Maths education in India: policy and reality

Rajesh Kumar Thakur

Mathematics, the synonym for phobia, is defined as the science of space, numbers and quantity by the Oxford English Dictionary. Mathematics is called the queen of all subjects and also the mother of all sciences. The foundation of a society is mathematically inclined and the importance of mathematics can be gauged from what Roger Bacon (1214-1294), English philosopher and scholar once said, “Neglect of mathematics works injury to all knowledge, since he who is ignorant of it cannot know the other sciences or things of the world.”

India has displayed its love for mathematics since the Vedic period. The Rig Veda talks about a huge number like the parardha (1012); the book Lalit Vistara written on the life of the Buddha speaks about tallakshana, another large number (1053); the Valmiki Ramayana speaks about yet another big number, mahaugh (1060), in Yudha Kanda. The book written by Satpathi Brahmins and Sulvasutra written during the 8th century BC talk about deep geometric concepts. Mathematics was alive and thriving between the 4th and 12th century AD under Aryabhata, Brahmagupta and Bhaskaracharya. India’s contribution to the world of mathematics includes the discovery of zero, the decimal number system and negative numbers, and yet today India’s presence in the field of mathematics is almost negligible.

So, what went wrong with India’s mathematical dreams? Why are we not producing good mathematicians? According to the 2014 Field Medal winner and member of NEP 2019, Manjula Bhargava, “The biggest mistake that happened in India after independence was the separation of teaching and research in India’s higher education system. India has some fantastic research institutions like Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, International Centre for Theoretical Sciences, Indian Statistical Institute but they are little islands of excellence. And then there is the whole teaching sector, state universities where no research happens.”

The National Achievement Survey 2017, conducted by the MHRD, to assess learning outcomes among children across India in different subjects shows class 3, 4 and 5 students getting 64%, 53% and 42% respectively in the mathematics test. This shows a trend of declining interest in mathematics. The situation is even more alarming at the higher level as the Central Board of Secondary Education (CBSE) confirms that only 21% students passing class 10 opt for mathematics at the senior secondary level. Why? From a country that had a rich mathematical tradition, how did we turn into a math-fearing nation? Have we not made efforts to bring back the popularity of maths?

As early as 1968 The Kothari Commission had placed emphasis on the importance of mathematics. It said, “With a view to accelerating the growth of the national economy, science education and research should receive high priority. Science and mathematics should be an integral part of general education till the end of the school stage.”

The commission had suggested the introduction of mathematics at two levels. General mathematics was made compulsory up to class 10 and advanced mathematics was introduced at the secondary level as an optional subject. General mathematics comprises arithmetic, algebra and geometry, whereas advanced mathematics comprises integers, quadratic equation, logarithm and coordinate geometry. But the system failed in the implementation of this change. The government neither trained nor could recruit good teachers of the subject.

Then came the National Policy on Education 1986. Though the NPE was a visionary educational policy, it too failed to bring about significant changes to math education in India. Unattractive classroom environment, teacher absenteeism, teacher-centred pedagogy and low skill attainment were some of the reasons. In 1992, the NPE was modified to once again bring in the two level mathematics (with some changes) as suggested by the Kothari Commission in 1968. The curriculum was redesigned to suit modern day needs and trained teachers were appointed to teach the subject, mathematics kits were supplied under Operation Black Board. But due to a vast syllabus, non-availability of good textbooks and no systems in place for the professional upgradation of teachers, this policy like the ones before it failed.

In 1993 the government constituted a National Advisory Committee under Professor Yashpal to look into the issue of overburdening of schoolchildren. This committee rightly pointed out that the math taught in schools had no connection to children’s lived reality and that this should be corrected if math was to become popular again. This report followed by NCF 2005 highlighted the need to reduce the size of the curriculum, ensure quality education for all and focus on activity-based teaching. The new syllabi proposed by NCF 2005 emphasized reason and conceptual understanding at every stage. Tackling mathematical anxiety was also addressed. According to NCF 2005, mathematics is more than formulas and mechanical procedures and an effort should be made to help children enjoy mathematics rather than fear it. The word mathematization was stressed upon. The policy document says – “Developing children’s abilities for mathematization is the main goal of mathematics education. The narrow aim of school mathematics is to develop ‘useful’ capabilities, particularly those relating to numeracy – numbers, number operations, measurement, decimals and percentages. The higher aim is to develop the child’s resources to think and reason mathematically, to pursue assumptions to their logical conclusion and to handle abstraction. It includes a way of doing things, and the ability and the attitude to formulate and solve problems.” (NCERT, 2005, p. 42).

NCF 2005, NEP 2019 or the older NPE 1968 and 1986, were all well-thought out policy documents prepared by learned people, but all these policies failed miserably at one thing – seeking the views of the stakeholders – students, teachers, schools and parents. Only when those involved in the day-to-day transaction of education are consulted will we know whether the proposals put forth can be implemented on the ground successfully or not. What is the point of saying math teaching should be made fun and innovative when we don’t have quality teachers who are passionate enough to uplift the standard of mathematics, when textbooks produced are bad and when we have not been able to link mathematics with daily life?

In the year 2012 when India was celebrating the 125th birth anniversary of Srinivasa Ramanujan, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh had said, “It is a matter of concern that for a country of our size, the number of competent mathematicians we have is badly inadequate. Over more than the last three decades, many of our young men and women with natural ability in mathematics have not pursued the discipline at advanced levels. This resulted in a decline in the quality of math teachers in schools and colleges.”

Let’s explore the reasons for and solutions to the unpopularity of mathematics at the mass level.

  1. Poor quality of books: Textbooks at the primary level should have children’s favourite cartoon characters explaining the mathematical concepts. The link between math and real life should be made very apparent. Mathematical games, puzzles, titbits on the life of mathematicians, history of mathematics, new research and discovery in mathematics should all be an integral part of textbooks, which should of course be updated often.
  2. Faulty education policy: Educational policies in India are designed by people who are unaware of the ground realities – school infrastructure, student-teacher ratio, the knowledge level of teachers, etc. Any education committee formed should have practicing teachers and other stakeholders as active members.
  3. Shortage of quality teachers: Most students in rural area are first generation learners. They are completely dependent on their teachers for education, but there is a shortage of good trained teachers. We need teachers who can teach mathematics using technology, can relate mathematics with daily life. Mathematics teaching should not be monotonous. We need teachers to go beyond the textbook and not be in a hurry to complete the syllabus. It is not a teacher’s job to tell her students how to score well in an exam, it is her job to show them how to apply their classroom knowledge to solve real life problems.
  4. Lack of research institutes: In the last 70 years of independence, we have built reputable institutions like the IIT, AIIMS, IIM, IIIT, which produce quality engineers, doctors and managers but in most of our universities we hardly focus on research in mathematics. Besides TIFR, IISc, ISI, IMS, etc. we don’t have any institution that engages students in the field of research. The education system in India is inclined towards making money. A student who is good in mathematics prefers to go into engineering rather than pursue mathematical research.
  5. Lack of awareness of careers in mathematics: In India, engineering or teaching are the two known career option for students of math. Different career options need to be explored. Actuary, data analysis, gaming, psychometry, reseach, operation research, financial analysis, cryptology are a few areas where people from mathematics background are in great demand. Even Facebook, Google hire people with a mathematics background.

Mathematics is not about calculations or getting jobs by cracking competitive exams, it is an integral part of our life. The policy formed by the government for the upliftment of mathematics should be implemented with proper planning and with full knowledge of ground realities. Math is a beautiful and exciting subject and unless we realize this we will not be able to bring back the glorious days of math.

The author is a mathematics teacher in Delhi Government School, Sector – 16, Rohini. He has written 58 books, 62 ebooks, and 500 articles for different magazines and newspapers. He can be reached at [email protected]. You can also tweet him at @R_K_THAKUR.

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