Questions in search of answers

Nimesh Ved

Over the years as one dabbled in education (especially environment education) one faced a number of questions. Questions which were critical but which did not have clear answers and did not get the attention they deserved. Questions like why was our education so fragmented and removed from our lives? Was this data-driven transmission of knowledge a major driver of our being apart from nature as opposed to being a part of nature? Did environment education as a separate subject have merit when other subjects were tuned to churn our job-seekers in the ‘development’ race? Why were our textbooks not sensitive to the realities around us? And more.

This book, a guide to textbooks, attempts to answer some of these questions and many others as well. It has been put together by a team comprising members with rich and diverse experiences from across the globe. The team appears to be very clear in its objective and is sensitive to the myriad worlds all around. It proposes embedding sustainable development across subjects. Four subjects (including language) have been discussed at length and the message is very clear – business as before will not work. The design is based on the need to have a fresh approach to education beginning with new generation textbooks suited to the 21st Century. The focus, refreshingly, is on developing competencies such as values, creativity and critical thinking.

Pluses
The underlying tone of equity is very welcome and much needed in our time when not only are financial inequities increasing but also a large chunk of our society appears to be closing its eyes to the presence of social inequity around us. The book does not shy away from putting across hard facts – it says, for example, that while science has led to a certain improvement in life, the benefits of this improvement across the world are unevenly distributed.

The book also takes us out of our comfort zones and makes us question our actions. It goes beyond skimming the surface. It is clear that a lot of effort has been invested and the book works – it makes us ponder and draw a parallel with actions that we have been a part of. It reminded me of a discussion during a conference – on Education for Sustainable Development (ESD) – where a question was raised on why (in education) we were scared to be political on the one hand and happy with so little on the other.

It touches the proverbial holy cows as well. It has lines one wishes to see but seldom comes across in books, leave alone guides for textbooks. Lines like ‘how competition between NGOs slows aid process’ or ‘how countries show power by promising large amount of money for aid’. In doing this the book is walking the talk – it is presenting the hard facts around our lives and also trusting the intelligence of the readers.

The book has more than a handful of lines which stand out and make one pause and think. If one were to enlist these one-liners here they would take up a major chunk of the review space.

It looks at larger education issues through a positive and constructive lens. It brings in learning and best practices from across the globe. The authors note that teachers, in today’s information age, are learning coaches and not just transmitters of information.

Minuses
Today, when the United Nations (UN) as an idea is being critically looked at and its effectiveness over the years questioned one wonders about the point of repeated stress on multiple UN documents and their associated jargon; jargon which – in most cases – seldom moves beyond conferences and UN publications. Also the term ‘sustainable development’ itself has been looked at as an oxymoron.

Somewhere, as the book progresses, one is left wondering if the approach will over-burden children with too much gloom. The gloom may be factual but is a result of what we have done to the world and not the fault of the children. There is a risk of over-loading the textbooks and as a corollary taking the fun out of them.

Despite the grave situation that we find ourselves in today, the world has its share of wonderful individuals and groups which keep it going. The authors could have also brought in a more positive feel to the book.

Given the standard of our textbooks and their pro-development tilt, the book, while needed, appears a tad too ambitious.

Subjects
Subjects are looked at in a fresh manner and more than once had me wishing we had textbooks along these lines when we studied. The idea is not to discuss subjects in abstract but to use real world examples and not shy away from the issues that accompany them. To discuss the world not as a black and white entity but in the varying tones of grey that it is. At one point I was reminded of the ghazal penned by Nandlal Pathak soulfully rendered by Jagjit Singh: Ma sunao muje woh kahani jisme raja na ho, na ho rani, jo hamari tumhari katha ho. (Mother, tell me a story which is not about kings and queens, but a story which talks of our lives.) I attempt to present a picture of the book by exploring distinct facets in each of the chapters.

Mathematics: The sheer scope of this chapter is an eye-opener and makes one aware of the scale of the book. From discussing that the need for students is to learn how to use mathematics in life beyond school (and not become mathematicians) to critically looking at how mathematical word problems end up over-simplifying contexts instead of promoting critical thinking; from discussing collaborations as being crucial for peace and sustainability education to laying emphasis on the grammar of curriculum materials; and of course weaving all of them together in a manner that makes sense.

Science: The chapter begins with motivation for embedding ESD into a science textbook and then moves on to key principles, models and strategies for embedding the same. Lastly, it looks at examples and ‘final considerations’. References are given at the end as with other chapters. The small proportion of references from India highlight the need and scope to invest time and energy on this domain.

Geography: These lines from the chapter will give put forth an idea of the content. ‘Geography is about reading and writing the world, so it is essential that the textbook transmits differentiated worldviews that challenge stereotypical visions and negative categorizations’. ‘Exploring the places of our daily geographies (home, classrooms, gardens, school buildings, etc) is a possible first step of geographical education. The spaces where we carry on our daily lives are the ideal context for working on the basic spatial patterns defining our private and social geographies’. ‘Geographical education helps people to learn how to exist harmoniously with all living species.’

Language: The role and power of language cannot be emphasized enough. From the words we use in day to day communication to the literature we invest our time with – all shape us in one way or another and language carries immense potential to bring attention to an issue and bring in change. While the section gives useful references and suggestions, it misses out on the fun that language can be. Also some of the connections appear forced.

Conclusion
Bringing sustainability aspects in textbooks in the manner proposed is a daunting task – not only in bringing out the textbooks but also in implementing them, especially given where our teachers and parents stand. But then if deliberating on sustainability, in the pertinent yet critical manner as the book does, was an easy task it would have already been taken up.

Given where we stand as a society, we have little option but to move in this direction and this book shows us a clear path we can take. This book is a small but much needed step.

The reviewer loves being with books during evenings. He blogs at http://nimesh-ved.blogspot.com/ and can be reached at nimesh.explore@gmail.com.