An expert committee review suggests that all is not well with the decade-long school curriculum reform in Kerala.
THE report of the Expert Committee on Textbook Review is a revealing commentary on the gap between theory and practice in the making of the curriculum, syllabi and textbooks and in the training of teachers in Kerala under an ambitious teaching reform programme introduced in State schools from 1997. The findings of the 18-member group of academicians led by the Vice-Chairman of the Kerala State Higher Education Council, Dr. K.N. Panikkar, is, however, an unexpected outcome of the bitter political controversy and related violence that rocked the State recently over the contents of a few new schoolbooks, among them a social science textbook for Standard VII (A lesson to learn, Frontline, July 8, 2008).
The violence subsided only after it led eventually to the death of a schoolteacher in north Kerala at the hands of a group of students trying to unsettle a teacher training programme, and the government accepted an interim report of the committee to revise the most contentious lesson in the Class VII social science textbook and agreed to introduce other changes that addressed the immediate concerns of the agitators.
Perhaps uniquely for such an issue of public importance, the State unit of the opposition Congress, too, decided to appoint an Expert Committee on Education of 11 prominent academicians, led by the historian Professor M.G.S. Narayanan. Its criticism of the curriculum has also been published, and, in spite of the political import of its conclusions, many of its findings have been reiterated though in a different way in the final report of the government-appointed committee.
It has now been more than a decade since the radical learner-centred, activity-oriented and constructivist pedagogy was introduced in stages from the primary school level in Kerala as a solution to the growing concern about the quality of education in state-run institutions. Thus, from 1997, under a Left Democratic Front (LDF) administration committed to improving the quality of education, curbing dropout rates, upgrading teaching skills and making textbooks contemporary, government schools were forced to discard the traditional method of teaching and learning in one clean sweep. Instead, the emphasis fell on activity-oriented teaching and learning; shifting learning away from the rote method; connecting education to life outside the school; development of the childs natural inclination to learn from his/her surroundings; offering greater freedom; making learning more fun than work; making examinations more flexible; creating natural learning experiences; and reducing the stress on results.
The purpose was to provide a total learning opportunity for students to help them relate critically and democratically to everyday events and to understand these events from different perspectives and in terms of their political, social, economic and ethical implications, and to appreciate how they are connected to their own lives and the lives of their fellow beings.
The potential benefits of the new pedagogy were immediately obvious in many schools. But, simultaneously, the enormous burden that the new curriculum placed on the tradition-bound State Education Department and its teachers was also evident, because of the significant shift away from the textbook-oriented method to a more socially relevant and activity-oriented teaching and learning process. The new curriculum demanded responsible and motivated teachers and quite a lot of minimum academic requirements and adequate infrastructure facilities.
Initially, at least, these were made available to some extent in six of the 14 districts in Kerala where a World Bank-funded District Primary Education Programme (DPEP) was being implemented. But in schools elsewhere in the State, the absence of these preconditions, including well-trained teachers who could deliver on the new, continuously revised, teaching and learning materials and the radically revised (continuous) evaluation process, began to be felt immediately.
Moreover, the government schools in which the new curriculum was sought to be implemented accounted for only about 36 per cent of the total number of schools in Kerala. The rest were private schools, where the children of the rich and the majority of the middle class studied. A general feeling that half-baked experiments were only taking place in the State-government schools, where mostly the wards of the poor studied, could not be avoided.
Therefore, even as there were people who hailed the new curriculum, there were those who believed that the traditional methods of teaching and learning had their intrinsic merit and should not have been abandoned altogether, especially given the notoriously static and inefficient government education system. They continue to say that the new curriculum with its emphasis on joyful learning and lack of stress on measurable achievements will eventually produce only a bunch of clerks and peons. They are critical of the reduced emphasis on memory, math and spelling drills, precision in the use of written and spoken language and legible writing, the overemphasis on the informal rather than the formal, and also of the new evaluation methods which replaced the traditional system of written examinations (An educative experiment, Frontline, July 30, 1999).
But the feedback from a variety of sources, including independent review committees from schools where the new curriculum was implemented as intended, kept encouraging the reformers despite several attempts to abandon it, as in 2000-2001 under a new United Democratic Front (UDF) government. That year, when the first generation of the new curriculum students had reached Standard VII, the UDF government that came to power announced hastily that the LDF curriculum reform programme would be dropped or confined to lower classes and the students would have to revert to the old curriculum, old textbooks and old methods of learning. It did not matter to the new government that ever since they started going to school, those students had been accustomed only to the new way of learning and the new activity-oriented textbooks.
The announcement of a rollback was a body blow to the reform process (Abandoning a reform measure, Frontline, August 3, 2001) as it created the feeling that the new government would do away with the reform in schools and revert to the old methods and textbooks, oblivious of the impact it had on hundreds of students. Strangely, though, the announcement was greeted with relief by a large section of teachers who had been cursing the inflated workload under the new system and were merely going through the motions of meeting its requirements ever since it had been launched. No doubt, they preferred the conventional method of teaching, which many of them proclaimed had stood generations of students in good stead. No doubt, the governments announcement gave them an opportunity to revert to teaching in the easier, traditional way and, from then on, to largely ignore the demands of the new curriculum. For the most part of its term, the UDF government continued to be lukewarm to the reform process that a previous government run by a political opponent had initiated.
It was after many such dilutions that the reform process once again reached the hands of the managers under a new LDF government. But hardly had they revised the curriculum and syllabi once again when the new series of textbooks (initially for Classes I, III, V and VII) became the target of the political controversy that overwhelmed Kerala from the beginning of this school year.
Now, the Expert Committee on Textbook Review, appointed in the wake of the turmoil, seems to have come to the conclusion that despite the lofty intentions of its promoters and nearly a decade after it was first launched, the curriculum reform process continues to be plagued by several basic concerns that ought to have been solved long ago. Though the committee has couched its critical findings in an indirect and politically fitting manner, between the lines, its report offers an authentic, irrefutable view of the infirmity of the school reform process.
Invariably, among other things, the committee has found that a large section of teachers are yet to internalise the new methodology of teaching and that the textbooks and teachers handbooks are yet to imbibe the spirit and strengths of the new system. Likewise, the textbooks do not contain the knowledge necessary for each class and the syllabi do not specify the level and nature of knowledge transaction that is expected in each subject at each stage as intended in the curriculum.
In all the textbooks, the text is very limited and not sufficient for students to engage with all subjects. The textbook content continues to be didactic instead of being interactive and, therefore, fails the students in supporting their thinking, triggering their curiosity and stimulating their critical reflection. Often, especially in the science textbooks, the concepts presented are too abstract for the child to engage with at that age. The language used in the textbooks is mostly colloquial, whereas, what was required was careful planning to help the learner move confidently between the colloquial and the formal academic genres used by different disciplines. There is also a case for enriching the content by expanding the narrative in the social science textbooks and providing suitable markers to help children construct their understanding.
Because the curriculum is supposed to be activity-oriented (in the classrooms and textbooks), there is often a mechanical focus on merely performing an activity or experiment even though it does not always ensure learning. The report suggests that the intensive training programmes for teachers and syllabus- and textbook-makers, organised continuously since 1997, have failed to provide satisfactory results.
Teachers are also yet to get properly oriented for conducting both continuous and terminal assessment. Training was imparted to the teachers only for transacting the textbooks which used the activity-oriented pedagogy. Many teachers consider that activities and exercises given to the learners in the form of projects, seminars, assignments, collections, etc., are tools of evaluation. But they have to better understand the process by which learners construct knowledge and how learners responses need to be assessed, the report says.
Under the new system, a careful support process for learning through social interaction (discussion and reflection, in small groups of peers or with a teacher, parent or a community resource person) is considered essential to help the pupil. The report says that such a support process is yet to be reflected in the way the syllabus and textbooks have been prepared. Handbooks, too, have been found wanting especially because a majority of the teachers have been taught and trained in the traditional behaviourist paradigm and may still be using the old scales for evaluation of students even in the changed environment in the schools in Kerala.
From the report of the committee, it seems that the reform managers have also failed in the careful planning of lessons, in ensuring continuity and proper sequencing of lessons from a learners perspective, and in providing the academic rigour that was required in the textbooks and in all the related activities. This, the report says, was an important omission because the new curriculum sought to erase the artificial boundaries and watertight compartments of school subjects that existed earlier and which had caused knowledge to be fragmented rather than integrated.
From the observations in the report there is no doubt that even after nearly a decade of reforms, most teachers continue to be under the influence of a system that belongs to the colonial past. Teacher training programmes that focus on different aspects of pedagogy and disciplinary knowledge, including a deeper understanding of learners, unfortunately are yet to be organised or are yet to yield results, and this threatens the very future of the reform process.
The committee has said, importantly, that the method of teacher training should vary from the primary to the higher secondary level, with more importance given to aspects of child development and pedagogic practices that ensure learning through an integrated approach at the former level. At higher levels, more stress will need to be given to ensure the teachers own deep understanding of concepts and an appreciation of the changing nature of various disciplines.
The committee indicates that the process of preparation of textbooks, which involves a large number of teachers, is yet to be streamlined. Several of its recommendations also raise doubts about the kind of expertise that was being utilised until now in the preparation of the syllabi, textbooks and teachers handbooks.
Among the major recommendations of the committee that have been accepted immediately by the government, therefore, are the constitution of a textbook commission to monitor all textbooks used in the State; the formation of a core group for the preparation of textbooks; the involvement of eminent resource persons with expertise in the constructivist approach and with academic expertise in different disciplinary areas to help strengthen the conceptualisation of the syllabus and to provide guidance for the writing of the textbooks; and a mechanism by which the syllabus, textbooks and handbooks are posted on a website for inviting comments or remarks from the general public.
But, surely, it was not the infirmities of the curriculum reform process that led the Congress-led opposition UDF and the politically convenient alliance it had formed with some minority Christian and Muslim and caste-based Hindu organisations to take up cudgels against the school system under the LDF government.
Still, it is no wonder that with such a widening gap between theory and practice in the running of the learner-centred, activity oriented, constructivist curriculum, the textbooks attracted so much adverse attention and led to the breakdown of schooling and law and order in the State.
Where professionalism, training, commitment, academic vigour and expertise are lacking, a reform process is bound to generate only a substandard academic atmosphere and study materials that become easy prey for political criticism and manipulation.
In fact, this years school books have been accused variously of being anti-religious in outlook, trying to spread communist ideals and ideology, encouraging divisiveness, social disharmony and hatred in young minds, discouraging belief in God and denying the role of parents in the moral and religious upbringing of their children. It was also alleged that some of the textbooks denied the Congress and important national leaders their role in the national movement and instead presented them or their views but only in contexts far removed from their main contribution to Indian society. The Standard VII textbook was also accused of trying to analyse important national and local historical events from a class perspective and of using such interpretations to serve the narrow political ends of the ruling party.
The committee has provided answers to many of the overtly political allegations in a non-committal manner. For example, its report says: The committee did not find any explicit attempt to propagate communist ideology. What is clear is the attempt to inculcate values of humanism, secularism and democracy.
Elsewhere, it says, The committee is of the opinion that the book does not attempt to negate the importance of religion in human life. On the contrary the book projects the positive aspects of religion. Yet, the committee recognises that the way religion is referred to in the textbook could be revised in order to avoid any possible misinterpretation.
The closest the committee has come to addressing the various political allegations is to include among its 17 recommendations the proposal that the names and affiliation of the members of the drafting committee and expert committee should be acknowledged in the textbooks a suggestion, among many others, that is yet to be accepted by the government.
It is refreshing that the burden of the committees report has been to go deeply into the causes of the crisis in Keralas school system, instead of indulging itself in a minefield of political concerns. The report suggests more or less clearly why such contentious textbooks came to be produced at all in the first place and why such unsettling controversies are likely again if the government does not act immediately. That is a serious concern as the issues identified have been the bane of the decade-long curriculum reform programme and affect mostly the disadvantaged students who have no other avenue for education.