Common curriculum for a democracy?


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IF a curriculum can be viewed as a master plan of what knowledge is considered worthy of passing on to the next generation, then it embodies a vision of the future. As such, a curricular vision is a deeply political exercise. When a nation state which is unable to provide even primary education to all its citizens after nearly 53 years of independence, embarks on a curriculum-making exercise on behalf of a much fissured and fractured national community, the political nature of the exercise necessarily causes anxiety.

At the beginning of a new millennium, a mass of knowledge is available to the national community from the advance of various human enterprises. What knowledge is to get into schools which are supposed to be the responsibility of the nation state? There is, necessarily, a selection process at work in this exercise; what power relations determine this selection process in a democratic, multi-cultural nation state? What kind of representation of the millions of unlearned citizens can a national draft drawn up by a committee (however worthy its members and keen their expertise) offer to the hitherto under-served lower classes and castes?

The ideology of a nation at once homogenises and differentiates between insiders and outsiders. The cohesion that it imposes is created through imagined and real, but selected, historical trajectories cutting across sub-national identities and loyalties. This cohesion is institutionalised in various state formations. The school is a major and primary site of institutionalised national cohesion in India.

In a democracy, this cohering ideology often conflicts with the ideal of equality of all citizens. Further, these conflicts also impact on the ideals of social justice for historically oppressed groups as social justice is a corollary to equality. What happens to the attainment of these ideals when homogenising nationalist ideologies are centralised in state institutions like schools?

That the nation state undertakes to write a curriculum framework for school education is hardly surprising, given the centrality of the nation in schooling and the centrality of school to the nation state. Nonetheless, the very configuring of the nation at the centre of the enterprise needs to be problematized in terms of power relations between the visualisers of a future for the national community and those for whom this future is visualized.



All these questions and the contradictory relationships between them underlie my approach to the curriculum framework under discussion. While I do not think that each of these questions needs to be answered in categorical terms, I wish to retain the energy and the creative tension these issues evoke.

In this paper I have attempted a close reading of the text in the light of the above questions. I have roughly followed the thematic order of the document in this paper as well, except in places where I attempt to link different sections for a clearer understanding of the document as a whole.

One of the constitutional obligations of a nation state is equal access to school education for all its citizens. Equality of educational opportunity through qualitative provisions for the same is incumbent not only on the state but also on the national community, if we are to consider ourselves a democratic ‘modern’ nation state. Though the draft makes loud and repeated noises about ‘cohesive society’, ‘national identity’ and ‘duties of citizens’, it does not demand the provision of essential facilities for learning as a way to ensure equality.

If we as the national community are to take the draft seriously, it is only realistic to expect the government to provide the necessary infrastructure to implement the curriculum it has drafted on our behalf. If the government takes up the task of deciding what future citizens should learn, why doesn’t its own draft curriculum guarantee suitable infrastructure for that learning to take place?

The draft does admit the existence of the issue: ‘The most crucial thrust area of providing essential facilities for effective transaction of the curriculum in all schools/non-formal learning centres still appears to be a mirage,’ says the draft truthfully (p. 5). It also acknowledges that ‘several centrally sponsored schemes, such as Operation Blackboard, providing science kits, musical instruments etc. have not been too fruitful as one-time support does not create much impact’ (ibid). It goes so far as to say that ‘no nation can afford to go slow in the matter of curriculum renewal and development’ (p. 6).



Yet the draft evades the issue in many indirect and subtle phrases: On page 14, we are told in the context of ‘non-formal/alternative schooling’, that we are ‘in a resource-crunch country where there is not enough funds available for the formal schooling’ (sic). On page 25, the emphasis on one of the main themes, that of ‘ensuring a (sic) minimum essential level of acquisition of knowledge, understanding and skill in all subjects at all stages,’ is undermined by the phrase ‘commensurate with the learners’ abilities and learning experiences.’ We will not be able to provide essential learning experiences, yet the achievement of learning is contingent on that very provision.

The masterstroke follows in the same page where ‘essential facilities’ for learning is equated with ‘minimum conditions for learning’ by putting in an ‘or’ between the two phrases! As a teacher, that too of English, I find this slippage very troublesome. (Incidentally, why does the word ‘minimum’ become an inevitable qualifier whenever we talk of schools and school-level education?)



The first chapter does say a number of ‘right’ things on various curricular concerns and issues. However, these are couched in generalities which are not concretised in subsequent chapters on specific subjects. Issues such as ‘recognising interface between cognition and emotion’ (1.2.13) hardly find any mention later, either in sections on pre-primary or other stages of school education.

There are worrisome exclusions in the curricular concerns: instructional strategies in vogue and teacher education do not appear here, but in chapter Five on ‘Implementation and managing the system’ (sic). In the section ‘Child as constructor of his knowledge’ (1.2.12) there is no mention of the joy children take in active learning. It is all the more ironic because the next section (1.2.13) is, as noted above, on the interface between cognition and emotion!

The draft talks emphatically of ‘India’s contributions to world civilizations’ (pages 9, 54, and 55). The concept of ‘India’s contributions to world civilizations’ is reiterated repeatedly. But there is no mention of Indian civilization having ever borrowed or benefited from other civilizations. This omission obscures the important process of mutuality between civilizations that have characterised the growth of human advancement. Pedagogically, especially in social studies, this is a myopic omission.

Untouchability and caste system are also India’s ‘contributions’; yet there is no mention of these even in the context of social studies. There does not seem to be any willingness to critically examine this very material practice even in the regional discussion group which categorically states, ‘The curriculum should address to (sic) the positive aspects of the heritage and not the negative’ (Report on the Regional Seminar, p. 7). When sections of students experience the fallout of this aspect of heritage on a daily basis in many parts of the country, with their parents’ and their lives at risk because of their caste, how can school knowledge exclude this aspect?



The draft actually mentions caste, not as part of heritage, but in a different context, that of ‘strengthening national identity and preserving cultural heritage,’ albeit in a misguided and thoughtless way: ‘At no point of time can the school curriculum ignore including specific content which nurtures national identity, a profound sense of patriotism, non-sectarian attitudes, capacity for tolerating differences arising out of caste, religion, ideology, region, languages, sex, etc.’ (p. 9).

Why should a believer in equality of all humans develop a capacity for tolerating differences arising out of caste? To me, as a teacher and as a citizen, what is to be inculcated with regard to caste is the capacity to express a ‘learnt rage’, to use the words of the Tamil poet Bharati.

The concept of Indian ‘nation’ that emerges from the first chapter, (indeed throughout the draft) adds to my concerns: the draft takes for granted that all citizens who enter schools should have equal commitment to ‘strengthening national identity’ and ‘national development.’ It is silent on the obligations and responsibilities of the government towards its citizens even in the section on social studies. When the only school a rural student can access is run by the government, with no lab or library, no drinking water or toilet facilities, what lesson does she learn about the government and indirectly, about the nation?



Further, the draft accepts various ‘curricular concerns’ without any question, especially those concerning citizenship and government; for example, the continued ‘important role’ of non-formal system in universalising elementary education (p. 14), thus letting slide the government’s constitutional obligation to provide free and compulsory education to all citizens.

Yet one of the fundamental precepts of the Indian Constitution, secularism, is questioned (p. 24); the draft calls for a redefinition of this concept. There is a mysterious passive voice in the first sentence of this section: ‘Secularism, in the present educational parlance has wrongly been misunderstood as rejection of religion.’ The next sentence hands us a new mystery: ‘There has now emerged an opinion that the term ought to mean equal understanding of and respect for all religions "sarvadharma samabhava" or "panthanirapekshata".’

Where has this opinion emerged from? Call me a paranoid Dravida, but the Sanskrit quotations here make me uneasy about the origins of this ‘emerging opinion’. In fact, the only Indian language from which quotations are drawn is Sanskrit (p. 9 , 10 and 24). Except on page 9, the Sanskrit phrases are not translated. Is Sanskritic tradition the common heritage the document harps on?



The draft says all the right things regarding education in general. In fact, many phrases are trite and pious, with little meaning. Its biases are many and often its statements seem to undermine equality and attempts at social justice.

It talks of relating education to the world of work (p. 15). My objections to this section are many: first, there is no definition of what is meant by work education. Second, by adding vocational education to this section, the confusion about what constitutes work education is confounded. There is a suggestion that even at the primary stage children should begin work education by observing work situations (p. 15). To me, this suggestion reeks of urban middle class male bias. In most rural and urban areas, students from lower classes and castes are involved directly or indirectly in their parents’ work. It is only in urban middle class surroundings that students are unaware of work situations.

Besides, it brings up another question: for whose benefit are we inculcating values related to work at so early a stage? Is this evidence of the middle class mindset of viewing other people’s children as mere ‘hands’ to be trained, as Myron Weiner pointed out (1994)? Are we going to parade to the MNCs a disciplined labour force with primary schooling?

In a country where child labour is widely prevalent, especially in the unorganised sector, and many middle school students hover precariously between going full time to work and attending school, this suggestion of work education to ‘reinforce respect for meaningful work’ is ridiculous. Many of my students who work part-time in the unorganised sector in Chennai, say that they respect such work because it is meaningful, but their respect for school knowledge is low because it is not. It is a pity that such students’ voices (these students are in the majority) are not taken into account on what constitutes meaningful education.

Another problem in this section relates to the suggestion that the focus of vocational education ‘has to be on the vast unorganised sector of self-employment’ (p. 16). It is not clear if vocational education should train students to start small businesses of their own or whether the training should involve participating in or working for ‘unorganised sector’ during and after their education. For, it is this sector that often exploits underage workers. And in the context of increasing contract work on piece rate by MNCs to reduce costs, this emphasis on training for the ‘unorganised sector’ assumes sinister overtones. Clarity in this matter is very important.



Under the title ‘CultureSpecific Pedagogies’, the document emphasizes the need to use pedagogies meaningful to the cultural milieu of the students (p. 18). How about evaluation strategies? Can they be made situation-specific? The document also talks about the importance of oral expression (pp. 40-41) at all stages. But under ‘Evaluation’, there is no concrete measure suggested except a general statement: ‘More use of oral testing should be made to assess the development of basic skills in language...’ (p. 91).

If a National Testing Service is to be established, what happens to flexibility measures and internal autonomy? Would ETS draw up a list of skills for all languages for schools to use? If so, what happens to speakers of dialects at the primary stage? This is a crucial question for children from dalit and other lower caste communities; they are not allowed to interact with their upper caste peers; their dialects are far removed from the standardised form of the dominant language which is closer to upper-caste speech (Ilaiah, 1996; Suresh, 1987). Teachers are not always aware of the significance of this and condemn dalit children’s language. How will oral testing take care of such nuances?

ETS is likely to conduct common tests for students from all the boards. (It is not clear what the purpose of ETS will be.) Each board of secondary education sets its students different standards; evaluation methods are different. Content and instructional strategies are different. Learning experiences are necessarily richer for the students of some boards (example, ICSE) than others (example, regional medium state boards). As things stand, most of the students of regional medium state boards are pushed out of common entrance exams for professional courses. Will ETS kind of common standards create another glass ceiling for them, just as testing in English has done in the case of several entrance exams?



Such questions become urgent especially when we link the issues of instruction in core areas to the aims listed in chapter Two on pages 23-25. I want to quote the document on a crucial idea: ‘ensuring to (sic) minimum essential level of acquisition of knowledge, understanding and skill in all subjects at all stages, commensurate with the learners’ abilities and learning experiences’ (p. 25; emphasis mine).

In the section on mathematics, after some pertinent questions about maths for 10 years of general education, there is a statement: ‘It goes without saying that mathematical reasoning demands higher mental ability’ (p. 43). Why does it go without saying? Where does such a statement, with a loaded mind set come from? The word ‘ability’ is often used in contexts of ‘inherent quality’. Is that the sense in both places?

To me, as a woman, it reverberates with historical echoes: women were not considered to possess the necessary ‘intelligence’ for maths and hard sciences not so long ago. Dalits, men and women, were not credited with the ‘intelligence’ for literacy. How will this higher mental ability be assessed? By whom? When will this assessment take place? What kind of evidence is available for such a statement?



Further down in the same paragraph the document claims, ‘many educationists feel that mathematics should be compulsory only up to Class VIII (sic), while some other opine (sic) that there should be two types of mathematics courses at secondary level and senior secondary level. These courses should be need-based. At the secondary level there should be one course for those who will pursue mathematics as their future career and another course for those for whom Class X will be a terminal stage. As such the important issue is what sort of mathematical skills and competency are required upto ten years of mathematics education’ (p. 43).

Now, who are these educationists? Why doesn’t an important document like this draft curriculum have references from where it draws such extraordinary ideas? Do these educationists seriously think that by end of class VIII students know enough to make an informed choice about their career? And how many students really have a choice about what they study beyond class X? And: does the last sentence of the quotation talk about the second stream? If so, it sounds like the two-stream idea is a foregone conclusion and so is not ‘an important issue.’ I find the entire treatment too cavalier.

The document does mention the problems leading to student frustration in mathematics learning with regard to content and instructional methods on page 44. What is the place of educational environment and experiences in assessing this ‘higher mental ability?’ Will learning experiences or lack of them before class VIII be taken into account during assessment? Or will ETS be involved in framing tests for these too? There are far too many disturbing questions that go unanswered by this section. How these questions will be resolved is likely to affect the future of millions of children as well as the future of mathematics education in this country. Besides, if equality of opportunity is to be maintained within the schooling system, the two-stream idea cannot be a solution.



Another example of middle class bias is the emphasis on the use of calculators. Realistically, what percentage of pupils from lower classes across the country can afford to possess one? If the issue is resolved in favour of the calculator, which segments of students are most likely to possess one? Will the government provide each class in public schools with calculators as part of the minimum conditions of learning? Far more serious issues relate to the availability of qualified math teachers, student-friendly instructional materials and evaluation methods. Yet there is very little concrete or constructive on these issues.

In terms of language instruction, this framework does not offer an improved conception of English as a second language. First, second and third languages are clubbed together under ‘Language’ (38-42). Pedagogically speaking, this is a disservice to teachers, students and to syllabus writers. Phrases like ‘suitable standard, literary value, functional and applied grammar, various forms of literature’ figure all over these pages. In 10 years of general education, how do we deal with literary value in second language? How are first and second language instructions conceptualised? How are these differentiated?



My teaching experience shows that we, as an educational community, have no clear concept of what kind of competencies will help learners of English as a second language. Nor have we invested serious thought or capital in developing instructional packages for oral and listening skills, either for the teachers or for students. A vast majority of teachers have little consistent exposure to spoken English.

If we are earnest in proclaiming the importance of English as the link language to the technological world, we need a radical reconceptualisation in this area. We need to evolve instructional strategies to teach this language effectively, for student frustration in learning of English is as high as it is maths. Effective teaching of English as a second language will go a long way in reducing existing disparities between the students of the various boards of education.

That the draft curriculum has problems with definitions has been mentioned before. A truly hilarious example is the set of definition-like sentences at the beginning of Section 2.5.3, titled ‘Science and Technology’: ‘Science and Technology is a great human enterprise. It is a self-growing, self-pervading, self accelerating and self correcting enterprise which originated in the collective curiosity of man since time immemorial’ (p. 44; emphasis mine). I have not managed to grasp the latter sentence. Perhaps readers can explain it to me. I request them to note the use of ‘human’ in the first sentence and ‘man’ in the second, as an indication of a particular mind set.

I am surprised that science is clubbed with technology as one of the core disciplines. This coupling eminently reflects the lack of clarity in thinking that pervades the document. Further, the rest of this section mires one in confusion: there is the usual suspect, the scientific temper with capital S and T (p. 45). I am as baffled by the definite article as by the capital letters.



Further down the page comes a paragraph on scientific literacy. I do not wish to be accused of quoting out of context: ‘Science operates through its processes and, when combined with technology, improves the quality of life and serves the society. Therefore, the basic philosophy of science is shifting from scientific literacy to scientific and technological literacy.’ I am not clear if this refers to a paradigm shift in the field of hard sciences, or if it refers to a need to change the educational aim within Indian schools. The immediate paragraph confounds the issue by listing seven dimensions of ‘scientific literacy’.

The two stream idea surfaces in this section too. Again with the same mysterious ‘many educationists, school teachers and teacher educators’ seem to advocate this idea (p. 48). The document itself raises the questions how such streaming is likely to affect equality and create further differentiation among the students. The participants of the regional discussion in Mysore have not supported the two stream idea, and have rightly pointed out that more process-oriented curricular transactions are part of the answer (Regional Seminar Report, p. 13).

With regard to both science and math education, there have been systematic and effective experiments in many parts of the country. Instructional materials, methods and supplementary materials have been prepared and used by teachers in many schools. Organisations such as Homi Bhabha Centre in Bombay, Eklavya in M.P. and P.K. Srinivasan’s Mathematics Centre in Chennai, peoples’ science movements in different states, to cite a few examples, have evolved and refined exciting and lucid ways to teach complex concepts in science and math by actively involving teachers. There are also individual teachers who have developed low-cost aids using locally available resources to improve instructional environment and enrich learning experiences.



An effort to collate and distribute the fruits of these experiences will enhance the quality of teaching and learning in these crucial areas. Curricular plans without constructive instructional components tend to muddy the waters. With equal emphasis on curriculum and instruction, we can better serve our student community and avoid proposing discriminatory streaming.

Social sciences have been cursed with neglect and lack of conceptual clarity in school curricula over the years. Inspite of being a site of social contestation, this core area has been treated rather casually by students, teachers and parents. Curriculum planners seem to increase the confusion and contempt to which this exciting core area has been subjected to. This document is no exception: It talks about globalisation and localisation as important curricular concerns and then goes on to suggest a theme-based approach. Again, the terms are so generalised that the section indicates no clear direction in this area.

The prize for clear-as-mud writing on the topic to date has to go the paragraph on paradigm shift in social sciences on page 53. Such writing exacerbates the conceptual mess we have engendered in social studies at school level. The specific core themes suggested in page 54 negates much of what the draft says earlier and later in this section.



An interdisciplinary approach is suggested, along with components of value education, work education, issues related to the national ideology and all the other concerns featured in chapter 1. Linkages with math and science knowledge are also suggested. I wonder if it is humanly possible to write a syllabus based on these pages for 10 years of school-level social studies, and do justice to the interdisciplinary demands of the enterprise. And will such a loaded syllabus be meaningful to students?

As it is, social studies is a neglected area, both in terms of availability of qualified teachers and learning materials. A theme based approach needs interdisciplinary expertise to use even prepackaged modules in instructional contexts. What kind of teacher preparation and instructional development is envisaged to effect this approach? Or are such ideas beyond the purview of this document?

The urban bias that pervades this document manifests itself in unexpected places: on page 99, while suggesting that local environment can provide rich resources for learning, the document looks at rural environment only in physical terms. In human and cultural terms the rural areas seem to have nothing to offer! Such elements are attributed to the urban areas.

Evaluation strategies need to be built into the instructional processes so that students learn how to improve and consolidate their skills, competencies and abilities in any given curricular area. National level testing cannot help in this aim. Life long learning can be achieved only if the learner is equipped with critical skills regarding her own learning. Similar attempts are necessary in teacher education too.

This issue brings me to the presence of teachers in this document: I am not sure if teachers were consulted at any stage in preparing the draft. Occasional references to teachers do occur, especially in connection with the two-stream idea in science and maths. The only other reference to teachers leaves me angry and appalled: ‘Even empowerment of teachers as curriculum developers would be desirable’ (p. 99; emphasis mine). There is a section on teacher education, which talks mainly about technical support from various sources for teacher training.



Under teacher training significant themes, that of professional pride in their work and the affective aspects of being with children, need to be incorporated. For primary school teacher-trainees, school visits, with specific attention to resource-rich and resource-poor learning environments may be introduced. Curriculum theory hardly finds a place in teacher education syllabus. It is important that teachers be familiar with this area to effectively create instructional packages using local sources and resources, combining them with outside inputs through information technology.

Another reason why teachers should be empowered to engage creatively with the processes of curricular and instructional designing has to do with decentralisation to the classroom level. Educational planning and execution have for too long followed top-down models. This has resulted in ineffective teaching and deskilling and demoralisation of teachers as professionals. The success stories from DPEP projects should have taught our educational planners that empowering of teachers in this manner is an important step in achieving the constitutional obligation of providing free and compulsory education in an effective fashion.

In conclusion, I return to the questions that I posed in the beginning: a democratic nation institutionalises schooling to provide equality of opportunity in every walk of life to all its future citizens. As long as we have differentiated secondary education boards that provide different levels of educational experiences to different sections of society, no common framework of content can help the nation to be cohesive. If we as a society truly believe in democratic principles, we will galvanise ourselves and our political leadership to provide the best to our poor schools, instead of depriving them further by diluting the curriculum and obfuscating our elitist mind-set with words like ‘ability’.



This document focuses only on the content of school curriculum, thus badly fracturing the fundamental idea of curriculum by unequal emphasis on content and instructional process. Both are equally important as one can be destroyed by the poor quality of the other. Without specifying instructional components clearly, we cannot hope to achieve any level of competency in core areas.

A vast majority of our children study in schools where the only available instruction is the lecture by teachers. A minority, on the other hand, has access to the best methods and materials the country has to offer. A common framework of content, which is what this document turns out to be, can only widen the disparity by ignoring the modalities of learning experiences.

It is unimaginative and sterile educational planning that suggests a two-stream idea for the first 10 years of education. If educational planning divides an already fissured society further, it will be inimical to democratic principles, and ultimately to the very cohesion of society that the document seeks to create. A truly egalitarian framework must exhibit the political will and commitment towards establishing schools with the essential conditions of learning, i.e. demanding excellent and resource-rich facilities.



A mere reiteration of pieties in school will not inculcate values in students. A student frustrated by an arid learning atmosphere has nothing to show for her commitment to the nation, as the school is the primary site of her interaction with the abstraction of a nation. Victorious India that the national anthem celebrates will not be at hand if our educational planning and execution continue to waste millions of minds through undemocratic distribution of resources.

Democratic processes need to be seen and felt in practice if civic sense is to be inculcated in young minds. An adolescent will not be proud of her society and country if she cannot commute to school in safety, if she cannot be elected as the school pupil leader, or if she is not provided with the facilities for learning without fear, no matter how ancient and glorious its cultural heritage.




K. Ilaiah, Why I am not a Hindu. Samya Publications, Calcutta, 1996.

J. Suresh, Language Socialisation of Scheduled Caste Children in India: Tamilnadu – A Case Study. Office of the Registrar General for the Census of India, Delhi, 1987.

M. Weiner, ‘India’s Case Against Compulsory Education’, Seminar (413), January 1994, pp. 83-87.