On curriculum framework
THE National Council for Educational Research and Training (NCERT) has prepared a new document called ‘National Curriculum Framework for School Education’. The new document is being discussed in seminars and workshops at various levels. Sometime back the NCERT held discussions on another document, ‘The Primary Years: Towards a Curriculum Framework’; this was supposed to provide a curricular framework as well as serve as a curriculum document. Still earlier we had seen a nationwide debate on another document, ‘The Minimum Levels of Learning at the Primary Stage’; this was neither a curriculum framework, a curriculum, nor a syllabus, but a prescription of learning outcomes, what is sometimes called national standards for the primary stage.
Meanwhile, the State Institute of Educational Research and Training (SIERT), Udaipur, Rajasthan has been holding discussions with chosen people on what they at one time called janasammat shikshakram. Agencies in other states have not been idle either; they too have been busy reforming their school curricula. All this activity in the area of curriculum is a positive sign. If we want to improve the quality of school education, a close look at the curricula is perhaps the first step. But it seems that there is neither a movement towards broad consensus nor a furthering of clarity on curricular issues.
Questions related to curricula are raised and duly disposed of in the workshops/seminars held all over the nation without generating any sustained dialogue in society, not even in narrow educational circles. The arguments for or against proposed changes make little difference. More than help formulate better argued or more rational positions, the debate only seems to provide an opportunity to let off steam for those who disagree. Similarly, the agencies preparing these documents seem open only to the arguments that validate their own positions.
This is probably because we do not critique these documents; rather we just have our say. A critique is possible only from a perspective, when one sets out the relevant questions to be asked and express opinions with supporting arguments which can be publicly examined. Sundry comments, however learned, when made without an overall perspective and shorn of supporting arguments are no more than personal preferences, publicly expressed, and to be taken on trust.
Personal preferences, of course, are not to be dismissed; they do have their place in a democratic debate. But only if woven together to form part of an argument. Otherwise they remain disjointed and do not contribute to a rational dialogue. They remain monadic prescriptions floating in the air on the strength of their originator’s position and not because of their relevance or rational worth. Worse, they pre-empt serious debate. Most of the points raised in the debate sound so familiar that they may actually be misinterpreted. I believe that is what has happened repeatedly with our curricular debates.
How does one critique a curriculum framework? Assess its worth? Can an analysis of particular parts, considered independently from each other, do the job? Or do we need something more? If we want people to understand our critique we need more than an analysis of parts alone; we must define the perspective in which our critique is made.
Agood curriculum framework should be a system of most basic principles and assumptions, capable of providing rational basis for curricular choices. Curricular choices are not limited to just what should be taught, but indicate choices regarding how to teach, under what conditions, by whom, with what teaching aids, how the evaluation should be carried out, and so on. In other words, the spectrum of choices which define what schools should be doing and how.
Cultural ideals, parents’ perceptions of the politico-economic scenario and their aspirations play a crucial role in all curricular decisions. India, as we so often remind ourselves, is a complex, multicultural society. Therefore, the ideals, perceptions and aspirations vary widely. This makes it difficult to select the set of most basic principles and assumptions that would be acceptable to all. The wider the differences, the more difficult it is to formulate a framework; and yet, the greater is the need.
The very diversity in society adds urgency to the questions of equity, of multiple identities and of national identity. The most potent means of safeguarding equity in a democratic society is to make good quality education available to all. And any assessment of the quality of education requires criteria which can be provided only by a good curriculum framework.
Iam not arguing that the presence of a curriculum framework would by itself ensure provision of equal opportunity for equally good quality education for all. All I am saying is that having a curriculum framework is a necessary condition; it may not be, and most certainly is not a sufficient condition. It is therefore justifiable to say that the greater the diversity in a society, the more urgent is the need for an acceptable curriculum framework.
The most basic principles will have to be dynamically evolved. They cannot be ‘unearthed’ and fixed for all times to come. They have to be constantly contested and reformulated. But again, as the best available set of principles at a given time to make rational decisions they do need to be respected. This ability to keep an open mind about a principle and at the same time respect it as a conviction is fundamental to critical thinking as well as democratic temperament. A good curriculum framework would need to have qualities that evoke this kind of ‘critical appreciation’.
In school education we are concerned with the development of understanding and capability for action. Understanding includes knowledge in all its forms as well as values and sensitivity. The capacity for action involves skills of various kinds. One can safely say that the curricular decisions are either about the choice of knowledge, values and/or skills to be included in or excluded from the programme of education; alternatively they are about how to develop these abilities in children.
Acurriculum framework cannot attempt to provide a list of all the knowledge, values and skills to be imparted to or developed in the children. There are several problems with this ‘list form’ of a curriculum framework. India is a plural society with wide-ranging geographical and environmental variations. Therefore, the sheer demands of day to day life and the valued cultural goods vary greatly. This leaves no hope that any list, howsoever comprehensive, can meet the needs and aspirations of all people and communities in our society.
Any attempt to make such a comprehensive list would result in inclusion of almost everything. That would render the list useless because it will become too unwieldy and marked by self-contradiction. If we have a small manageable list it will leave too many people dissatisfied and the teachers and others in education would perceive it as an instrument to be used against their academic freedom. What I am trying to establish is that a curriculum framework would need to go deeper than just cobble up a list of cultural and social goods.
We have to go one level beyond and look at the considerations that influence our choices of knowledge, values and skills for the school curricula. A choice is more than just picking up one of a given set of alternatives without giving it any thought or just on the impulse of a whim. A genuine choice should be supported by some sort of reasons. The reasons we advance for making public choices are based on basic assumptions that we hope are acceptable to our audience. The set of such basic assumption relevant to curricular choices can be organised under four broad heads:
1) Assumptions concerning our understanding of human beings and society. Assumptions in this category answer questions like: What is a human being? What is the purpose of life, if any? How are society and humans related?
2) Our assumptions about the nature of human understanding and modes of human action. The assumptions in this category answer question like: What is knowledge? Where does it come from? How is it acquired? How can human knowledge be organised? What is a skill? What is the relationship between knowledge, skills and action; between skill, work and society?
3) Our understanding of human learning. This includes questions about what learning is, the place of learning in human life, how human beings learn, and under what conditions.
4) The context of the learner. This begins with the immediate socio-cultural and geographical situation of the child – the village. But it does not end there and extends to the nation, the world and to the entire universe.
Some people would argue that knowledge or information about the last two is all that is needed to make curricular choices; all others are just created ideas and should play no role in curricular decisions. This view, if accepted, would reduce curriculum planning to an application of psychology. This view is fallacious because, every interpretation of socio historical reality is bound to have one or other set of assumptions about the nature of human beings and society. Psychology can at the best inform us about what can and cannot be taught at a certain age and how best to teach. It cannot help in deciding what to teach and what not to teach.
All of us, including educationists, have some basic assumptions about these four categories, and whether or not we explicate them, our decisions about curricula and education draw upon these assumptions. The most fundamental disagreements arise out of differences in these basic assumptions. While other disagreements may be resolved through dialogue, the fundamental disagreements which arise out of the core set of assumptions (beliefs, principles, convictions et al.) may not always be resolvable; at times we may even have to live with them. Therefore, a curriculum framework for education in a pluralistic society should first of all clarify its stand on these basic assumptions. Leaving the reader and the educational community at large to guess the stand taken on the core principles would be tantamount to inviting confusion on the one hand and asking them to take too much on faith on the other.
My comments on the discussion document of the National Curriculum Framework for School Education are made from the perspective which I have just outlined. The comments are primarily on its first two chapters: Curriculum concerns and issues and Organisation of curriculum at elementary and secondary stages. I have organised my comments around the four basic areas: the relationship of the human beings to society, the nature of knowledge and understanding, human learning, and the context of the learner.
How does the document look at a human being and his/her relationship with society? A ‘human being,’ according to the document, ‘is a positive asset and a precious national resource which needs to be cherished, nurtured and developed with tenderness and care coupled with dynamism.’ At times the reader may feel that a more liberal view of human beings is also advanced, for example in the sections called ‘Child as a constructor of his knowledge’ (1.2.12) and ‘Characteristics of a learner’ (2.3.3). But both these sections are restricted to pedagogical aspects, and their implications are not reflected in other sections which deal with aims of education or comments on socio-political aspects of education.
(The document seems to be more liberal in its psychological than in its socio-political vision! There should have been a tension within the document because of these two different views taken of human beings in different sections of the document. In any case, children, as future citizens, are primarily seen as national resources, even if cherished ones.)
But what is wrong in seeing citizens as a national resource? Is it not patriotic to consider ourselves a national resource? Should not one be proud if one is lucky enough to be useful to the nation? I have no doubt that one should be proud of herself if the nation finds her useful. But the view that we are primarily a national resource, leaves much to be desired. It strips an individual of any intrinsic worth. She is seen as a resource, and is of no value if not found to be good enough as such. This is disquieting.
In a democracy the relationship between a human being and her nation is a dynamic one. One vision could be that we collectively have a shared notion of a human being due to cultural and biological reasons and shape our nation and society so that collective notion could be optimally realised and further enriched. Here the notion of human being is primary and, to my mind, democracy as an ideal can be justified only if we accept the notion of human being as primary. In this vision we shape our society and nation to match our shared notion of human beings.
This does not mean that a human being actually comes before society and then creates a society of her choice. The relationship is much more complex, the notion of human being itself becomes possible only in a society. But culturally and psychologically we have reached a stage where we critically analyse ourselves as well as the society we live in, that gives us room enough to at least partially define and shape ourselves and our society.
The view that human beings are primarily a resource takes that freedom away from us. When we look at the human being primarily as a national resource then the nation becomes the primary notion. This leads to an absurd position, as one cannot conceive a nation without formulating ideals which make human life worth living. To avoid this absurdity, too heavy a reliance on national goals becomes necessary.
National goals are seen not as targets to better realise the shared notion of human being, but something holy and sacrosanct for which citizens can be used. Here, the society is split between the national goal setters and those who should be used for achieving these goals. Thus the nation society rearranges itself into resources and users of those resources. This position undermines equality and reaffirms the status quo.
A view of human beings as a resource is bound to measure the relative worth of people in terms of their usefulness in context of the agenda set by the rulers. If that agenda happens to be success in the market-driven economy, the more money you make a more valuable human being you become. And those who do not contribute in that manner are perceived as a burden. This view of human beings is not acceptable in a democratic and egalitarian society. Considering the human being as the primary notion does not allow for this kind of human devaluation. Though each citizen is a resource for the nation but that is her secondary characteristic; she is primarily a human being in her own right.
(The document declares that a human being is a positive asset at the very beginning, implying thereby that the human being is not a burden. But by the time it starts listing thrust areas and goals of education, the small family norm becomes important. If human beings are a positive asset then the more there are the better? Where is the need for population control? Facetious though it may seem, this does illustrate my point that simplistic positions, although apparently more communicative, cannot do justice to the complex of ideological choices embedded in a curricular document.)
It should not be too difficult to establish that a curriculum framework does need a theory of knowledge, bearing directly on questions of the selection of learning experiences, their ordering, and organisation. For example, the debate about integration of all subjects at the primary stage cannot be decided without referring to epistemology. One cannot proceed to integrate say, science and history without asking whether scientific knowledge is different from historical knowledge, and if so how? What bearing does that difference have on the teaching of the two subjects? Why, one cannot even define the much-favoured ‘scientific temper’ without recourse to epistemology. For philosophers the nature of knowledge and the connected question of structure of disciplines are the most important considerations for curriculum formulation.
The national curriculum document, however, seems to completely ignore the need for a theory of knowledge. This is evident from even a cursory reading of the various lists of concerns given. There are category mismatches in the lists provided to define thrust areas (p. 23) and general objectives of education (p. 29). These lists contain many overlapping and trivial points. As pointed out earlier, one cannot meet the requirements of an adequate epistemology for a curriculum through lists, howsoever long and comprehensive. Also, they do not place various epistemic activities such as enquiry, reasoning, questioning, exploration, etc. in any general integrative framework or approach to the growth and development of knowledge in the human mind.
One is at a loss to understand why the document assumes that exploration, problem solving, decision-making, interactive group learning, understanding the web of relationships, seeing patterns, etc. are linked with information and communication technologies? Some of these ideas are as old as the tradition of education itself and others have been emphasised from the time when the IT was nowhere in sight.
What has IT got to do with these ideas? Does IT promote exploration or problem solving or decision-making in any sense? What is the specific impact of IT on education, if any? How is the computer, with all its paraphernalia, a better educational tool than, say a well-written book or even the lowly blackboard and chalk? The idea of life-skills is another example of attempts to carve out concepts which muddle thinking rather than adding to clarity.
‘Life skills are abilities for adaptive and positive behaviour that enable individuals to deal effectively with demands and challenges of everyday life, by developing in them generic skills related to wide variety of areas such as health and social needs.’ What can one make of this definition? Especially if examples of ‘certain core life skills’ include ‘problem solving, critical thinking, communication, self-awareness, coping with stress, decision-making, creative thinking, interpersonal relationships and empathy?’
Well, one may be tempted to ask the authors to provide an example of something worth teaching which does not qualify as a life skill by this definition. What is the use of a concept of life skills that includes all the aims of education? This is an example of a problem created by lack of an epistemological perspective.
This lack of perspective is also manifested in the sections on integrating diverse curricular concerns (1.2.9), and reducing the curriculum load (1.2.11). The document rightly denounces the tendency to clamour for inclusion of ‘environmental education’, ‘consumer education’, ‘AIDS education’, etc. as separate areas of knowledge. But it does not seem to differentiate between collection of information and bodies of knowledge. The solution to this problem does not lie in incorporating information related to these so called important concerns in already existing subject areas like science or social studies. The solution lies in understanding the nature of science and social studies and then teaching them in a fashion that develops abilities to understand problems and issues related to environment and society.
Again, in reducing curriculum load, the document rightly emphasises a shift away from content (understood as collection of information), but does not work out implications of ‘learning to learn’, which is not a matter of emphasising process alone. Without some criteria to decide on the relative worth of what is learnt, the problem of curriculum load cannot be solved.
Psychological arguments alone cannot decide these issues. Since the document does not have an epistemological perspective the list of concerns in the first chapter remains just that, a list of concerns. It does not help in formulating any viewpoint or a set of principles to provide grounds for curricular decision-making.
In contrast to the two earlier areas, the document is aware of the need to have a perspective on learning. A good attempt is made in the second chapter, in the section on characteristics of a learner, to state the important points of this perspective; the section ‘Child as a constructor of knowledge’ also helps in this regard. Social constructivist psychology is favoured, but there is no hint of the epistemological assumptions behind that psychology. Therefore, it seems that while this psychological perspective is seen as useful in guiding pedagogical interactions, it is not expected to influence either curriculum organisation, the categorisation of knowledge, or in demarcating subject areas and understanding their relative importance.
In addition to the social constructivist position, Howard Gardner’s ‘Theory of Multiple Intelligences’ and the four pillars of education made famous by the Delors report, ‘Learning: The Treasure Within’ have also been mentioned. But the theory of multiple intelligences is invoked only to emphasise the need for emotional education. This seems to suggest that the authors of the national curriculum framework do not think that constructivist psychology can adequately deal with emotional development. But we are left to guess this as the inadequacy of the constructivist psychology is not shown. Apart from stating that we must have curricula based on ‘MI theory’, there is no explanation of what this may involve. The famous four pillars of education appear rather shaky. This is not to critique either of these two theories, but to make the point that sketchy references cannot serve as a basis to persuade us that the edifice of school education must be built on these foundations.
The fourth aspect is the context of the learner. Even though the discussion is primarily on the socio economic context of the learner, this is the only area that the document does present fairly elaborately. The position must be culled from various concerns expressed, such as ‘impact of globalization’, ‘challenge of information and communication technologies’, etc. (The choice of concerns included are not self-explanatory. Why does meeting the so-called challenges posed by information technology figure as a concern in the document, while acceptance of crime and corrupt practices in national and state politics does not? Why does the rise of fundamentalism not feature?)
‘Curriculum development essentially is a process of permanent search for qualitative improvement in response to different changes in the society’ (p. 6), ‘responding to the impact of globalisation’ (p. 10), ‘meeting the challenge of information and communication technologies’ (p. 11; emphases mine). In all these quotations taken from the National Curriculum document, ‘change in the society’ is the most dynamic aspect of the learner’s context. The individual, the learner, is cast as a reactive entity. The learner only reacts, responds; she does not act. The learner is not seen as a pro-active entity.
There is nothing to suggest that she can be a change maker, the author of change in the society. But the concern seems to be that she should be made capable of responding to the change, and for coping with the changes being made by others. Thus the learner is not expected to strive to make a society of her choice; she should be busy only with finding a place for herself in the scheme of things as they are.
Equity is mentioned at many places in the document, and this is one of the positive aspects. But a curriculum for equity does not, cannot, see human beings as resource, cannot rest assured on the strength of capabilities to respond to changes caused by factors beyond ones control. If those who are less then equal want equity in society they must have the capability to become fountainheads of change. The ideal of equality and the notion of human being accepted in the document cannot go together. Unless we can visualise the curriculum development process as a dynamic and perpetual quest for transforming our society into a just (equitable?) society, and of constantly expending the horizon of human possibilities, we will always be led by those in control, or God.
The National Curriculum Framework – 1988 had ‘equality of education and opportunity’ as its first concern. The new document has ‘education for a cohesive society’ in its place. Cohesiveness recurs in only two sub-sections. First, in connection with education of children from disadvantaged groups and second, towards the end to recommend ‘learning to live together’. Equality of opportunity features at places in somewhat guarded terms.
What is the primary goal here – cohesion or justice? Cohesion through justice and equity? What if one has to sacrifice justice and equity for cohesion? These questions come to mind because the new framework has replaced a more important value (equality) with a less important one (cohesiveness). Cautious comments such as equality not meaning ‘nominal equality, the same treatment for everyone’, under the heading of ‘cohesive society’, may give a feeling of something being amiss. Highly undemocratic societies can be cohesive both in theory and practice. Wouldn’t it be better to strive for a democratic, egalitarian and pluralistic society through education?
Globalisation is recognised as an outcome of technological changes, geopolitical evolution and ‘a dominant ideology of regulation by the market.’ But in the suggested ways of responding to it, the most important aspect of the ideology of regulation by the market is totally ignored. The idea of the market providing the regulating principles for society rather than being regulated by social needs and ideals contradicts the ideals of liberal, humanistic education.
This is the biggest danger of globalisation; the very decision to cater to capabilities that ensure success in an arena where the only value is money makes it nothing less than a complete surrender. An adequate response to globalisation would be to understand the dangers of accepting the market as ones master. The conviction of intrinsic worth of human being and commitment to equality, coupled with the understanding of subtle impact of market forces on value systems, are essential tools to guard against this danger.
One could go into the document line by line, and take it apart. But the arguments I have placed above should be enough to establish that this document is not worth accepting in its present form.
In this final section I would like to engage with a debate which has assumed centrality in the present political climate and is reflected in the curriculum document – the question of religion and values, and their place in the school curriculum. ‘Secularism,’ according to the document ‘in the present educational parlance, has wrongly been misunderstood as rejection of religion. There has now emerged an opinion that the term ought to mean equal understanding of and respect for all religions, "sarvadharma samabhava" or "panthanirapekshata".’ Secularism, according to Oxford Advanced Learners’ dictionary means ‘belief that morality, education, etc. should not be based on religion.’
According to the Catholic Encyclopaedia: ‘Secularism is that which seeks the development of the physical, moral, and intellectual nature of man to the highest possible point as the immediate duty of life – which inculcates the practical sufficiency of natural morality apart from Atheism, Theism or the Bible – which selects as its methods of procedure the promotion of human improvement by material means, and proposes these positive agreements as the common bond of union, to all who would regulate life by reason and ennoble it by service’ (Principles of Secularism, 17).
And again, ‘Secularism is a code of duty pertaining to this life founded on considerations purely human, and intended mainly for those who find theology indefinite or inadequate, unreliable or unbelievable’ (English Secularism, 35).
‘Secularism,’ according to Charles Watts, ‘in dealing with the social problems of the day, relies upon human reason, not upon "divine" faith; upon fact, not upon fiction; upon experience, not upon a supposed supernatural revelation. It can discover no value in what is termed spiritual proposals as a remedy for existing evils. Hence secularists can recognise only that as being socially useful which tends to the physical, mental, moral, and political improvement of mankind as members of the general commonwealth. Considerations about matters that are said to transcend the province of reason, and that make the business of this life merely of secondary importance, secularists deem to be, at the most, only of theoretical interest, and of no real service in the social struggle in which society is at present engaged.’
These three quotes are to indicate that the word ‘secularism’ has been and is associated with certain ideas that have no use for either God or religion. But the national curriculum document seems to be responding to a notion of secularism which is different from what these dictionaries and encyclopaedias say on the matter. Therefore, one needs to see the merits of what the document believes about secularism. The main points made in the section on ‘Egalitarianism, democracy and secularism’ are as follows:
1) We should try to promote ‘equal understanding of and equal respect for all religions’ through education.
2) ‘Sarvadharma Samabhava’ is the same thing as ‘panthnirpekshata’.
3) Religion in its basic form (devoid of myth, dogma and ritual) would draw younger generation to basic moral and spiritual values.
4) Only education that leads to belief in God can make for the service of the country and humanity.
A state run education system may try to promote equal understanding of all religions by prescribing a certain curriculum without actually infringing upon students right of freedom of faith and beliefs. But that is possible only when all religions are subjected to critical analysis in the classroom without any bias, and the students at the end are left to make up their own minds. But this may not lead to equal respect for all religions in the students. It may lead students to accept different religious dogma as truth or it may lead some to have equal disbelief in all.
Demanding equal respect for sets of beliefs or dogmas is nothing but indoctrination. A state run education system in a pluralistic democratic society cannot justify getting into it. (It is also in stark contrast to the scientific temper, much praised in the document.) It goes without saying that it is totally antithetical to critical thinking.
In psychological terms no actual believer is capable of equal respect for all religions. One may have equal respect for all human beings irrespective of their religion, but a nonbeliever is more likely to pass this test than a believer, though theoretically a believer may be capable of it as well. But equal respect for all human beings, irrespective of their religions, is not the same thing as equal respect for their religions. A public education system can only be equidistant from all and keep its decision making free from religious interference.
‘Sarvadharma samabhava’ interpreted literally would mean having similar attitude to all religions. The attitude in question may be equally positive to all, equally negative to all, or equal lack of concern for all. But here it is meant as equally sympathetic to all. Panthnirpekshata is actually closer to the term secular. A state is panthnirpeksha when it does not allow its policy decisions to be swayed by religious beliefs of any kind. This attitude entails no respect, or lack of respect; just a determination to keep religious beliefs at bay. Therefore, sarvadharma samabhava can be a synonym of panthnirpekshata only if it means equal unconcern for all, but that is secularism in its original form! The other possibilities are inconsistent with panthnirpekshata.
The document hints at more than one place that morality is dependent on religion. And that religion can lend a helping hand in moral education. Both these contentions are unfounded. There is sufficient literature on the theme. Here I will only make a few short comments. I do not believe there is any study which shows that believers are more moral than nonbelievers.
Religious morality is based on an unfounded belief in divinity and life after death. It is a rather coarse and utilitarian view which is contrary to critical thinking and reason. It gives religious leaders power over people’s minds, which is often misused. And of course, there is no such thing as religion devoid of myth, dogma and ritual. Mahatma Gandhi has been quoted here – it is either out of context, and means something quiet different from what it was meant to express, or it is highly problematic and untenable, totally devoid of any merit, even if it comes from the Mahatma. The quotation would suggest that an (atheist) citizen can be of no service to the country or to humanity. Does such an obviously incorrect statement need refutation?