A case of confused thinking

An edited and shorter version of this article is published in The Hindu on 13th July 2019.

[All this goes to show that the Draft NEP2019 itself lacks the very abilities it emphasises; i.e. critical thinking and deeper understanding. It is a badly written document which hides behind half understood plethora of terms clubbed under the overarching master concept of ‘skill’.]

Rohit Dhankar

Draft NEP2019 devotes about 50 pages to curriculum and pedagogy. That should gladden the heart of any schoolteacher who is concerned with quality of curriculum and principles of pedagogy in the country. But alas, quantity hardly makes for quality here.

Coherent and worthwhile recommendations on curricular choices require a framework of principles defining desirable society and general aims of education. The supposed to be practical knowledge without such a framework produces unwieldy and unjustified ideas jostling together for space. That is what has precisely happened in the curricular recommendation in the Draft NEP2019.

It does have many good recommendations though,  such as: flexibility and wider scope at the secondary level, space for moral reasoning, reemphasis on true spirit of three language formula, focus on the core concepts and key ideas in subjects, doing away with rote learning, vocational courses,  and focus of assessment on understanding. But it also has too many subjects/courses at upper primary level, three languages at early childhood education, and is replete with verbose confusing statements. This has made it a laundry-list of subjects, topics, and skills, at the upper primary stage. This seems to be a result of certain kind of thinking on vision, content and pedagogy. This thinking coupled with careless use of terms involved in curricular and pedagogical discourse has made the matters worse. 

India Centered vision?

The vision of education articulated in the document is that of “an India centred education system that contributes directly to transforming our nation sustainably into an equitable and vibrant knowledge society, by providing high quality education to all.” The term directly seems to indicate some urgency and impatience with deeper aspects of education which may not be ‘directly useful’ in ‘knowledge society’. The ‘India centred-ness’ of education is limited to recommendations on Indian languages and mention of Indian knowledge systems. The operational vision actually is that of a ‘knowledge society’ and almost entirely contained in UNESCO preached 21st Century skills. The democratic ideal is neither mentioned nor used in deriving aims of education or curricular recommendation, though democratic values are mentioned in the list of key skills to be integrated in the subjects. In fact, the policy seems to have no concept of aims of education beyond 21st century skills.

A possible counter argument to what I have said in the paragraph above could be that the knowledge society as defined in UNESCO documents emphasises freedom of expression and other human rights, therefore, it takes care of the democratic ideals in education. But the idea of knowledge society also puts all its eggs in the baskets of digital connectivity and economic development. One wonders whether democratic rights and values can be safeguarded by digital connectivity and economic development alone; or is it the other way around: that a richer understanding and commitment to democratic values and freedoms make equitable development and connectivity meaningful and accessible for all.

The Minister’s message in this regard speaks volumes: “To reap the benefits of … demographics, our Government … had promised that it will implement a National Education Policy to meet the changing dynamics of the population’s requirement with regards to quality education, innovation and research, aiming to make India a knowledge superpower by equipping its students with the necessary skills and knowledge …”. The ‘knowledge’ in the Minister’s message, of course, is the knowledge of skills. The Chairperson’s Preamble seems to be a little more balanced as it at least mentions “a just and equitable society” after contribution “to many growing developmental imperatives”. The economic development through demographic advantage takes the centre stage and democratic vision gets lip service at places like in the list of ‘skills’. It is ‘mentioned’, not made the basis of the policy or deriving anything worthwhile from it to inform the curriculum.

Another place the democratic ideals are mentioned is in the finance pages. While arguing correctly for increased budgetary allocation for education as “the best investment” democratic ideal are also mentioned, “… this is without even considering many of the most important aims and benefits of education, which cannot be viewed in economic terms at all, e.g. robust democracy, an equitable society and cultural vibrancy”. The problem is that the vision is grounded somewhere else. The curricular objectives and recommendations are derived from knowledge society and 21st century skills, the democratic ideals are tagalong artefacts.  

One may ask: what is so wrong with that? It is a matter of emphasis. The primary concern of education aught to be the moral development. That, in contemporary world, is articulated as a critical and concerned citizen who upholds the democratic ideals of justice, equality, liberty and dignity for all. All societies need a robust economy as well; therefore, economic aims are necessarily part of the educational scheme and curriculum. But the economic abilities are necessary ‘resources’ for democratic ideals and not the other way around.  The intellectual qualities, knowledge and skills that are necessary for development of such an individual constitute the curriculum. If one takes the skills for 21st century economy as the fundamental focus the moral aspect comes as a ‘bunch of skills’ needed for knowledge society; not as a guiding principle to organise the society, polity and economy. That results is a skewed curriculum which de-emphasis social political life, in favour of economically utilitarian ‘skills’ which are presented a ‘self-justified’. That is very much visible through out this draft.

Curricular Objectives

The knowledge society  vision directly leads to the  objective stated for the chapter on curriculum and pedagogy: “Curriculum and pedagogy are transformed by 2022 in order to minimise rote learning and instead encourage holistic development and 21st century skills such as critical thinking, creativity, scientific temper, communication, collaboration, multilingualism, problem solving, ethics, social responsibility, and digital literacy.” The most important educationally worthwhile term is ‘skill’ and everything has to fit in within that; even ethics and social responsibility! “The goal” according to the draft policy “will be to create holistic and complete individuals equipped with key 21st century skills.” That makes definition of ‘holistic and complete individuals’ quite clear.

After a host of curricular recommendations including new subjects/courses comes another statement which may look like articulation of curricular objectives or aims of education under the heading of “Curricular integration of essential subjects and skills”. The opening statement and list of subjects/skills are worth understanding properly. It states: “… this Policy envisions that certain subjects and skills should be learned by all students in order to become good, successful, innovative, adaptable, and productive human beings in today’s rapidly-changing world. In addition to proficiency in languages, these skills include: scientific temper; sense of aesthetics and art; languages; communication; ethical reasoning; digital literacy; knowledge of India; and knowledge of critical issues facing local communities, States, the country, and the world.” (emphasis added). The broad goals are “good, successful, innovative, adaptable, and productive human beings”. This is not the citizen who may want to think for herself whether to ‘adapt’ or to ‘challenge’; rather it is to succeed and adapt in what is given. The interpretation of all ‘human abilities and qualities of character’ then become ‘skills’ to be used in this adaptation and success. We need to remember that values are to guide us in what aught we to do, and skills are the tools that help us in doing well what we have decided to do. When values become skills, the question ‘what aught we to do?’ is already answered: success in a system given to us. Commitment to values as defining one as a human being is different from ‘values as a tool kit’ for success.

The list of eight ‘skills’ (sic) is supposed to ‘create’ such successful and adaptablke individuals. The use of terminology defies all logic. Not only that ‘sense of aesthetics’ and ‘ethical reasoning’ are supposed to be skills; ‘evidence-based and scientific thinking’ are used together everywhere, implying that there can be ‘scientific thinking’ which is not evidence based. Or it may be dominance of current fashion of ‘evidence based’ terminology without really understanding what ‘scientific temper’ means. Baffling assumptions are stated with certainty, see one example: “[E]vidence-based and scientific thinking throughout the curriculum will lead naturally to rational, ethical, and compassionate individuals who can make good, logical, and sound decisions throughout their lives”.

The term ‘rational’ is much wider than ‘scientific thinking’ as there are rational ways of thinking that go beyond scientific, for example, ethical and aesthetic judgments. Thus, if not scientific thinking than rational thinking should guarantee the intellectual aspect of the ‘ethical thinking’. But, ‘ethical individual’ also has a ‘commitment to values’, which requires something in addition to rational thinking or scientific thinking alone. How scientific thinking alone will develop ‘compassion’ is beyond one’s understanding. Further, problem solving and logical reasoning is a separate heading in this all important list of skills, indicating that they are included neither in scientific thinking nor in rational thinking. It is interesting that ‘evidence based and scientific thinking’ is supposed to develop ethical, rational, and compassionate individual but not ‘logical and problem solving’ individual. One wonders what part of logical and problem-solving abilities remain outside evidence based, scientific and rational thinking? All this happens because the skills are taken as ‘self-evident truths’ or basic axioms. Therefore, a desire to make as long a list of them as possible from the terms in vogue. What exactly they happen to mean and how are they related to one another and to human capabilities is too cumbersome to dwell upon.

The discussion so far in this article may be seen as nit-picking by some people. However, a policy document is read and interpreted at many levels and influences educational discourse. The document which places so much emphasis on clarity of understanding and critical thinking cannot itself afford to fail in meeting the same standards. Shoddiness of thinking at the national level makes one wary regarding the possibility of proper interpretation and implementation of the policy. This is already reflected in some policy recommendations. A few such examples are given below.

The daft policy is quite confused on what it calls foundational stage. It rightly criticises private pre-schools for being downward extension of primary school and formal teaching in them. And then goes on to prescribe learning alphabets and reading in three languages for 3-6-year olds. This in the name of ‘enhanced language learning abilities of young children. The policy mistakes ‘language acquisition when children are immersed in more than one languages’ with ‘language teaching situation’ where immersion is impossible in three languages; and then extends it completely unjustifiably to learning three scripts. It laments that the preschools are being run as downward extension of primary school and then recommends preparing children for primary by teaching them alphabets, forgetting that that is precisely what downward extension of primary school means. It wants to teach reading and script from age three, but writing from age six, and wants to introduce ‘some textbooks’ from age eight. One wonders what is their notion of textbooks? And how are they going to teach reading and script without printed/written materials? Why withhold introducing textbooks for two years when the children are being taught reading and writing by the age of six? Is learning easier when introduced simultaneously with writing or is it better to first teach reading for three years and then talk of writing?

The draft policy rightly stipulates that the “mandated contents in the curriculum will be reduced, in each subject area, to its core, focussing on key concepts and essential ideas.” This is to “yield more space for discussion and nuanced understanding, analysis, and application of key concepts.” A very good suggestion. But then hogs more than the space vacated by introducing six new laundry-list subjects/courses in addition to already existing eight. Some of the new subjects like (often called “courses” at upper primary level, without explaining what is the difference between a subject and course at this level) ‘critical issues’ and ‘moral reasoning’ can be much better taught in a revised concept of social studies as the context for both is the society. But the policy wants them as standalone subjects. In any case, social studies need more space in the upper primary curriculum, teaching it in a manner that it connects with the society can be a very good way of introducing critical issues and moral thinking. Moral reasoning taught by itself is likely to have the same fate as so-called moral science in many schools. Similarly, Indian classical language and Indian languages can constitute a single rich subject. Identifying key concepts and essential ideas is a matter of rational curricular decision making based on some principles, not listing ideas as they come to one’s mind.

Missing socio-political life

The absence of discussion on socio-political life seems to be another casualty of emphasis on knowledge society and 21st century skills. Actually, social studies seem to be entirely absent from the mind of the committee, as it is mentioned once and then left alone for the entire curriculum discussion. This precisely is the subject area in upper primary that situate the democratic values in the curriculum most appropriately. But the vision of this policy rests on UNESCO declarations and reports rather than Indian constitution and development of democracy in this country; in spite of wanting to make education India centred.

All this goes to show that the Draft NEP2019 itself lacks the very abilities it emphasises; i.e. critical thinking and deeper understanding. It is a badly written document which hides behind half understood plethora of terms clubbed under the overarching master concept of ‘skill’. However, to give the devil its due, it also manages to make some good recommendations on the curriculum front, even if half undone by itself.


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