The tyranny of content

I have had the opportunity to interact with some school textbooks and instructional designers in my lifetime (and I am rediscovering some now). I have also had occasion to browse through India’s National Curricular Framework, 2005.

The puzzle that has confronted me has been that although there seems to be no dearth of good thinking around how curriculum should be designed and textbooks created, why did I feel challenged by the material and techniques that I see around me.

Case in point. The Grade 6 Civics textbook (they now call the subject – Social and Political Life) has for each chapter the following instructional strategy:

  1. Start the chapter with an interesting question or activity. Pose some questions; investigate with the help of more activities. Build conjectures, advise on what is coming ahead, raise curiosity.
  2. Share a fictional story that brings out an aspect of the topic. Frame questions and discussions around it.
  3. Seed a discussion in the classroom with an interesting question or throw a question for self-reflection, use of creativity and imagination. They call it in-text questions and exercises aimed at assessing understanding as well as contextualization by the child to her own experiences
  4. Build real-life contextual examples to explain concepts
  5. Provide interesting additional information & photographs about people, places and things; provide tables and figures illustrating and comparing facts
  6. Pose questions and suggest activities at the end of the chapter – recall, compare and contrast, reflect, imagine, visually identify
  7. Provide external references that children can refer to

If you were to look at the Grade 6 Textbook (or from NCERT), it is a fact that it is really a lot to learn. There are just too many facts to recall, too many aspects to understand and too little time available to students in the course of the curriculum. It is almost as if, despite saying that they do not want to encourage rote learning, they are leaving our children with no real choice in the matter. I don’t feel too confident I would survive too well an annual exam on the subject! Most definitely not even 10 years down the line, when the Grade 7 course material will shift downwards in large chunks into the Grade 6 course book.

Given the gravity of what is being taught, the basis of good citizenship, this is way too much of a sacrifice. This is the same for the other subjects too.

The foreword for the textbook owe allegiance to the NCF 2005 and discourage rote learning. They raise the bar by stating that they want to discourage “maintenance of sharp boundaries between different subject areas” – in itself a fairly vast enterprise that seems to permeate the shop talk of curriculum designers and policy makers currently (let’s create new knowledge!).

But this puzzle, the fact that “design” seems to have captured the NCF brief reasonably well, but has resulted in something that still will not serve its spirit (or for that matter, serve mine), seems to clear, more than partially, when I read the foreword of the textbook. It states:

The success of this effort depends on the steps school principals and teachers will take to encourage children to reflect on their own learning and to pursue imaginative activities and questions. We must recognize that by giving space, time and freedom, children generate new knowledge by engaging with the information passed to them by adults. …. These aims imply considerable change in school routines and mode of functioning. Flexibility in the time-table is as necessary as rigour in implementing the annual calendar so that the required number of teaching days is actually devoted to teaching. The methods used for teaching and evaluation will also determine how effective this textbook proves for making children’s life at school a happy experience, rather than a source of stress or boredom.

This commentary, in my mind, presents many consequent thoughts:

  • There is a great chasm between what the curriculum designers design and what educational systems are. In fact, as the NCF Reviewer committee minutes show (an excellent set of critiques on the NCF which should have been made public in a big way), there is early debate on the framework’s implementability and whether it acts as a rule or merely as guidance. In my opinion, the designers passed the buck.
  • As the committee minutes show, there is no dearth of good thinking and good questioning. Is it then more a matter of coherence and further debate? Can these questions be thrown open to a wider audience, in a more participatory manner? After all, we don’t have many unique problems. The dialogue exists, but is invisible, private, exalted and non-participatory.
  • Did the NCF 2005, over the past 6 years, make a difference in teacher’s skills and attitudes, in functioning of schools and in reducing stress and boredom. If it did not, what did we achieve through it? If it did, what are the great examples and evidence?
  • Most of all, did the curriculum designer and developer even know of these discussions, were they trained on the NCF, do they understand that every word they write in a textbook potentially spells agony for our children?

What I see around me, every day, is this great sea of platitudes, lip service of a disaffected and disenchanted class of educators to technology, pedagogy, systems and our problems of inequality. It is a self-serving mission, beaten by the same system into submission and conformance to mediocrity. Unfortunate, but true. And it has to change.

2 thoughts on “The tyranny of content

Add yours

    1. Thanks!
      The solution lies in your comment. “all IDs know that”. Then what are IDs doing about it? The first part of the solution is to find a voice, make yourself heard, learn from global perspectives, influence policy, demand accountability…the list goes on. And when this happens, you will know asking someone for a solution is not the answer. The solution has to emerge from shared expertise and collaboration. I can offer thoughts – we must reduce content drastically, we must build more effective teacher programs, we must leverage technology in new ways, we must connect…

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