Don’t always go by the book!

Nimesh Ved

Some days ago a friend invited me to interact with students of class 8. He teaches science in a school that adheres to the CBSE curriculum. The topic for discussion was (Chapter: 7) conservation of plants and animals. I took the textbook home to prepare and while I found the ‘story’ engaging, my first impression was that the chapter had spread itself a bit too thin – especially towards the end. However, as I re-read and began making notes some portions left me with a host of questions.

Some of these lines and my reactions I share below.
‘Trees in the forest are cut for some of the purposes mentioned below –
• Procuring land for cultivation
• Building houses and factories
• Making furniture or using wood as fuel’

On similar lines is ‘it is a pity that even Protected Forests are not safe because people living in the neighbourhood encroach upon them and destroy them’.

For some reason, developmental infrastructure as a threat to forests did not merit space. Even a cursory look at the newspapers of recent months will give an idea of the inroads made into the wilderness not only by ports, railways, roads, mines, SEZs but also by oil-palm and rubber plantations.

Then there is, ‘Sanctuaries are places where killing (poaching) or capturing of animals is strictly prohibited’, while the paragraph talking about protected areas says ‘plantations, cultivation and grazing are prohibited’. Killing and capturing of wildlife across the country is prohibited irrespective of where it takes place. There appears to be confusion over usage and understanding of terms like National Parks, Wildlife Sanctuaries and Biosphere Reserves. Biosphere Reserves are neither categorized as Protected Areas under the Indian Law (Widlife Protection Act) nor are they meant to keep people out. Lastly, there are lines one wonders the basis of. From ‘small animals are much more in danger of becoming extinct than the bigger animals’ to ‘once upon a time animals like lions, elephants, wildlife buffaloes and barasingha were also found in the Satpura National Park’.

These stark gaps could be on account of a combination of factors including –

  • Lack of awareness about our forests and wildlife – both their ecology as well as the laws governing them.
  • Insensitivity towards people who live lives different from those of the English speaking urban population – the majority authors and also possibly consumers of these textbooks.

They also point to –

  • The importance we accord to nature and environment in our lives – including the curriculum.
  • Gaps in the process of designing textbooks – planning, writing and critiquing.

On the one hand we complain that urban children are increasingly getting distant from forests, and on the other we have textbooks which do not help them connect. This also raises larger questions like –

  • How much can one teach about forests and wildlife using only books, without visiting these places?
  • Are we willing to treat our students as mature intelligent individuals, share challenges the world faces today and enable them to question the scenario?

What does one do when the textbook itself raises so many questions? I had, a few months ago, posed this to a teacher of environmental sciences. The Cambridge Board textbook, we were discussing, was not only outdated but also overtly ‘pro-development’ without questioning the environmental impact of that ‘development’. It was an environment textbook which looked favourably at mining! He had a short response – ‘I ignore the textbook’. I am not sure if this is the best way forward. Questioning, while very welcome and critical, is just the first step. We need to work towards other – and more effective – ways of dealing with the situation. Paying more attention to the entire process of textbooks – from conception to the final product – could be a first step. Textbooks which go beyond the clichéd narratives, convey updated understanding of the issues, talk of the issues and complexities around us and respect the intelligence of students.

The author loves walks, silences and both of them together. He blogs at http://nimesh-ved.blogspot.in/ and can be reached at nimesh.explore@gmail.com.