The HRD Minister is advocating a syllabus haircut for India. Following on the heels of the initiative by the Delhi AAP government in 2015 (“Delhi’s Syllabus Haircut“), which apparently went nowhere, the BJP government has tried to give it a populist national character by inciting NCERT to trim the syllabus by 50%. Subsequently NCERT, the apex education council that designs and manages the curriculum for the nation, has issued a public appeal for suggestions. The tenor is the same as that espoused by the Delhi government – the move towards more sports, life and experience learning and away from “bookish learning and writing mugged up answers for the examination”. They want to remove the “curricular burden” and to encourage all-round development. They also make textbooks thinner, interpreting the “burden” very literally as the physical weight of the textbooks.
Obviously, there have been vociferous arguments on either side. Those supporting the change make arguments like:
- Textbooks are heavy to carry
- 100% syllabus is not really negotiated anyway
- An overweight syllabus encourages rote learning
- Most of the syllabus cannot be applied, will not be retained or isn’t going to be useful later in life
- Rote precludes experiential learning and the building of 21st century skills in students
- Supporting assessment systems are not geared to judge true abilities of children and place undue stress on them
- Rote learning has a flip side – rote teaching – and that must also be transformed
- Ethics, values and life skills are really important to emphasize
Those against worry that:
- It will be pretty difficult to implement, at scale, and may end up diluting the academic rigor, setting us back in terms of national and international competitiveness even further. This, in a time when we have the largest young population, could have disastrous consequences on the well-being of future generations.
- It may take too much time to roll out. Aren’t there here and now, simple measures we can take?
- Are our teachers really equipped to handle this shift?
- Do we have the necessary infrastructure?
- How do we really decide what is “superfluous” and can be cut?
- Conversely, how do we decide what is important to be included? Are we going to use this as a ideological weapon for mass education using non-secular and subjective interpretations of knowledge?
- This initiative is populist – demagoguery has no role in education systems – and we should steer clear of it.
- Is this an experiment? Like CCE or ABL and other initiatives, will this be conceived imperfectly, implemented even more badly and then removed from public consciousness one fine day?
- How will this affect other downstream educational options – vocational, higher and further education? How will this affect competitive exams, admissions to foreign institutions, career choices, policies for standardized exam setting and result moderation and virtually every aspect of the system?
- What is really the “burden”? Aren’t there other smarter ways to mitigate it, if it really exists?
- Are we confusing “syllabus” with “curriculum”? The two are different things altogether.
- How are we sure that making textbooks thinner, cutting syllabi and promoting experiential learning will really make a difference to learning outcomes and help children achieve grade level proficiency and our nation achieve leadership in research and development?
- Aren’t there other models we could use? After all, it is a fairly non-unique problem and other countries have perhaps far more experience in these ideas and a closer look at their histories could reveal pitfalls.
- Is this concept really very new? Even Indian curriculum designers, in the National Curriculum Framework (2005) document and earlier as well, recognize the “burden” and have been taking steps to resolve it.
I think we are about to create a mass national disaster – not because the intent of promoting experiential learning is bad – but because we are really ill-equipped to deal with changes of this sort – both from a design and implementation perspective. There aren’t enough experiments on the ground that have scaled well (look at Activity based learning methods) and there is too much diversity to flatten with one-size-fits-all solutions. My worry is that we are clueless as to the real implications of what our demagoguery or abject opposition to this change can be. There are core systemic improvements, committed to in a stage-wise manner, that shall radically transform the country’s education system. If I were to choose the top 3 pillars of that transformation, they would be:
- Infrastructure & education Technology: At the very basic level, required equipment and resources need to be made available. This means that the resources necessary for transforming the classroom have to be somehow made available. I suggested local and rural entrepreneurship, aside from state provision of these materials and the encouragement to use locally available indigenous materials, as a possible solution. An important component is going to be basic electricity provision to classrooms and technology enablement.
- Empowering Teacher and Education Leaders: Side by side with infrastructure, the greatest asset we have is our teachers and the administrators of the institutions. We have to purposely design a system that incentivizes change to new methods (and I am not talking salary increases). New certifications and links to career progression, tracing a more direct link between new teaching & administration methods and outcomes and systematic changes in curricula at all levels, are really important to institute.
- Community participation: The weight of nation-building by education, similar to other areas like health, cannot be borne or be the prerogative of a handful of agencies. Rather a more democratic and concerted effort by citizens has to underpin the transformation.
The great news is that India is a treasure trove of great ideas, gifted educationists and concerned citizens. We have diversity at a rich scale that leaves the world gasping. But we are choking on our own potential.
Perhaps we will leverage this opportunity to arise, awake and stop not!