The textbook unbound

Kadambari Muttoo

A conference on ‘India’s Textbook Culture’ organised by Learn Today, the learning division of the India Today Group, held in December 2008, focused on how learning resources and textbooks are conceptualised, produced and used. People from the government, the non-formal sector, private publishers, students, Principals and educational theorists attended the conference.

Key issues included new learning resources, the economics of publishing, local knowledge and the implications for assessment, and policy implications for the future that Learn Today intends to present to the government through a seminal paper.

Prof Krishna Kumar, Director, NCERT delivering the keynote address
Prof Krishna Kumar, Director, NCERT delivering the keynote address

In his welcome address, Mr. Arun Kapur, Executive Director, Learn Today, set the stage for a challenging agenda. He referred to the educational philosophies of Tagore and Gandhi and felt that the textbook could be an important tool for achieving these ideals. “The textbook can act as a powerful tool. As a trampoline, with a little creativity and imagination, it is a jumping-off point that propels all learners to new heights. The danger, however, is when it remains a hammock – a comfortable, lazy lounge chair that one takes a nap on. It is how the teacher uses it that makes the difference.”

Prof. Krishna Kumar, Director NCERT, in his keynote address brought up several issues that traced the evolution of textbooks. Before the National Curriculum Framework 2005 was set out, textbooks held centre stage and were a source of tension and even conflict. It was a challenge to create textbooks that reflected a sense of peace and decency.

Education meant creating a space for the student and teacher, even to the extent of questioning the textbook. The latest NCERT textbooks made teachers think about their subject, and ‘attempt to create an experiential India for our children’. Professor Krishna Kumar felt however, that the purpose of the NCERT had been misunderstood even by child-centred schools. The NCERT was therefore working on making exam questions more imaginative, but to evaluate such questions, there is a need for teachers who can assess a student’s argument.

Prof. Krishna Kumar felt that we are mired in the textbook culture of the nineteenth century that required the textbook to be a bible, because we haven’t accepted the agency of the teacher, who the world now sees as a knowledge worker. In this connection, teacher associations can be important as agents of change. Prof. Krishna Kumar’s viewthat Early Childhood Educators deserve the highest salaries, should be welcomed by underpaid and sometimes unappreciated Kindergarten teachers nationwide.

Prof. MM Pant of Planet-EDU, in his inaugural address focused on how the textbook will transform itself into a dialogue with the reader. He talked about the challenges faced by education in a knowledge rich society, where ‘thinking’ skills are more important that just learning, and where students can become ‘producers of knowledge, not consumers’.

The second session dealt exclusively with the economics and use of textbooks and was chaired by Ms. Abha Sahgal, Principal Sanskriti School.

The first speaker, Prof. Janaki Rajan, Jamia Millia University put the economics of publishing textbooks into perspective by pointing out that roughly 90 per cent are in the hands of state governments and only ten per cent with NCERT and private publishers. Her experience as Director, SCERT and the bureaucratic hurdles showed that the dialogue was all about money and size, and not academic content. A very important lesson learnt was that texts which were carefully crafted got the best student response, and that ‘children who are poor can appreciate the best of research’.

Ms. Sajili Shirodkar of Madhubun Books, discussed the factors in play when a textbook is under consideration by a school. At times the criteria for selection may be the amount of teacher support that is available in a book. Ultimately, if we wish to move away from the mechanical use of a textbook or rote-learning, teacher-training is the key, she said.

Dr. Sarada Balagopalan of the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies opened the third session by introducing the eminent speakers.

Ms. Rashmi Paliwal, representing the Eklavya Foundation, emphasised on the teaching/learning being transacted in the classroom. Eklavya’s success could be attributed in part to its motivational writing style; text was based on real-life experiences, and the narrative provided ‘guided space for the learner to reflect’. The student is part of the text, and the teacher was involved as a facilitator of discussion.

She advocated open-book exams after teaching students the skills of referencing, as one aspect of the assessment process. The most successful chapters were the ones where the text was ‘vivid, gripping and substantial’ validating the notion that big ideas can be retained, even if chapters are longer, if the transaction is good.

Mr. Dilip Ranjekar, CEO, and Ms. Aanchal Chanal of the Azim Premji Foundation, gave some details of their activities, specifically in partnering the Government of Rajasthan by developing materials for Grades 1-8 in all subjects. On investigation, the APF had realised that school textbooks were inadequate, facts were incorrect, concepts did not link, and vocabulary was anything but age-appropriate. They had hence decided that developing workbooks was the most effective way to proceed. To this end they sent 55 people to Rajasthan and developed these workbooks in six months. The APF has recently begun action research for the Governments of Uttarakhand and Haryana.

Ms. Suchismita Srinivas of Educational Initiatives dwelt on the focal activities of EI on assessment. EI has been conducting ASSET, a diagnostic test, which is currently being taken by 4 lakh students in India and the Gulf. She also spoke about the difficulties encountered in standardising assessment in India. With regard to textbooks, her opinion was that a textbook cannot be effective if the teacher isn’t, hence teacher support materials are essential.

Policy implications were summed up in the final session. Prof. Shiva Kumar, Adviser UNICEF, cited Howard Gardner’s ‘Five Minds for the Future’ as a reference point for the mindset we wish to create in our students. He referred to the ‘kunji marts’, coaching classes and private tuition as some of the ills affecting Indian education, but most of all he recommended a change in the exam system, which according to him, had destroyed the reading habit.

Prof. Shiva Kumar mentioned the government schools which had many contract teachers who were insecure about tenure, and this, in turn, created a feeble classroom environment, poor student-teacher ratios and a very low level of teaching activity. He advocated teacher training, regular appraisal of teacher performance, and higher salaries.

Professor R Govinda, Head, School and Non-Formal Education Unit, NUEPA, acknowledged that textbooks are the entry point for mass education, but argued strongly for a professional role for the State. The SCERT produces textbooks, but they should not be the products of bureaucratic minds. The model needs to change and creative minds should be working on texts. He asked why we could not liberalise textbooks or create greater variety, and allow teachers to choose which book they wished to use. Since very often there is only one book to teach from, reference and learning materials should be made available to the student and teacher alike. He recommended starting a cycle of change in assessment methods, improvement in teacher training, the anchoring of teacher learning around the textbook, and policies that look after the needs of our teachers.

Mr. Subhash Khuntia, Joint Secretary, Bureau of School Education, Department of HRD, spoke on the importance of textbooks, as they ensure that certain things get taught. However, because of the exam pattern, textbooks have become compulsory, and most schools go in for one textbook to get better results.

The government, he said, would be very happy to publish well-designed and creative textbooks. Teachers are free to write books and the adoption of a book would be left to its merits.

He pointed out certain ground realities: from project-based activities that cannot be carried out as many schools do not have libraries; subversive and retrograde material in texts that compels the Book Council to vet all material.

He suggested that the NCERT could create exemplar books which the States could adapt or better still, write their own. In 21st century schools, he concluded, the have-nots need to be considered.

Dr. Shalini Advani, Learn Today, at the conference
Dr. Shalini Advani, Learn Today, at the conference

Dr. Shalini Advani, Director Education, Learn Today, summed up the four main points of learning from the conference: Learning from textbooks is an active process, but we need to ensure that this happens for all books; there is a real need for a massive expansion of teacher training, not just subject training; in the interests of democracy, we cannot have relevant learning for the middle class and just content for the lower economic classes; assessment is not an end-of-the-line process, assessment should be for learning, not of learning.

The author is Manager, School Systems, Learn Today. She can be reached at [email protected].

The convener of this conference, LEARN TODAY, is the learning division of the India Today Group, India’s most diversified media group. The India Today Group owns and manages Vasant Valley School. Learn Today aims to enrich the world of school education through the promotion of professional standards. Its activities include setting up schools that are centres of excellence, professional development of teachers, promotion and dissemination of education research, school audits, workshops and school improvement programmes, the creation of learning and teaching material, and advocacy and policy inputs for progressive educational development, among others.

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