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Thursday, April 22, 2021

Indian education system must stop chasing ‘learning outcomes’

Textbooks centred around outcomes follow a didactic approach of presenting facts that children are supposed to passively consume and memorise.

Written by Disha Nawani |
Updated: March 31, 2021 8:50:45 am
Textbooks tailored to measure the acquisition of learning outcomes on part of children is a self-defeating exercise.

In the present context, which seeks to demonstrate, measure and quantify learning, learning outcomes (LO) have become a fetish with policymakers and textbook developers, an idea popularised by large-scale assessment surveys, such as the Annual Status of Education Report (ASER), in India. LO essentially refers to grade-appropriate, basic competencies in numeracy and literacy, which schoolgoing children are supposed to acquire.

The National Council of Educational Research and Training (NCERT), the apex body responsible for making curriculum, syllabus and textbooks, has already come out with two documents listing learning outcomes at elementary and secondary stages, while the one for the higher secondary stage is underway. This is because the new National Education Policy 2020 underscores the importance of foundational skills as being central to a child’s schooling. State Councils of Educational Research and Training (SCERT) will be soon expected to toe the line. However, the government of Andhra Pradesh has already initiated the exercise. Besides deciding to convert all government schools from Classes I to X to English medium, the state education department was directed to prepare “mirror image” textbooks — with lessons printed in English and Telugu, side by side. This seems to be more of a mechanical exercise without any sound pedagogic rationale. A quick review of the new textbooks shows that they centre around LO and follow a didactic approach of essentially presenting information/facts that children are supposed to passively consume and memorise. Such books typically deny the agency of both the teacher and the student, making them subservient to the printed text. They are physically heavy but conceptually terse.

It was with great difficulty that National Curriculum Framework, prepared by NCERT in 2005, changed the form and nature of textbooks. Any change of government at the Centre or state level was/is usually followed by a change in textbooks, particularly history. Besides blatant misuse as a political tool, textbooks suffer from other limitations. They reproduce social inequalities by either omission of diverse social groups or their misrepresentation. The landmark Learning Without Burden (LWB) committee (1993) identified dense, poorly written and weakly conceptualised textbooks as being primarily responsible, in addition to unwieldy syllabi and rote-based exam system, for burdening children’s school lives. The NCF 2005, with its roots in LWB, redirected the meaning of quality education to curricular, pedagogic and assessment practices being followed inside the classrooms. It sought to connect the life of the child outside school with learning in the classroom.

Soon after, NCERT developed “exemplar/model” textbooks which were conceptually sound and used a variety of pedagogic techniques to bring in real-life issues in the book. The social science textbooks particularly acknowledged social conflicts which children experienced in their lives and helped make sense of them. They also gave fresh life to the meaning of learning which was no longer a one-way track of passing on information to children but became a process of constructing knowledge meaningfully by both the teacher and the student.

A few states took the lead and initiated the formation of state curricular frameworks, position papers and the development of textbooks. Undivided Andhra Pradesh was one of them. However, with the revision of the earlier written books, which were both pedagogically sound and collaboratively developed, it seems like the state is bent on undoing its own achievements.

There is no denying that textbooks, just like curricular frameworks, syllabus, and assessment practices, need to be revised periodically. However, textbooks tailored to measure the acquisition of LO on part of children is a self-defeating exercise. This singular focus on LO will take the teaching-learning processes away from the possibility of a meaningful co-construction of knowledge to a teacher teaching to the test. Since teachers’ own appraisal is contingent on children’s performance in these tests, they feel pressured to ensure that children know the basic minimum and somehow pass the test.

The choice is ours — whether we will allow testing to take precedence over learning or celebrate learning as a meaning-making exercise by both the teacher and the student.

This article first appeared in the print edition on March 31, 2021 under the title ‘Testing over learning’. The writer is professor and dean, School of Education, Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai

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