‘It was a remarkable experience protecting academic integrity from political attacks'

Professor Krishna Kumar took over as director of the National Council of Educational Research and Training (NCERT) in September 2004 at a time when a lot of concern was being voiced about certain curricular trends. He not only brought in a fresh, child-centred perspective to the Council, but also initiated a series of reforms that sought to make learning more meaningful to children. After over five years, Prof. Krishna Kumar, who completes his term on March 5, reflects on his tenure at the Council and shares his views with The Hindu .

When you look back now, what is it that seems most fulfilling?

It has been a momentous experience, witnessing strong collective aspiration and cooperative energy to achieve institutional health, growth and autonomy. Freedom from political interference enabled us to commit ourselves to the task of providing academic leadership for the challenge of radical reforms in school education.

The agenda was set by the National Curriculum Framework (NCF) which acquired a historic approval from the Central Advisory Board of Education (CABE) in September 2005. That was undoubtedly a moment of great fulfilment. The circumstances under which the CABE's approval came were riddled with political controversy.

NCF-2005 succeeded in building national consensus because of the process through which the document was developed. For the first time, as many as 21 National Focus Groups were set up, apart from a National Steering Committee chaired by Professor Yash Pal.

These groups and the steering committee held open and thorough debates on all social, systemic and philosophical matters relating to curriculum. The reports of these groups and the NCF-2005 document offered a rich and positive discourse for syllabus and textbook development.

NCERT completed this exercise over three years, following the approval of NCF-2005. For NCERT, it was a remarkable experience of protecting its academic integrity from political attacks from every side.

You mentioned institutional health and growth. Can you explain?

It was a matter of creating a culture of consultation and participation. We utilised all the statutory structures we had for decision making. The Programme Advisory Committee started meeting twice instead of just once in a year. Quarterly monitoring of financial expenditure was put in place. The process of submitting annual reports to Parliament was streamlined. New structures were created according to need.

For example, during the CABE meeting in 2005, the late Sudeep Bannerjee, who was Education Secretary in the Ministry of Human Resource Development at that time, noticed the scale of acrimony we were coping with and decided to set up a National Monitoring Committee to oversee the execution of NCF in the shape of textbooks. Never before in the history of textbook publishing in India—which is more than 150 years old— were draft texts reviewed with meticulous scholarly attention of the kind this new committee has provided over the last four years.

Are there any specific tasks initiated in your term that would have to be completed over time?

Yes, of course, there are many such tasks which have evolved out of NCF-2005. The five-part sourcebook for assessment in primary classes is a breakthrough and now its daily use in schools needs to be promoted.

In curricular reforms initiated by NCF-2005, the States now expect close cooperation between their SCERTs and NCERT. In teacher training, collaboration between NCERT and NCTE has begun and needs to be taken forward.

Training of teachers is now the greatest priority in the execution of the Right To Education (RTE) Act, but training itself has to undergo radical reform, given the new perspective of our syllabi and textbooks. They provide reflective spaces and demand critical pedagogy which only a thoughtful teacher can handle. NCERT used EDUSAT to reach out to thousands of teachers for orienting them toward the new textbooks. This process needs to be sustained and broadened.

We are now working on B.Ed. textbooks for the first time, and this too needs to be expanded. Our peace education initiative needs expansion. We have also brought out a series of project books for environment education.

What about examination reforms?

As you are aware, NCERT is not the key player in this area. We have done our best to promote the recommendations of NCF-2005 on examination reforms, but the progress of actual reforms has been limited, and the direction is not clear.

The Kerala and Goa Boards have taken some good measures, and so has CBSE, but some of the basic reforms are yet to occur. There are some systemic tendencies on which greater dialogue and clarity are overdue.

For instance, there is no reason why CBSE should assign specific marks to each topic and sub-topic given in our syllabus. This is among the many entrenched practices which discourage the pedagogic reforms advocated in NCF-2005. Both children and teachers feel so stressed and scared because the examination system is so mark-oriented and rigid. Many private schools now feel so frustrated with the examination system that they are shifting to the International Baccalaureate.

NCERT is worried about some of the steps CBSE is now taking, such as awarding grades for moral values and the so-called co-scholastic areas. NCF recommends a holistic approach in which aesthetic development is not ‘co-curricular' or ‘co-scholastic' but just as curricular as mathematics or science.

There are systemic issues as well. The relationship between SCERTs and examination boards in many States is neither direct nor smooth. The same is true at the national level. We have tried very hard to develop a cooperative relationship with CBSE over the last few years, but the progress has been very limited. And this is one reason why there has been so little change in the typology of question papers. NCF proposes a system which denies rote learning the legitimacy it presently has and it demands a flexible mechanism to assess the potential of every child. That is the spirit of RTE.

NCERT's involvement with the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan (SSA) has been very significant. How do you envisage NCERT's role in the implementation of the RTE?

NCERT has greatly expanded its contribution to SSA. We were mainly a quality monitoring institution, but over the years we have initiated several programmes which involved direct participation in SSA. Let us first look at our national achievement surveys. Speed and efficiency have been injected in them, and an innovative step is being taken by using item response theory to bring this exercise up to global academic standards.

Learning how to read is a foundational skill. Our 40-part graded reading series called Barkha has become extremely popular with the States and it is being translated into their languages. It also marks a departure in the prevailing concept of children's literature, especially in how it handles cultural diversity and gender stereotypes. We have started another project under SSA on early mathematics which aims to improve teachers' understanding of how children learn mathematics.

NCERT is also trying to enrich the curriculum of Kasturba Gandhi Balika Vidyalayas (KGBVs) set up under SSA. The rural girls who study in these schools come from the most deprived sections of society. Our teacher training course and textual material aim at giving them a headstart.

Now that SSA is moving towards RTE, NCERT's role will be very central. It must work with every State to revamp its syllabus and teacher training.

How have the different States responded to the NCF?

The response has been phenomenal. From NCF-2005 perspective we can classify the States into three categories. In the first we have Kerala and Bihar which have developed their own frameworks through the same kind of social deliberation that NCERT had mobilised. These two states offer the best examples of progress along the lines of NCF. Some others like Mizoram, Nagaland, Uttarakhand and Orissa have made sincere efforts to revamp their syllabus in the light of NCF. Most recently, Tamil Nadu has started this process.

In the second category we can place nearly 15 States like Himachal, Jharkhand, Goa, Assam, Andhra Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan, etc. which have sought copyright permission to reprint NCERT textbooks for different levels. In the third category we can place Maharashtra, West Bengal, and Madhya Pradesh where the curriculum reform process has yet to begin.

One of the main objectives of the NCF was to reduce the stress that children are made to undergo.

This agenda had three parts. The first part was to change the syllabus and make it more child-centred and teachable. We tried to revamp the syllabus of all subjects from the perspective of the child and we ensured that only age-appropriate concepts are included. We also made a major effort to ensure that the treatment of these concepts will encourage children to relate classroom teaching to their own experience outside the school.

The second part of the agenda had to do with changing the examination system. Not much has happened in this direction in a systemic sense. At the school level too, there are very few cases of stopping pre-boards. I cannot say how long CBSE will take to involve NCERT more deeply in its attempt to reform the examination system.

The third part of NCF's vision for a stress-free system was about changes in teacher training. In this respect, there is the good news that NCTE has finalised its NCF for teacher education. NCERT has revamped its own B.Ed. syllabus, and MHRD is about to unroll its plans for strengthening SCERTs and DIETs. Undoubtedly, teacher training reforms are going to take a while to show impact.

What are your immediate responses to the recent announcements regarding a core curriculum for maths and science at higher secondary level?

This issue has been raised by the Council of Boards of School Education (COBSE). COBSE seems to have forgotten that NCF-2005 fulfils the mandate NCERT was given under the National Policy on Education in 1986 to develop a core curriculum which would enable India to move towards a national system of education with comparable standards and quality. Such a system cannot be uniform in as diverse a country as ours. India is not just diverse but stratified too. The education system must develop the potential of every child, irrespective of background or circumstances.

In a federal set-up, State governments have the primary responsibility in education, and they must have autonomy to fulfil this responsibility. NCERT syllabus in mathematics and science already represents the core curriculum. The priority now should be to train teachers to contextualise it in the child's setting. This will inspire children to apply their knowledge to solve real problems and thereby develop logical thinking and reasoning.

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