Textbooks and tests have long been the two words that defined the Indian education system, but now the National Curriculum Framework 2005 is doing its utmost to change that perception. The 124-page document, prepared by the National Council for Educational Research and Training (NCERT), emphasises the words learning without burden and child-centred education repeatedly. Its volley of suggestions, already reflected in the new NCERT syllabus for classes one to twelve, includes cutting down on the number of textbooks, making assessment methods flexible, and promoting more inclusive learning.

More dramatically, it makes a case for doing away with stereotypes based on gender and caste. Perhaps the spirit of the document (the NCF and the new syllabus can be accessed at the website www.ncert.nic.in) is reflected in the many examples for innovative teaching suggestions that pepper its pages. For instance, one illustration titled Talking Pictures, recommends: "Show the class a picture of a household with various members of the family performing various tasks. The difference is the father is cooking, the mother fixing the light bulb, the daughter returning from school on a bicycle, and the son milking the cow ... the grandfather is sewing on a button and the grandmother is doing the accounts. Ask the children to talk about the picture ... Do they think that there is any work that these people should not be doing? Why? Involve them in a discussion on dignity of work, equality and gender ..."

By breaking away from established notions and prevalent teaching practices, the framework has laid the ground for making learning a more exciting experience. As NCERT Director Krishna Kumar explains, the NCF is "sensitive" to the needs of children and understands that the ultimate goal of education is to "motivate". And even its critics agree that this NCF takes a step forward by recognising the importance of the child in the school education system. The new NCERT syllabus shows a "marked departure from earlier ones", according to Kumar.

Illustration: Farzana Cooper

A new beginning

A fresh look at syllabi is certainly required in many states in the country, where changes in curricula sometimes occur only every 10 years. "Central boards of education, such as the CBSE (Central Board of Secondary Education) and the ICSE (Indian School Certificate Examinations), revise textbooks more frequently. States are more conservative, and revisions of curriculum happen slowly," says Kulbhushan Kushal, regional director of the DAV Group of educational institutions in Maharashtra and Gujarat. While modifications are expected to take place according to new education policies, it is only CBSE schools, and states such as Uttaranchal and Jharkhand that immediately follow the NCERT syllabus.

The need for change is accepted widely. "Discussions have centred around the relevance of the present education system - there is a feeling among teachers, parents and children that the system is irrelevant," says V. Madhusudan, additional project coordinator, Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan, Hyderabad. According to Krishna Kumar, the Goa government has been the first to write to NCERT expressing a desire to adopt and implement the new national framework. "We have to start taking decisions (based on the NCF), and identify resources (to implement it). It is today or never," he says. But the new framework is still being debated in many states in the country.

Educating the educator

The framework suggests that students should be able to "connect knowledge to life outside school" and "ensure that learning is shifted away from rote methods". It recommends that teachers should encourage children not just to answer questions but also to frame questions themselves, and "plan lessons so that children are challenged to think and not simply repeat what is told to them." By stressing on these methods, the framework emphasises not just the role of the child, but also that of the teacher.

The current NCF comes after what is generally considered to have been the "saffron venture" of the Bharatiya Janata Party-led National Democratic Alliance, as reflected in NCF 2000. Professor Yash Pal, chairperson of the National Steering Committee, notes in his foreword to the framework that they have "avoided the blame game". This very fact, however, has not gone down well with individuals and organisations battling communalism. Says Rajan Prasad of Sahmat, a non-governmental organisation that has organised debates on the framework, "There was a whole campaign against communalisation, and instead of directly confronting the issue, the new NCF is made to appear as if it is only meant to reduce the burden of children." The NCF should have explicitly stated that it is a secular document, he adds.

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Its path-breaking suggestions notwithstanding, there are questions about the extent to which the framework can be translated into reality. When many schools have no infrastructure to speak of, when teachers are hired on contract to teach for a few hours daily, will it be possible to make the child the centre of learning, as the framework whole-heartedly recommends? Critics point out that the NCF does not adequately consider the teacher training processes that need to precede the classroom reforms it preaches. The framework does have a section on Teacher Education for Curriculum Renewal, which, among other things, admits that, "Attempts at curricular reform have not been adequately supported by teacher education. Large-scale recruitment of para-teachers has diluted the identity of the teacher as a professional." Also acknowledging that "any curriculum renewal effort needs to be supported with well thought-out (sic) and systematic programme of in-service education ...", the framework suggests strategies for organising teacher training programmes.

Yet, though the framework has taken a positive step by recognising the importance of teachers, it "could have taken a clearer view and made a series of policy recommendations on the subject," says Poonam Batra, professor in Delhi University's Department of Education, who has written a paper on the subject for the Economic and Political Weekly. "If education is empowerment, then it cannot talk only of students' empowerment. It should include teachers' empowerment," she adds. A redesigned curriculum will not be imparted through textbooks alone - the teacher will be the one conveying it to students; and, however well a textbook is written, it should have clear "pedagogic methods", says Batra. As she writes in her piece, "In the present form the NCF 2005 does not take a clear position on the current state of teacher education, the dying cadre of the trained elementary government schoolteacher and the increasing reliance of many state governments on a fast growing cadre of para teachers."

The framework should also have made clear the kind of interventions required to implement it fully, says Batra. In particular, the NCF does not offer suggestions on how experiences and voices excluded from the classroom till now can be brought in. It is wrong to assume - as the NCF does - that teachers will be far removed from their own socio-political context, where biases and discrimination against people, based on their backgrounds, exist, she adds. "Teacher education is an isolated process not linked to other departments," she says, "as a result, academic debates on equity and gender seldom enter the insular world of teaching educators."

Shailendra Kumar Sharma, senior programme coordinator of Pratham, a non-governmental organisation that works on education issues, says that interactions with teachers reveal that they are not ready to implement the changes suggested by the framework. "Is adequate support being provided to teachers to effect this paradigm shift?" he wonders. There is cynicism among teachers, especially in government schools, and besides, there's a considerable amount of divide between teachers and children from the marginalised sections of society, he adds. Teachers sometimes simply don't understand, or do not care to understand, where the child is coming from, says Sharma.

Krishna Kumar, on the other hand, says that the National Council for Teacher Education, a statutory body that lays down guidelines for regulating teachers' education in the country, has welcomed NCF 2005. The council has agreed to reorganise Bachelor of Education (B.Ed) programmes on the basis of NCF, he adds. The NCERT is also looking at conducting brief in-service programmes and release audio and video programmes to supplement its framework.

Reality bites

The NCF has devoted a chapter to School and Classroom Environment, mentioning that "not enough attention is paid to the importance of (sic) physical environment for learning". It says that classrooms are overcrowded and unattractive, despite the fact that children want to be in a colourful, friendly and playful space. The framework suggests ways to make school buildings and classrooms attractive, and says that heads of school and block functionaries should focus on ensuring that at least minimum infrastructural requirements are met. It also mentions that the ideal number of students in a class should be around 30.

The NCF has, however, shown a marked reluctance to ask the government to ensure better standards in its schools, many of which are crumbling and lack everything from teachers to toilets. It is also silent on how schools dealing with such basic infrastructural problems, with just a couple of teachers for 500-odd students or so, can implement its suggestions. Anil Sadgopal, member of the National Steering Committee that framed the curriculum, points out, "No curriculum reforms will be meaningful without systemic reforms in the school system." The NCF does not present a clear view on the government's role and has, instead, opted to say what the government wants to hear, he adds.

More concrete policy changes need to be initiated to implement the suggestions made by NCF, says Madhusudhan. Writing in the Social Scientist's issue on 'Debating Education', historian Irfan Habib points out that "almost every proposal it (the NCF 2005) makes is only practical - if at all! - for elite schools. Its insistence on "individualised attention" to be given to all children, or multiplicity of subject choices, or two levels (standard/higher) of teaching, are all possible only for highly privileged schools. In other respects too the proposals in NCF-2005 would disadvantage the poor."

Call for clarity

Some of the framework's proposals have evoked despair, and even anger. Two of these, in particular - the glorification of 'local knowledge', and a proposal to do away with examinations as the chief assessment tools, have come in for severe criticism. Drawing a halo around "local knowledge" could lead to obscurantist ideas, fears Rajan Prasad of Sahmat. The NCF states, "The child's community and local environment form the primary context in which learning takes place, and in which knowledge acquires its significance ... In this document, we emphasise the significance of contextualising education: of situating learning in a child's context." Children should be encouraged to learn from communities and knowledgeable individuals who are a storehouse of information on India's environment, says the framework. The only caveat mentioned here is that "all forms of local knowledge must be mediated through Constitutional values and principles."

In a note critiquing the processes, Teesta Setalvad, editor of Communalism Combat, points out that the overemphasis on "diffused local knowledge" could be "dangerous". " ... If implemented in the current form, the NCF 2005 would be a continued invitation to dubious, hugely-funded non-governmental organisations to continue to operate freely in the area of mass education and even draw government funds where politically sympathetic regimes exist," she writes. The document itself is not cohesive, and merely talking of equity as a token gesture is not sufficient, says Setalvad. "There is inequity of caste in our system, but liberals resist from admitting it," she adds.

The plan to dilute the role of examinations has produced sneers as well. The framework "attempts to remind teachers that assessment techniques have to be evolved to recognise children's success, rather than find ways to fail them," says the NCERT director. Those are the very points that critics like Habib question, fearing that educators will be coerced into regarding even non-performing students as successful by some yardstick. As he writes in his piece, How to evade real issues and make room for obscurantism, "The one way, however defective in actual practice, that may still be employed to keep a check on actual content of teaching in schools, is the system of examinations. NCF-2005 is, however, intent on reducing these to mere farcical exercises."

No verdict yet

The bottom-line question for such proposed reforms is 'will it work?' Indeed, can one expect the NCF to work magic in schools where even a blackboard is a scarce commodity? Krishna Kumar points to roles that have to be played by others, saying, "The NCF recognises that a complex set of factors is necessary for educational reforms - and civil society is a major factor." The way governments act will depend on civil society and the societal pressure on them to perform, he adds. The NCF, approved in September by the Central Advisory Board on Education in September, presents just one "aspect of educational reforms", he says. When economic reforms are still continuing after 14 years, educational reforms would clearly take much longer, he explains. "The document shows the direction ... at best, it can be a starting point," he adds.

The framework's positive attributes, the director points out, include the fact that it acknowledges the child's primacy and does not impose a straight-jacketed, narrow notion on children. Krishna Kumar claims that the new teaching methods will also contribute to stemming the current drop-out rate - as many as 53 percent of the children drop out by the time they reach class eight now. "It is the biased nature of the present curriculum against girls and marginalised groups that's partly responsible for making present-day education an alienating experience," he says.