Interpretation of NEP 2020’s emphasis on Indian knowledge systems must avoid prejudice towards any specific community; underprivileged children need a level learning field
By Vimala Ramachandran
It has been 16 years since the last National Curriculum Framework (NCF) was drafted by NCERT. The Centre has appointed a 12-member committee chaired by K Kasturirangan to draft a new one. The draft education policy of 2019 (which was subsequently approved in 2020, albeit with several changes) was also drafted by a committee headed by Kasturirangan.
A lot has changed in the education landscape because of Covid, and there is a lot of churning on content and process of school education. Research over the last two years highlight three important issues: exacerbation of inequalities due to the existing digital divide, a sharp increase in the number of children not enrolled (because of school closures, migration), and the huge learning loss reported not only in India, but across the world.
At the same time, the NEP 2020 has kindled interest in the centrality of foundational knowledge of reading/writing and arithmetic—the building blocks of learning. When children do not learn the basics—reading with comprehension, reading familiar words and non-words, oral fl uency, number recognition and discrimination, solving simple addition and subtraction problem, and comprehending place value—their ability to move ahead is compromised. The cumulative burden of not learning gets compounded as the child moves from one grade to the next, leading to many failing or dropping out.
Revisiting the national curriculum framework could create an opportunity for fundamental systemic reform. NCF 2005 had great ideas, concrete and effective suggestions to move away from rote learning, develop thinking/analytical skills, and make education a creative process. However, like in the past, there was a huge gap between intent and implementation. NCF 2005 did not lead to the transformation that was eagerly anticipated.
The first opportunity/challenge the newly appointed committee faces is to not only come up with fresh ideas, but make examination/assessment systems an inherent part of the curriculum framework. As long as we continue to assess memory and information through a periodic exam regime, it would be impossible to turn the system around to focus on grasping concepts, think through solutions, make learning an integral part of the life of children and contextualise knowledge. Critical thinking and applying knowledge to everyday life is accepted as one of the most important skills needed in the 21st century. Equally, creativity is essential to think and adapt to a changing ecosystem.
The second is to recognise inherent inequality in our society. It has long been known that the social capital that children bring with them to the school gives them a head start. Children from print-rich homes and with educated parents are able to navigate early years of schooling better than the children who have no reading material at home and have parents with low or no education. This has been driven home during Covid lockdown—barely 24% urban and 8% rural children are engaging with online learning on a regular basis, as per the Locked Out report (September 2021). The new curriculum framework committee needs to keep these children in focus so that the school can give the children a level-playing field.
The third is to devise ways to make the curriculum flexible enough to ensure that children are taught at the right level and that every child gets support to move up the learning ladder at her own pace. Teaching at the right levels is possible only when teachers have both the autonomy and the requisite knowledge/skills to work with children in small groups to facilitate learning. India has been home to several small and big initiatives that foregrounded the importance of starting where the child is, leveraging her existing knowledge and enabling her to move forward. A one-size-fits-all approach has never worked, especially in elementary school. India needs to shift from chalk-and-talk, memorisation and textbook-based teaching to more interactive teaching learning processes. Revising textbooks without taking care of other learning materials could push us back into the same old mould. The curriculum framework must push for making classrooms more interactive and flexible.
The fourth is to interpret NEP 2020’s emphasis on Indian Knowledge Systems “including tribal knowledge, indigenous and traditional ways of learning… in mathematics, astronomy, philosophy, yoga, architecture, medicine, agriculture… Special courses in tribal ethno-medicinal practices, forest management, traditional (organic crop cultivation, natural farming etc)…” constructively. This will perhaps post the greatest challenge because these ideas and topics were never really part of school or college curriculum since Independence. It remains to be seen how this would be positioned in the new curriculum framework—without any prejudice towards any specific community or group. Equally, will this add to the “curriculum load” as feared, or will this be seamlessly integrated into social studies, history, environmental sciences and core science field like physics, chemistry, biology and mathematics?
This is just the beginning of a long journey, one that would have to not only reimagine the curriculum, pedagogy and linking teaching-learning to local knowledge systems but also simultaneously restructure assessment. All this would call for retraining and reorienting teachers, empowering them with more autonomy inside the classroom and encouraging them to use creative ways of linking curriculum to local knowledge. The teaching community and administrators would also have to show greater accountability to children, ensuring each learns in a non-discriminatory environment. The teacher is the key, and the new committee will be enriched a great deal if they consult with teachers and seek their suggestions on transforming the classroom into an exciting space for exploring and learning. Drafting a curriculum framework cannot be a desk exercise.
The author is retired professor, NIEPA, and former director, ERU Consultants Pvt Ltd