Writing textbooks

The ideal person to write for schoolchildren is a schoolteacher... Every textbook must be evaluated by a group of experienced teachers before it is prescribed and reviewed after it has been in use for a while.

THE SCHOOL textbooks muddle has almost reached a dead end. While the NCERT is free to publish whatever it wishes to publish, the School Boards in different States are equally free to prescribe them or not to do so. This is according to the Constitution of India. The Supreme Court's recent judgment has saved the NCERT from embarrassment, no doubt. But, in the ultimate outcome, things remain as they were. The writing and prescription of textbooks has become a matter of controversy as also political confrontation. For anyone to imagine that the situation will get sorted out to everyone's satisfaction is to assume too much. The biggest sufferers are the students and the educational system as a whole.

Those who had written the textbooks a quarter century earlier for the NCERT belonged mainly to the Marxist school of history. This school of thought continues to be influential. Some of these people, however, got involved in some unsavoury controversies and did not come off too well. But on the professional plane, they still call the shots. The only scholar who was able to match the Marxist set of scholars was the late K.S. Lal. He passed away a few months ago. Of the rest, there is hardly anyone who can be taken serious notice of.

The couple of books published after the Supreme Court judgment have become a subject of ridicule and the situation therefore continues to be both muddled and far from satisfactory. It is not unreasonable to believe that were this controversy to die down soon, some significant changes in respect of analysis and understanding as well as the mode of presentation are likely enough to take place within the next few years. But if the controversy continues to rage, even those who wish to do things differently will not be able to do so.

Who is to write the textbooks? Before 1947, textbooks, whether on history or other subjects, were by and large a matter of individual or commercial initiative. While the Government did commission some books, different authors wrote on different subjects and did so mostly in Indian languages. The publishers in any case were Indian. While private enterprise does sometimes breed corruption, on balance, it works both for better quality as also ideological neutrality.

Even in the pre-1947 days, the writers were strongly influenced by the way history books were written at the college and university level. But when they wrote on their own, the greater part of their strength lay in the pedagogical skills that they brought to bear upon their writing than the material that they presented. This was because most of them were schoolteachers. Before 1947, the higher secondary stage did not exist. Things stopped at the matriculation stage, something distinctly lower than what is taught at the college level today. It is not without significance that most of the controversy is in respect of history or the languages and, as already stated, the causes of this controversy are the divergent political approaches adopted by the writers. They in turn are strongly influenced by what is happening on the political plane and the dominant trends of historical writing at the college and university level.

What has created acrimony, even bitterness, is the post-1947 system wherein books are formally prescribed and schools no longer have the freedom to do what they would prefer. Is it advisable to continue with the existing system or should we revert to something like what prevailed before 1947? The number of students was much smaller then and the pattern of educational management was distinctly less complicated.

In this connection, a reference may be made to the appointment of a task force by the Human Resource Development Ministry in 1995 to study the remodelling of school education boards. This initiative was taken in pursuance of a recommendation made by the 1986 Education Policy. Among the issues raised by this task force were: Who would be the ideal textbook writer? What is the importance of reviewing and what is the role of the editorial interventions? Secrecy vs transparency and several other related issues were also discussed. More importantly, a strong case was made out for the review of the textbooks (a) before they were prescribed and (b) after they had been used for a year or two.

It was also suggested that if a particular textbook was found to have something praiseworthy, steps might be taken to promote its wider use. For instance, such a popular textbook might be translated into a number of Indian languages and continue to be used for more years than the rest. Detailed suggestions were also made on how to identify the right kind of textbook writers.

Almost every State by now has a system of honouring teachers for their competence as well as their spirit of dedication. The Union Government has also sponsored similar schemes to honour teachers. It should not be difficult to identify 40-50 teachers per subject in each State who would stand out for their individual excellence. Then there is a whole band of retired teachers who can be asked to evaluate textbooks before they are prescribed.

One reason why the existing system is being criticised is that the NCERT as also the State Boards of School Education have evolved a system where individuals once selected continue forever. There is no system whatsoever of a feedback from those teachers who actually teach in the classroom. Whatever may be said in favour of or against the existing textbooks, it would be difficult to prove the fact that, except at the higher secondary stage, pedagogic skills displayed are of the right kind and the right timbre. The higher secondary level is no doubt a preparation for a career in college. But not many of the textbooks take into account the psychological stage of development and the needs of the pre-adolescent students. If most of the textbooks go above their head, that is the norm rather than the exception.

The foregoing argument implies one thing: the ideal person to write for schoolchildren is a schoolteacher. If there is one criticism which can be made of the whole range of textbook writing at the school level today, it is this fact that the school teachers are not involved. Were they to be involved, almost every State would be able to draw upon a talent pool of 400-500 capable teachers. Of them, 20-30 could be easily picked out and given special incentives such as paid academic leave and such other facilities so that they may write the right kind of textbooks. What they write would of course be subject to evaluation before the books are actually prescribed. Equally important, the post-prescription evaluation would also be part of the overall requirement. Every textbook must be evaluated by a group of experienced teachers before it is prescribed and reviewed after it has been in use for a while.

The existing system whereby certain favoured individuals are selected for reasons which would not bear too close a scrutiny leads to dilution of standards. This system must be abandoned. An alternative system which draws upon the pool of talent available among the schoolteachers who work in total anonymity today needs to be introduced. Decision making at the school board level today is in the hands of those who have risen by virtue of their seniority coupled with sycophancy and the lot. No wonder the choice of senior administrators is ultimately made in a manner which is as bureaucratic as it is political.

It is time to look beyond the confines of the current controversy, learn from the international experience, bypass the existing bureaucratic and politicised system of school administration, move towards decentralised decision making and, above all, draw upon the immense reservoir of talent available among the more than five million teachers manning our school system today. What is more, the key importance of a good textbook must be recognised and honoured both in theory and practice.

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