The new National Education Policy, 2020 (NEP) has sharply divided people into camps of supporters and critics. It’s been charged with furthering inequalities through provisions such as choice, flexibility, vocational education, multiple exits, excessive glorification of ancient Indian culture, promoting privatisation, undermining the Right to Education Act and most importantly, replacing constitutional values with banal ideas such as seva, ahimsa, swacchta, sacrifice and courtesy. Added to this is the desperate hurry to implement the policy without meaningfully engaging with the concerns raised.
While much of the criticism is valid, it would be naïve to link all educational problems to NEP and claim that it marks a sharp break from the past/present. For years, India has had a layered education system, both public and private, in sync with our stratified social fabric. The Kothari Commission (1964-1966) talked of a common school system, which was hugely celebrated as an idea but never implemented. The National Policy of Education, 1986, introduced non-formal education for the disadvantaged child and was accused of promoting child labour. The creation of Kendriya Vidyalayas, Navodaya Vidyalayas, and Pratibha Bal Vikas Vidyalayas further layered the already fraught education system. Low-cost schools for the poor and international schools for the rich were established. Persistent testing became the norm, achieving learning outcomes the goal, micro-managing disempowered teachers and managerial discourse became the new jargon — these deeply contentious issues predate NEP 2020.
The child labourer, the girl child who takes care of her siblings, the Dalit child living on the village periphery, the Muslim child who is a target of communal barbs and the tribal child often taunted with jokes did get periodic attention in policy documents but nothing radical was either suggested or done to enable them to break the vicious cycle of disadvantage.
Using a few examples from NEP’s section on curriculum and pedagogy, I will briefly highlight the flaws in ideas which have been shaping the educational discourse for the poor in developing countries, such as India, for some time now. First, most programmes, including this policy, mistake “fun in learning” for “fun of learning”, thereby reducing the meaning of learning/pedagogic processes to song and dance and banal activities. “Enjoyment” is prioritised at the cost of meaningful learning. Second, reducing the “load of studies” on children is mistaken for a mechanical reduction of syllabus/textbook content — despite the fact the report, “Learning without burden” (1993), had defined burden on students as “mental load of incomprehensibility, a situation where a lot is taught but little is learnt or understood”. Third, the idea of an “integrated curriculum”, challenges textbook developers/teachers who, in the absence of any deep knowledge of “what” needs to be integrated, resort to random addition/deletion of content.
Fourth, meaningful assessment is not only about formative assessment (FA). If most of the teachers’ time is spent on collecting evidence, record keeping and saving their skin because they know that students’ assessment will be used to assess their performance, then no amount of FA will improve students’ learning. Fifth, confusing the notion of critical thinking with de-contextualised logical thinking whereby textbooks have no mention of conflicts/contradictions which children experience in their daily lives. It is possible that a child outside the school may have been a victim of a communal riot but in school they are taught — without situating it in any real context —“Hindu- Muslim Sikh, Isaai, aapas mein hain bhai-bhai”.
It is important that NEP’s fundamental flaws are acknowledged and addressed with immediacy. The underlying focus of any educational policy should be on bringing every child, particularly the marginalised, to the forefront of our concern by ensuring an enabling and dignified environment, respectful of their worlds, knowledge and experiences. Our aim should not be limited to imparting children with foundational skills of literacy, numeracy and competencies but removing structural disadvantages, thus enabling them to live a meaningful life, simultaneously strengthening our society as a secular, democratic space.
This article first appeared in the print edition on September 25, 2020 under the title ‘Old Education Policy’. The writer is professor and dean, School of Education, TISS Mumbai
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