'Teaching & Learning' is a weekly column on education and related issues.

“Ma, I'm hungry,” says Ramu, entering the kitchen. His mother was chopping greens… read the first few lines of a chapter in the class III State Board textbook for environmental science.

While the lesson goes on to talk about greens, parts of a plant and so on, in the illustration showing the mother chopping vegetables and the child asking her for food, there is another message that is not so loud — that it is the mother who has got to be in the kitchen, preparing food for the family. It is interesting to see how gender biases creep into textbooks, as if to reinforce existing stereotypes. Can textbooks or teachers enable students to question or challenge such notions?

There needs to be a conscious attempt, say teachers.

Recalling one of her classes, S. Chithra, who handles class VI at the Panchayat Union Middle School in Hasthinapuram, near Guduvanchery, says: “We were discussing great scientists and suddenly one child asks me, ‘weren't there female scientists? How come you don't tell us about them'?” It immediately struck the teacher how children were very closely following the content discussed in the class.

“Another day, we had a debate on who should cook at home. It was very refreshing to hear some boys say they would love to. Teachers should create a space for such voices, too,” Ms. Chithra adds.

“Neither educational planners nor teachers may be expected to be free of biases,” says V. Geetha of Tara Publishing. As someone who has also been working in the area of textbook analysis and gender, she says the biases in textbooks have to do with the actual absence of feminists in educational planning and teacher training.

“Textbooks are closed systems of knowledge — unless teachers bring them alive and open them up for discussion. Biases in textbooks may reflect social biases or those of writers or a mixture of the two,” she says. Speaking of gender biases, Ms. Geetha says: “The addressee in textbooks is always male, middle class, urban, upper caste. When teachers use books and give examples, they are more likely than not to use the pronoun ‘he' than ‘she'.” “Importantly, these biases are never simply those of girls being left out. It is important to ask what sorts of boys are featured in our books: not working class, lower caste or Dalit boys…So it is not just that we don't have girls, we also don't have the variety,” she notes.

Ms. Geetha feels that while addressing the issue in a larger sense, it is important to revamp teacher training. “When we talk of gender, we often think of female teachers, but we need to think of how we are going to educate all teachers, including men.”