Choice, chance and challenge

Meeta Sengupta

The National Education Policy 2020 has brought a breath of fresh air to those who struggled with the rote learning regime of the past. Learning of content or book knowledge alone does not enable students for life, and the new guidance in the policy is clearly to move beyond rote into the land of skills. The restructuring of education is subtle but distinct, to move from measurement-ready students who need to chase marks, to makers, and thence to mastery. This is the very foundation on which a practicum-based course such as home science or home economics is built. Courses like home science enable knowledge of course, but also activate the full spectrum of learning, thus also including skills, attitudes and behaviours. It may be all right for a celebrity chef in the tabloids to throw tantrums in his/her kitchen, it makes for a good story, but a student of home science knows better. She/he would have been trained in much more than cooking and cleaning – it is a holistic education for life.

In many ways, courses like home science have been ahead of the National Education Policy, since many of the things written into the policy are already included in the principles on which these practical courses have been designed. The policy has focused on building future-ready students, not just students who are ready for employment, but also students who are enabled with life skills that are useful as members of a community and citizens of a country. The skills that they ask our students to learn are about practical application of knowledge, about creation and creativity, about making things, about mastery. These are the very skills that practical choices such as home science already deliver.

With the best of intentions, the education system in our country had become limiting in many ways. The choice of subjects at secondary school depended upon one’s marks, making marks a very specific goal, and examinations competitive with very high stakes. It was difficult, if not impossible, for students to move from a selected stream, nor was there much choice given to students to take cross-stream subjects. These three limitations meant that a student was almost forced to make an early choice, and once having made that choice, had to follow it through till graduation if they did not want to face a penalty for changing their course. This problem of a fixed stream approach was compounded by the fact that there was very little preparation or guidance, or indeed awareness. All of this changes with the National Education Policy, with a shift towards being more flexible, giving more choices and more chances to students.

The policy also advocates for a vocational and practical approach to learning, formally doing away with streaming and calling for both kinds of courses to be treated at par. Indeed, in many ways, vocational courses have always been delivering more than the academic courses, though academic courses had a reputation for being more rigorous. This may have been a mistaken belief, because in practical courses, not only does one have to know one’s content, one also has to demonstrate the ability to use it, to apply and modify and to show a certain level of skill. So while home science may not be Master Chef in action, it certainly is mastery in apprenticeship.

Illustration: Sunil Chawdiker

Skill-based learning is different from pure knowledge-based learning. The process and steps to knowledge-based learning in a rote learning system could be as basic as ingesting the material and regurgitating it in an examination. A better mode of knowledge acquisition will include building on previous knowledge, absorbing the new, linking it to enhance understanding, and then being able to use it when called. A skill cannot be learned by listening or reading. Skill-based learning involves watching a demonstration, trying it out, practicing, before one is able to show that one has acquired the skill and is on the way to mastery. This is not a simple in and out, for skill-based learning is about grit and resilience too. One has to fail in many different ways and try again in many ways before getting it just right. There are many ways to make a bad omelette, and one will make many bad ones before flipping and folding it just right. Skill-based learning always offers room for improvement, and follows the masters who demonstrate excellence. In that sense, practical and skill-based learning builds attitudes of not just fortitude, because one knows that there is a constant learning path ahead, but it also builds a learner’s attitude. This is what the National Education Policy is trying to bring into all parts, where the key skill learnt is how to learn, unlike the previous key skill of test taking.

The vocational and practical approaches to learning have always been useful even in traditional learning systems from an early age in order to teach young students basic skills and life skills and grow them up the skills ladder. Practical courses such as home science do this with ease, their normal way of teaching and learning already includes working one’s way up the skills ladder. While academic approaches seek in-class activities that progress students for skills, the vocational approach has it built into the content and curriculum. Take one skills ladder, where a student learns to recognize, retell, connect, understand, compare, interpret, analyze and evaluate. Each of these is a skill that can be directly taught when teaching subjects like resource management or personal finances and certainly with textiles and fashion. Indeed, the skills ladder is the core methodology in practical courses, and it is these skills that can be applied to every area of life.

The skills approach to learning is also much more student friendly when it comes to assessment. When knowledge-based learning is tested, and the testing is normally for a whole body of knowledge in a written or oral examination, it is quite stressful. Even if formative tests take much of the load of learning, there has to be a summative examination in order to progress the student. The skills-based approach, which is used in practical courses such as home sciences, is quite different. The National Education Policy nods its head towards this approach when it says that learning and testing at the middle school needs to be based on projects and experiences, not just on examinations. It also opens up the possibility of vocational courses starting from middle school itself, thus making learning more practicable, as well as reducing the stress of a pure examination approach. Assessment in the Vocational Education Training (VET) way is based on observations of demonstrated skills, as recorded in a portfolio. The portfolio is a body of work, and while it is tested in different ways, it does not get reduced to a single examination that determines progress and pathway.

One could think of it as a driving test, which is just another practical skill for life and learning, just as the others that are taught part of the home science choices. A driving test cannot be useful if merely theoretical. Clearly, a person who knows how gears engage in theory may be able to write about it, or may be able to draw the gears perfectly, but this does not make them safe drivers on the road. Knowing how petrol consumption works, or what the colour of exhaust smoke indicates is useful knowledge, and will definitely make one a better driver, but that is only if one has practically demonstrated the ability to be road safe when in the driver’s seat and on the move. Now, to make this happen, the practical demonstration actually is far more rigorous, since it includes a diverse set of circumstances and conditions.

Illustration: Sunil Chawdiker

Home science too is evolving, and isn’t the cooking, cleaning, housekeeping degree of yore. It has always included home economics, which is a branch of management. Some of the traditional areas have suffered from poor image, but you can be sure, they are very valued when found missing in any household, big or small. A home manager who does understand resource management will be able to arrange things seamlessly, but if that ability is missing, the entire system will be a mess. This is a learned skill, not an innate talent. While it is possible to learn these outside of formal schooling and college, that would be learning limited only to one tradition, not the multiple approaches that are part of a formal curriculum.

The National Education Policy has also emphasized the importance of multidisciplinary influences in learning, especially at the college and university level, where campuses now are supposed to have different disciplines co-located. While home science will also benefit from being co-located with areas such as medicine, engineering, natural sciences and more, this will not be as radical for it, as say, for a commerce graduate. Home science has always had both a holistic and progressive approach when it comes to its curriculum, upgrading it regularly to keep up with the times. It includes a wide range from the sciences to psychology, economics, communications, nutrition, fashion and more. Home science is a multidisciplinary stream in itself. Indeed, it is a wonder why it is still called home science since it has evolved from creating home makers to creating a whole host of professionals and entrepreneurs. In a way, this could be considered the closest to a liberal arts education in India, till a few decades ago. In its ideal state, home science can create a wider range of opportunities than others.

Having said that, it is also true that in practice, home science, like many other practical areas of study has suffered due to the way it has been funded and taught. The curriculum remains moribund unless there is a great leader in place. Many technological advancements take years to trickle down to the laboratories. The toughest is the low expectations, both in terms of achievement and quality. A home science student is not feted, say as much as an engineering student, though both areas lie at the cusp of vocational-professional. Excellence in other areas gets far higher recognition than excellence in this field. Worse, the field suffers from gender normative expectations, which in turn has influenced the earning potential of this area. This cannot be the norm, for home science includes lucrative courses such as mushroom culture, event management and hotel and institutional management.

While the National Education Policy does not directly mention the field of home science, it seems to appreciate a very large number of principles and practices that go into the making of this arena. Indeed, the key elements of choice, chance and challenge which underlie NEP 2020 could well be used as descriptors of the home science course. Very many of the design principles, especially in curriculum and syllabus mapping are excellent showcases for what NEP proposes. Home science could become a beacon of best practice, or at least best principle in light of the vision of the National Education Policy.

However, before it can step up to be a beacon, home science will have to upgrade, and not just its practices or its name, but more – its ambition. At its best, home science remains undervalued, and must raise the game to deliver greater value to its students, its practitioners and indeed its academics. Excellence, assertion and ambition – all need to be exhibited with much more panache and confidence for practical areas like home science to lead as it could. A 21st century expectation for a discipline that keeps the inner wheels in order would certainly meet the vision of the National Education Policy. That expectation is simple – rise up the value chain, own your claim.

Meeta Sengupta FRSA (London), is a writer, advisor and leader in education. She is on the Advisory Board for the AIMA Case Research Centre, and a Board member of the Welhams Girls School, among many Advisory Boards. She has been the keynote and panel speaker at various global gatherings, and has had over a hundred regular columns and irregular Op-Eds in various national and international publications. She is also a Fellow of the Salzburg Global Seminar. She can be reached at or on twitter at @meetasengupta.

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