India’s school textbook content needs a rethink

NCERT,education report,ASER

The 2018 report shows that students, especially those in elementary school (Classes I-VIII), are not learning enough. To cite one metric, only half (50.3%) of all students in Class V can read texts meant for Class II students.(Anshuman Poyrekar/HT Photo)

“We don’t use textbooks,” Rinku Dutta, principal of Udaan, a primary school in Himachal Pradesh’s Palampur, told me when I visited the institution a few months ago during a reporting trip.

“It is designed as an experiential learning space, where teachers work as facilitators to enable and support a child in her learning journey, rather than trying to teach her,” added Datta, while she gave me a tour of the school’s minimalist mud structure and its beautiful eco-friendly campus. The no-textbook method of teaching and an experiential learning space may sound revolutionary, but many educationists believe that it’s high time that India starts thinking afresh about the country’s education system (especially the State-supported one) and its quality because the existing system is failing to improve learning level of students.

The Annual Status of Education Report (ASER), which takes stock of the learning levels of primary school children in India’s State-run schools, reveals the depth of India’s learning crisis. The 2018 report shows that students, especially those in elementary school (Classes 1-8), are not learning enough. To cite one metric, only half (50.3%) of all students in Class 5 can read texts meant for Class 2 students. “Learning deficits seen in elementary school in previous years seem to carry forward as young people go from being adolescents to young adults,” the report said.

The reasons behind such a disastrous report card, year after year, are not too hard to pinpoint. The lack of quality textbooks (not all states/schools use National Council of Educational Research and Training — NCERT — textbooks), and delays in reaching them to students, especially in the far-flung areas; the politicisation of syllabi; the lack of basic infrastructure in schools; and, untrained and overworked teachers, to name a few.

In addition to these problems, there is also an increasing acceptance that our State-run schools, where scores of first-generation learners go, carrying the hope of their parents that education will give them a better life in the future, have become delinked from the local community they serve, and that the textbooks they use don’t really reflect the local culture and social environment of the children, making it difficult for these young learners to relate to them. These shortcomings, educationists feel, affect the learning capabilities of students.

Speaking at a recent education conference, Difficult Dialogues, NCERT professor, Srinivas Vadivel, said that such shortcomings can be probably tackled by developing curriculum material in local languages. An ideal situation would be for the NCERT to make guideline textbooks, which local teachers can then adapt and supplement to make them more suitable for the children they are teaching. Others at the conference pointed out that to make learning “joyful”, teachers must move beyond textbooks to use innovative teaching resources, educative toys and interesting do-it-yourself projects. If these sweeping changes are to actually happen, then the relationship between schools and students needs to be reviewed as well. Instead of forcing children to adhere to a school’s inflexible curriculum and pedagogy, the institutions must strive to be children-ready. This means that teachers must be sensitised to the sociocultural background of the students to ensure better learning. Such steps could make India’s State schools inclusive and positive spaces for quality learning.