched the ‘Assessment Led Classroom Reforms’ programme — titled the Learning Guarantee Program, we realised, with even greater force, the entire examination orientation of the current education system. We were troubled to find that the important process of child development through enabling children to realise their potential was reduced to simply preparing them to answer the five-six questions under each lesson in the textbook, as if that was the sole purpose of learning. Thus, the textbooks, rather than helping deliver the aims of education, were in fact moving the education process away from
the goals.

During the past two decades, with the initiative of NCERT and the Central Board of Secondary Education (CBSE), the quality of textbooks has certainly improved. More and more states want to adopt NCERT textbooks. The lessons are better illustrated with pictures, and competencies that would be achieved by teaching a particular lesson are defined right at the beginning of the lesson. However, the fact remains that reducing the entire process of education to “teaching of textbooks” is a cruel joke considering all the resources available. It is not only just depending on textbooks that is problematic, the way textbooks are used in our schools is equally dangerous.

Once, while travelling in a state, we stopped at a school that was using digital learning resources developed by the Azim Premji Foundation. However, it was around lunchtime and the teacher dealing with computer-aided learning had gone for lunch — locking the computer room. The principal invited us into the Class 4 classroom where he was teaching. He had just finished teaching a lesson on the Deepawali festival. He asked one of the girls to read the lesson and encouraged us to ask questions of the students. From the way the girl was reading the lesson, I realised she had learnt it by heart. I asked her whether she could read the lesson without looking at the book and she said yes and went on to recite it accurately. The first sentence in the lesson was “Deepawali is a festival of lamps and it occurs in the Hindu calendar month of Kartik.” So I wrote the first two questions on the blackboard: “What is Deepawali a festival of?” and “In which Hindu calendar month does it occur?” My colleagues and I found that not a single student could answer. The bottom line was that the children had gone through the motions of studying the lessons without understanding the content.

Thus, the problem is not merely with the textbooks but with the limited way in which the textbook lessons are used in our education system. There is so much that could be covered in association with the content of each lesson. However, school after school and teacher after teacher are missing out on that. Even during professional courses, many of us realise that while considerable learning happens through the books, major learning happens through field exposure, the seminars, the conferences that we organise and, most important, the discussions among peers.

At school level, nothing prevents teachers and educators from taking the children to a nearby hospital or a government office or a factory or a police station or an agricultural field to provide them a real-life experience of issues they can relate to. The learning and confidence-building that happens through a presentation of everyday experiences, or discussion of a particular national or religious song or poem is far richer than merely reading a lesson in a book without adequate discussion around it.

It is important to understand the context, purpose and genesis of textbooks and their limited role in educating our future generations. They were developed to make available a standardised way of dealing with the given subject through well-organised stories and other content that were mere vehicles or tools and not an end in themselves. The essence of education goes beyond particular tools. It requires teachers to deal with the process in a holistic and integrated manner.

Dileep Ranjekar is CEO of the Azim Premji Foundation