Texts and the context of learning

Hriday Ranjan

Back in my school days, textbooks were both friends and foes. They filled your head with wonderful ideas, stories, and worlds. They also filled your heart with dread. You could read them for hours at times, and sometimes you would be forced to read them for hours.

Every school bag had three kinds of books in them. There were the ‘private books’, or books by private publishers. These books were glossy and the pages were white. There were lots of questions following every chapter, and most of them struck fear in my heart. Then there were the ‘government books’, published by NCERT and other state boards, on paper that looked like it was handmade. Concepts were explained, and there were questions after every chapter. These questions always appeared in the examinations. Finally, there were the ‘guide books’; they had everything. Concepts, questions and even their answers, all printed on paper that was so well recycled, Mother Nature would shed a tear of joy.

I always wondered why we needed all three books if all of them fulfilled the same purpose. Nobody answers the pressing questions of a 14 year old, of course, and I had to grudgingly carry all the three books in my bag, as it weighed down upon me.

Ten years have passed since, and a lot has changed. There are many more schools today; 16 lakh according to the website schoolofeducators.com. There are more governing boards today – CBSE, ICSE, IB, IGCSE and the various state boards.

The Right to Education Act has made education a fundamental right, and this has had far reaching implications on the role of textbooks. But most importantly, a digital revolution in the last 10 years has changed the way we perceive education, learning, and books.

Are textbooks looked at differently today?

Ayush Majumdar is a student of Class 7 in a Christian missionary school that follows the CBSE curriculum. He informs me that they are asked to purchase both NCERT books as well as private books. But the teacher takes a call on what book to follow in class.

He likes the smart-boards that are used in his school. “But at the end of the day, we have to follow the textbooks. In the exams, questions are asked from the textbooks only.”

Over the last decade, the role of the textbook appears to have shifted. While they were the only source of information earlier, today there is the Internet, CDs, and digiboards. How can a book – chunks of text, accompanied by pictures – compete with an ocean of knowledge, brimming with pictures, videos, and films?

Subha Das has been a teacher for 25 years. Apart from teaching at St. Mary’s in Delhi, she has also been part of a team that worked with Pearson to develop textbooks. She believes that smart-boards ensure that there is an interaction with the students. But she also believes that textbooks still hold their own, in spite of television, the Internet, and Google.

“In spite of all this information, it is difficult for a student to access and imbibe it. The biggest advantage of a textbook is that it is made in a format that is readable by the students,” she explains.

Have books responded to the change in scenario?

“Yes. There have been changes,” Subha Das says. “Textbooks are more visual now with more pictures and graphics. They still remain the first window of information for the students. Also, how many schools in the country have access to digital resources?”

Ayush’s mother, Shubhalakshmi agrees. “As a parent, a textbook helps me track his progress.” And given the role that parents have in children’s education in our country, this is an undeniable plus for the textbook.

In the West, attempts have been made to replace textbooks altogether. The Archbishop Stepinac High School in New York, for instance, was the first school in the US to replace all 40 of their subjects with digital content. Will that work in India?

“In our school, we had experimented without textbooks for a year,” says Subha Das. “We formed our own curriculum and designed our own courses,” she says. And what was the outcome?

“We found that printed material was still needed. Parents were more at ease when there was something tangible in front of them. You cannot take the textbook away from education,” she says.

Parents and teachers are important stakeholders, and while the parents don’t necessarily play a role in the selection of books, the teachers could play a pivotal role.

In the guidelines to schools for selecting textbooks, the CBSE has clearly mentioned: “Heavy encyclopedic textbooks generally contain a large amount of information, which may not be age-appropriate and do not establish a dialogue with children. Therefore, schools are advised to constitute committees for verifying that a textbook must be based on principles of child-centered education, activity-based learning, child development, and the content must place importance on integrating experiences of children and their diverse socio-cultural contexts and languages.” (http://www.cbseacademic.in/web_material/Circulars/2013/Affiliation/4_Cir-aff.PDF)

Kalai Arasi is the Academic Supervisor at TVS Lakshmi School, Madurai. “Before selecting the books, the teachers go through them. We look for readability, activities, and examples before selecting the books.” This is echoed by Subha Das. “The teachers go through all the samples, and only then does the principal make the decision.”

The textbook market in India amounts close to Rs. 1,000 crore, according to Mr. Manzar Khan, MD, Oxford University Press, India. And it is a market that is set to grow exponentially.

Oxford University Press has a 20-22 per cent share of the private English medium market, according to Mr. Khan. But India and China are the fastest growing markets for textbooks, growing at 15-20% annually. UK publishing giant, HarperCollins, is also set to enter the Indian education market. In January this year, they announced that it would be their biggest investment in international education publishing.

The biggest players in textbook publishing, however, are Pearson Education, Cambridge University Press and Macmillan Publishers.

Madhurima Majumdar, who worked for Viva Books Private Limited, acknowledges this boom in the market. But despite the market size, the final decision lies with the principals of the schools.

“We have sales guys who pitch the books to principals of schools. Most of the sales guys have no clue about the books, but are given briefs of the highlights of our books.”

Doesn’t the opinion of the teacher matter? “It does,” says Madhurima. “We sometimes send samples to teachers a year earlier, to get feelers from them about the books.”

I met the principal of one of the oldest schools in Hyderabad. She tells me that other factors too affect the selection of the book.

“Earlier, the decision lay solely with us. But today, we need to take the publisher into consideration. There is greater awareness about books and publishers among parents today, and as important stakeholders, they might question us if we sign a new publisher. Also, cost is another important factor.”

The fastest growing market in the world for educational books, lakhs of schools, and the perception of a global educational powerhouse – Indian education surely is in safe hands?

The results will shock you.

Indian students ranked 72 among 73 participating countries in the Programme for International Student Assessment conducted in 2009.

PISA (Programme for International Students Assessment) tests standards of students of different countries for reading, mathematics, and science. In 2009, Indian students fared only better than Kyrgyzstan.

The HRD ministry had reportedly attributed the dismal show to the questions asked. In 2012, India refused to send a team for PISA, and Indian students will not participate in the test in 2015 as well.

McKinsey, in their report on ‘The Emerging Global Market’, found that only about 25 per cent of Indian graduates are employable globally. This is clearly a problem not only with schools, but with the nature of education delivery in India as a whole.

Since textbooks have been the primary instrument for imparting education, are they to blame for the lack of skill development in students?

Tanushree Angirish, who teaches Classes 9 and 10 history and English for Avasara Foundation in Mumbai, thinks so. “We follow state board syllabus, and the books have glaring errors in them. From spelling mistakes, to factual errors. And in spite of repeated letters and requests, nothing much has been done to change them.”

Do textbooks limit the scope of a teacher?

The guidelines given by CBSE clearly state: “As overdependence of teachers on books promotes rigidity and hampers exploration by students, the NCF-2005 recommended plurality of textbooks as well as other learning aids as per the need of a school in the local context. Schools therefore are advised to, if possible, procure a sufficient number of good textbooks for each class in each subject for the school library.”

“Textbooks are platforms. The teacher needs to use them, but go beyond,” says Subha Das. Kalai Arasi agrees. “We conduct Parents’ Orientation sessions, where we inform the parents of what is expected of the students. But since the teacher ultimately teaches the students, a lot depends on the motivation of the teacher.”

Kalai Arasi teaches chemistry, geography, and English, all subjects that could benefit from different approaches in teaching. “For chemistry, it is important that I teach them the concepts. So the book is more important in that case. But for English, I have more freedom while teaching.”

“The ICSE Board allows for creativity and expression. We tell the students that if they can express in their own words, they will get marks.” But the situation is diametrically opposite for Tanushree.

“Sometimes, we find errors in the book. But the questions in examinations always come from the book. So we inform the students about the correct facts, but tell them that they have to write what is mentioned in the books, if asked in the exams.”

So we come to…examinations.

Back when I was a student, the sole purpose of a textbook was to help the student face the examinations. Has anything changed?

Sujit Mohapatra runs Bakul Foundation in Bhubaneswar, which deals with education and reading. Apart from the Bakul Children’s Library, India’s largest children’s library, he has also been a part of initiatives where children designed their own books.

And Sujit has many an axe to grind with the kind of textbooks we follow.

“Lakhs of rupees are spent by State Boards every year to print books. I find it incredible how they wouldn’t spend an additional 10,000 (as a one-time cost) to make the books more attractive.”

He also blames the examination for the perception of textbooks.

“You see, as soon as someone says the word ‘Textbooks’, there is a sense of boredom that creeps in. If you remember, as children, we would always read our elder sibling’s textbooks. There was no pressure of exams, and we genuinely enjoyed reading.”

But can reading be chaffed from studying, I ask him. “If you look at Indian languages, the word for reading – padhna is used for both reading and studying. Some of this has rubbed off on how students look at books.”

While we are talking in Bakul Children’s Library, I notice that there is a ‘Brain Gym’ right next to it. Surprisingly, it is bustling with children, whereas there were only a handful of them in the library. When I ask him about it, he blames both teachers and textbooks.

“We have associated textbooks with exams and marks. Even though NCERT has made sweeping changes in their books, and you find references to books, websites, and films that the students could look up, very few students actually do it.”

“Textbooks are the Bible for parents, teachers, and students. And it is difficult to untangle them from each other. So much so that even extra curricular interests are pursued when there are competitions attached. So we have extrapolated the system of examinations into every sphere of learning.”

It is clear that for all their pros or cons, it is impossible to do away with textbooks. They will remain an integral part of education imparted in the country. But how they are perceived, becomes the decisive factor.

“The problem with textbooks I teach from is that they fetch the students marks in the exams, but nothing more than that. So I end up teaching content, but critical thinking and problem solving are nowhere to be seen. And this is a disturbing trend,” says Tanushree Angirish.

“Finally it boils down to the teacher,” says Sujit Mohapatra. “A motivated teacher can transform a textbook into a window to the world, or reduce it to a compilation of text and pictures that helps the students secure marks.”

In the end, after all these conversations, I realize that amidst the sea of change, some things have intrinsically remained the same.

The textbook is still a student’s steady companion at school. School bags have gotten heavier, books have become colourful. There are more to choose from, and many ways to use them and supplement them. But at the end of the day, education still depends on the teachers.

The author is a blogger and aspiring novelist. He can be reached at heartranjan@gmail.com.

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