I want my freedom: don’t give me route map

February 11, 2016

[On importance of NCF, published in Learning Curve, Issue XXV, Feb. 2016]

Rohit Dhankar

Often one hears a challenge disguise as query: what use is a National Curriculum Framework (NCF)? The challenges that emerge in the further dialogue depend on how reasonable, concerned or radical the challenger wants to pose himself/herself to be. Some of them are: Our country is so vast and varied in cultural and natural environment that no single scheme of education can ever hope to be suitable for all. A supposed to be fundamental principle is often quoted in this regard is “one size does not fit all”. Or, that the curriculum binds the teacher and the learner both; their interests are ignored, their creativity stifled and their curiosity killed; the child should be left free. Or, that NCFs are so ideal that they have no use in the practical business of education, everyone completely ignores them. These people often sound to me like a sailor declaring “I want my freedom, please don’t foist a route map on me”. The sailor of course will be lost in his long sea voyage without a map, and so are these innovative people in the choppy sea of education. To properly respond to these challenges let us have a brief look at the uses and abuses of NCFs.

National System of Education

Education was a state subject before 1976, when it was included in the concurrent list through 42nd amendment in in the constitution. Which technically means that there could not have been any “National” curriculum frameworks before that. NCF 2005 state that “for the first time in 1986 the country as a whole had a uniform National Policy on Education.” (NCF 2005, p4). We did have a national policy on education adopted by the parliament in 1968[1]. The phrase “first time” in NCF 2005 indicates the fact that though we did have NPE 1968 but it was approved by the parliament at a time when education was a state subject which “allowed the state governments to take decisions on all matters pertaining to school education, including curriculum, within their jurisdiction.” (NCF 2005, p3) And the “Centre could only provide guidance to the States on policy issues.” (ibid)

However, the ideal of national education is much older than that. There was a nationwide debate in the first two decades of the last century in which many people noted the ill-effects of colonial education on the national consciousness of Indians and wanted to replace it with the national system of education. Aurobindo wanted education to be rooted in Indian—largely based on Sankhya and Yoga—understanding of human mind[2]. Lala Har Dayal criticized the colonial education with fervent nationalism and advocated a national system based on Indian culture and love for the nation[3]. Tagore argued that a university fit for a country can emerge only from the national cultural resources[4]. This argument for the University for him held for the school education as well, as he derives inspiration for his school from the ideal of tapovana in ancient India[5].

Lala Laj Pat Rai[6] systematically analyses many attempts at nationalizing education and reject some of them as sectarian. Without mincing words he states that the “Dayanand Aglo Vedic College, …. The Mohammedan College at Aligarh, the Arya College, at Lahore, the Hindu College at Benares, all embodied the “national” ideals of their founders, limited and sectarian as they were at the time.” He argues that none of this can be a model of national education. “The only effort of this kind which was, in my judgment, truly national, was that made by the National Council of Education in Bengal, … . The scheme of the National Council was free from the sectarian tinge of the Upper India movements.” (p. 24, emphasis added) This formulates and argues for perhaps the most important principle for national education: it has to be non-sectarian.

This brief, and very limited in more than one ways, excursion into the history of idea of national education is aimed at capturing a few principles that played a role in shaping the ideal of national education and, thereby, national curriculum frameworks. One such principle in the minds of many Indians was education for all, non-sectarian in nature. Another one, is education that builds national consciousness, national spirit. A third ideal has been contribution to national cultural, political and economic life; and the last but not the least has been development of an independent individual.

Coming back to the actual formulation of NCFs, we must note that all documents since NPE 1968 (perhaps since Radhakrishnana Commission in 1950) emphasize what they call National System of Education (NSE, for short).

Some key aspects of NSE in documents after the NPE 1968 are taking a clearer shape. It would be worthwhile to make an attempt to understand them.

Purposes and aims of education

To understand this aspect properly we should note: One, perhaps the issue of purposes and aims, unsurprisingly, is the oldest concern in the discourse of national system of education; and figures very prominently in the debate mentioned above in the early years of 20th century. Two, we should make a conceptual distinction between “societal purposes of education” and “aims of education”.

In this article I will refer to “societal purposes” simply as ‘purposes’. Purpose of education then relate to the kind of society we want to build through education and the social changes we want to effect through it. For example, when Kothari Commission wants education to be “an instrument of social change” or when NPE 1968 wants education to “play its vital role in promoting national progress, creating a sense of common citizenship and culture, and strengthening the national integration” it is talking of purposes of education. They relate to the kind of society we want, and want education to contribute to the efforts to realise that society.

Aims of education on the other hand directly recommend the kind of understanding, abilities, values, skills etc. are to be developed in the individual members of the society. Taking an example from the same document (NPE 1968), when it states “[t]he educational system must produce young- men and women of character and ability committed to national service and development” it is talking of aims of education. The qualities mentioned here to be developed in individuals are aims of education which in turn will serve to fulfil the societal purposes of education. Of course, they are closely related. Also, they have significant overlap; therefore, in a discussion continuously flow into each other without distinction.

Right from the nationalistic debates on education some purposes have been constant in education: building a politically strong, cohesive, economically prosperous, and democratic nation. With minor variations these purposes are visible in all documents right to the NCF 2005. As we come closer to independence the democracy become even more important national goal and therefore educational purpose.

Educational aims, in terms of qualities of individuals are derived from these purposes: logic being “if this is the kind of society and nation we want, what capabilities its citizens need to create and sustain such a society?” Educational aims, as a result, have some capabilities of individuals which remain persistent now over a century. Among them capability to think independently and clearly; being rooted in Indian culture, commitment to justice and equality, being secular in attitude and capacity to contribute to economic productivity are quite prominent.

Actually, the need for a NSE is justified on the basis of these purposes and aims of education only. Therefore, one important aspect of NSE is the purposes and aims of education which are supposed to be guiding education throughout the country.

It so happens that the challenges—misguided to my mind—posed to the need of NCF criticise the purposes and aims of education most vociferously. It is often declared that aims of education are patently useless and impotent in guiding education, and purposes of education are decided by the parents under economic and social aspirations. In this short article I cannot go into a detailed refutation of these claims. However, would like to quote two philosophers of education as food for thought, and not to be taken on authority, for those who consider aims of education as useless.

Dewey in his famous book Democracy and Education states: “The net conclusion is that acting with an aim is all one with acting intelligently. To foresee a terminus of an act is to have a basis upon which to observe, to select, and to order objects and our own capacities. To do these things means to have a mind …  … if it is really a mind to do the thing and not a vague aspiration—it is to have a plan which takes account of resources and difficulties. Mind is capacity to refer present conditions to future results, and future consequences to present conditions. And these traits are just what is meant by having an aim or a purpose. A man is stupid or blind or unintelligent—lacking in mind—just in the degree in which in any activity he does not know what he is about, namely, the probable consequences of his acts.”[7] (p.120-21, emphasis added)

Professor Christopher Winch while discussing aims of education states “[W]hen the major aims of education are not clearly agreed upon, there is a danger that covert aims may become the most influential in determining the operation of a public education system. It is likely that these aims will be set by the most influential groups operating both within and outside the system. Because there will have been little or no public debate about aims, it is likely that the interests of some will receive scant attention and may even be harmed. If a society does not have clear and agreed aims for its education system, there will be a danger that not only will it fail to have a healthy system that is respected and functions well, but there will also be widespread and damaging discontent among those groups whose interests are not well served.”[8] (p. 33, emphasis added)

An ‘aimless education’, it seems, is also mindless.

Structure of National System of Education

The suggestion regarding the common structure of education across the country seems to have been made first time by the Kothari Commission report. On its basis NPE 1986 recommends “[I]t will be advantageous to have a broadly uniform educational structure in all parts of the country. The ultimate objective should be to adopt the 10+2+3 pattern, the higher secondary stage of two years being located in schools, colleges or both according to local conditions.”[9] (p. 44)

The clearly suggestive nature of the recommendation seems to be related to education being a state subject. The NPE 86 is not tentative regarding the structure and further wants to have a uniform division of elementary education as 5+3 and acceptance of +2 in the school education throughout the country. (p. 5)

All NCFs (including The Curriculum for Ten-Year School, 1975) emphasise common structure of NSE across the country. Further, these documents often specifically state it as an important goal of the NCF.

NSE and language policy

Another important aspect of the NSE is emphasis on development of languages. NPE 68 recognises the importance of development of Indang languages and comes to the conclusion that without this “creative energies of the people will not be released, standards of education will not improve, knowledge will not spread to the people and the gulf between the Intelligentsia and masses will remain if not widen further.” (p.39) The suggested three language formula is seen as a way of finding balance between the aims of development of regional languages, development of a link language and knowledge of English.

This is the accepted language policy in education and every policy document and NCF after NPE 68 reiterates it, even if the governments and schools often flout or adhere to it only in the letter devoid of its spirit.

Common Scheme of Studies

National Education System also envisages the common scheme of studies at school level. National Curriculum for Elementary and Secondary Education—A framework 1988 (NCF 1988, for short) lays down a common scheme of studies from pre-primary to secondary education. At the primary level it proposes one language (mother tongue/regional language), mathematics, environmental studies, work experience, art education; and health and physical education. At upper primary and secondary level the children have to study three languages and environmental studies is replaced with science and social studies; rest remains the same as primary level. This scheme, though not articulated exactly in the same terms in NCF 2000 and NCF 2005, still remain prevalent through the nation.  The common scheme of studies however does not mean that the syllabus in each curricular subject has to be exactly the same across the country. A great deal of flexibility is envisaged for aligning the syllabus to local context. However, in the interest of common standards there has to be reasonable similarities in the structures of the subjects. Common scheme of studies allows the possibility of formulating common standards of achievement across the nation.

Common Core Curriculum

NPE 1986 states that “The National System of Education will be based on a national curricular framework which contains a common core along with other components that are flexible. The common core will include the history of India’s freedom movement, the constitutional obligations and other content essential to nurture national identity. These elements will cut across subject areas and will be designed to promote values such as India’s common cultural heritage, egalitarianism, democracy and secularism, equality of the sexes, protection of the environment, removal of social barriers, observance of the small family norm and inculcation of the scientific temper. All educational programmes will be carried on in strict conformity with secular values.” (p. 5)

This defines what all Indian children are supped to know as well as gives ample freedom for the contextualisation of the curriculum.

To summarise the discussion so far:

  • The makers of modern India came to a conclusion that it shall be a democratic nation with equal rights for all. This conclusion emerged through a painful process in the freedom movement.
  • But India was, and is, a land of diversity; the idea of equality for all as well as the idea of nationhood were neither understood by all in a similar manner nor accepted with equal commitment.
  • In addition, the economic development of the country was urgently needed (still is) for dignified life for all.
  • Therefore, to develop peoples’ capabilities in various areas of life and to develop a national consciousness with democratic values became an imperative. Education is the only means available to develop the required capabilities, values, knowledge and skills.
  • Since we are talking of one nation in which peoples’ movement from one place to another is guaranteed, equality of opportunity is guaranteed, there has to be a commonality in the system of education. Therefore, the National System of Education.
  • The characteristics of the NSE as we understand it today include common purposes and aims of education, structure of school education, core components and scheme of studies.
  • Without this ensuring equal educational opportunity to all is not possible.

National Curriculum Framework

The necessity of a common education system is a result of having a democratic constitution and polity. This need is articulated and justified in the National Policy on Education. The NCF is the instrument through which the ideals of NSE can be actualised. National Curriculum Framework, therefore, becomes a plan of education which derives its justification from the constitution of India and NPE. But its job is to device a framework of principles what can guide actual teaching in the classrooms as per those basic principles.

Therefore, guidelines for developing syllabi, textbook, teaching method and assessment all have to find a place in an NCF document, as this is the link between the national education ideals and the action in the classroom to realise those ideals. In other words, it is a route map from where we are to the national educational ideals. Working out such a framework of principles which gives clear directions as well as leaves room for flexibility is a difficult task, though necessary to keep the NSE on the envisaged course. A serious understanding of the socio-political philosophy of the country, of desired society and human being in it, of pedagogical principles and actual context and current need of the nation all have to contribute to such a framework of principles.

NCF, therefore, is to a school system as a route map is to a sea voyager. A sea voyager will lose his way without a map and a school system will never know whether it is helping or creating hindrance in the achievement of national ideals without NCF.


[1] In fact there was a system of bringing out a document titled “Indian Educational Policy” through a resolution in the Governor General’s even in the colonial era.

[2] Aurobindo Gosh, A system of national education, Tagore & CO., Madras, 1921.

[3] Har Dayal, Our Educational Problem, Tagore & Co., Madras, 1922.

[4] Rabindranath Tagore, The Centre of Indian Culture, a lecture delivered in Madras in 1919.

[5] A poet’s school, Rabinndranath Tagore

[6] Lajpat Rai, The problem of national education in India, Gorge Allen & Unwin, London, 1920

[7] John Dewey, Democracy and Education, Macmillan Company, New York, 1916.

[8] Christopher Winch, Quality of Education, Journal of Philosophy of Education, Vol. 30. No. 1. 1996

[9] National Policy on Education, Ministry of Human Resource Development, New Delhi, 1998

UEE: Discussion 2

September 1, 2013

Rohit Dhankar
[I took a lot of time in coming back to it. And now I have combined two things, to make time: this posting on the blog and Digantar’s course on Foundations of Education. I am going to use this discussion—comments at all—in the foundations of education course. Please inform me if you do not want me to use your comment and/or name. Actually, you can make it clear in the first line of the comment itself.]
The original question:
“Why do we want universalisation of elementary education?”
While posing the question it was assumed that: 1. While we all do want UEE, we may not necessarily agree on why is it important; and 2. Our answer to this why is likely to have very significant influence on the kind of education we try to universalise.
I will try to summarise the responses before suggesting the next steps in the discussion. My summary may be incorrect or biased or both; but that is how I read the responses.
a) Most responses assume a democratic society in justifying UEE, though not necessarily state that directly. They refer to ‘good to society’, ‘equality’, ‘justice’, ‘eradicating disparity’, and so on.
b) One response suggests that first we should investigate the meaning of education to get a good answer to the original question.
c) One response seems to suggest the following line of argument: To justify UEE we need to first understand Aims of Education (AE), to achieve AE we need UEE. But what justifies the chosen AE?
d) Many responses express concerns over the kind of education, quality of education, the idea of minimum essential and actually reaching every child in a fair manner. All legitimate concerns.
e) There are also concerns that education alone may be able to achieve very little and we have to take into account many other factors/forces in the society.
So how do we go forward?
I would suggest (and this is my own belief, which may be wrong) that to think properly we have to formulate a strategy. Thinking on complex issues often get into something akin to ‘old age problem’, and it afflicts the young more forcefully! Let me explain what I mean by old age problem. This is not common and accepted terminogy, just an example to make the point. Some months back I received an email, in which an old man describes his experience: “I got up from my chair to water the plants, but noticed that my car keys were lying on the kitchen table. I picked up the keys and went to the board on which all keys are hung, while putting the keys at their proper pace I noticed that the window was open and mosquitoes were coming in the house. While I was walking to the window to close it noticed that yesterdays newspaper was lying on the floor, I picked it up and walked to the place for old newspapers beneath the staircase…..”. There is something similar with the described experience of the old man and the way we try to think of conceptual problems. We want to understand why do we want UEE, then notice that we are not able to reach the education to every child, so start thinking why is that happening and what could we do about this? But before we take a few steps in that direction we notice that the UEE does not really change societies, so many other things are needed, what are they? While we are looking at those factors we notice that mid-day meal has not served the purposes it should have, and so on …..
This is what I loosely describe as old-age problem. Of course, a powerful defence could be mounted in favour of this way of thinking, all things matter in education and concepts and results derived on partial consideration are going to be inadequate, even may be misleading and outright wrong. Therefore, before we can answer the question UEE, we must look at all other problems of education and society. Personally I feel we will reach no where through this method unless we workout a strategy of thinking with clarity. The strategy I suggest is as follows:
1. We make a decision to move between analysis and synthesis as frequently as needed. The meaning of analysis I propose here is: “The abstract separation of a whole into its constituent parts in order to study the parts and their relations”. Similarly synthesis is “combination of ideas into a complex whole”. We do this as often as is required.
2. But we also stay with a line of thought to arrive at some consolidation stage, so that we don’t lose the results of our labours, and can retrieve them when taking that line becomes necessary again. This means we ‘bracket’ our results and move to the next stage, issue, or topic.
3. We move between exploring ‘what ought to be’ and ‘what is’ the case as often as required; but don’t mix the two, remain clear on which one we are talking about.
4. Similarly we move between conceptual analysis and practical issues, but keeping our results in a retrievable form.
5. We keep all results of our thinking provisional, when considering new factors and new angles, revisions may seem necessary and we don’t hesitate to review and revise when the need occurs.
6. And all this we do in the light of rational grounds and avoid intellectual fashions and political correct stances if they come into conflict with reason.
Obviously one can formulate dozens of more strategies which might be equally useful, this is just one of them. Also, formulating the strategy does not give us a unique way of its application. So we can also decide to apply it in more than one ways.
In our present discussion I suggest we bracket the issues which are not directly necessary at this stage to investigate ‘why UEE’. And focus first on arriving at some understanding of it. Some questions and their tentative (till we feel a need to review/revise them) are suggested below. To my mind they are necessary to move to the next stage.
I suggest we make a distinction between ‘social purposes of education’ and ‘aims of education’. Let’s tentatively take the following:
Social Purposes of Education (SPE): answer(s) to the question ‘why a society wants education’. For example: ‘to create a just society’, ‘to become a developed economy’, ‘for greater prosperity’, ‘for social cohesion’, ‘to protect our cultural heritage’, and so on. Notice that all these purposes are about what kind of social living we want, and pertain to the over all system of education. They are purposes of the system of education. They are directed at justifying and characterising a system of education. PSE are focussed on developing/creating/sustaining the desirable society.
Aims of Education (AE): aims of education properly speaking articulate capabilities, understanding, values, qualities of character and skills that we want to develop in the individual educatee. Examples would be: “rational commitment to democratic values”, “knowledge about social world”, “capability to negotiate one’s rights”, “sensitivity to other human beings”, and so on. AE are focussed on developing the desirable kind of individual.
System of education: let’s define system of education as the totality of structures and procedures created for implementation or practice of education, governance of these structures, and policy making for education. Thus system of education would be the totality of all structures starting from school to CABE and Indian parliament when it discusses education.
Education: let’s begin with a simple definition of education—“intentional teaching-learning with its processed and outcomes”. This is simple and may be contested. But we will modify and make it more sophisticated as we go along.
Consider all these definitions ‘stipulative’ , to begin our explorations. Now, if we understand the discussion in the light of these definitions, it looks somewhat like:
1. The original question “why UEE” is a request to state and justify social purposes of education. That is explanation of why a society wants UEE, what purposes it wants to achieve through it.
2. If we say to ‘achieve aims of education for all children’ then we need to first articulate and justify aims of education. And also justify why ‘all children’? So the question does not go away, it persists in a changed form.
3. Also, a new question arises: which set of purposes/aims is relatively primary? The social purposes of education (SPE) or aims of education (AE)? In other words: do we first want to decide about SPE and then derive (at least partially) the AE from them? Or, alternatively, go other way round—first define AE and then SPE from them? The question can also be asked: which is primary—the vision of society or the vision of individual? Or neither?
4. We can say that we assume a democratic society and then try to fashion our SPE to achieve that social vision. Once we have the SPE we fashion our AE to match with SPE and vision of the desirable society. So SPE have to confirm to the social vision and AE to social vision as well as to SPE.
5. Of course, we are just scratching the surface. Because SPE and AE will be much influenced by the current state of society—how far from democratic is it? How different people see democracy? How shall we negotiate the path to genuine democracy from current state of affairs? And so on. But we are keeping these issues bracketed just yet. Will come to them a little later.
Next stage questions:
Suppose we take the democratic route, then the immediate questions we face are:
• How we define democracy?
• How do we justify out choice of a democratic society?
• What kind of SPE would be necessary (or most suitable?) for a democratic society?
• What kind of AE will be necessary (or most suitable) for a democracy and accepted SPE?
I suggest we deal with these last four questions. Because if the route to exploration I have suggested is acceptable then we can make no genuine headway without dealing with them.
[The discussion has become somewhat complicated. But I do not know how to keep it simple!]