The COVID-19 pandemic has eaten into the academic year of schools, creating pedagogical challenges for teachers and learning problems for students. This emergency demands creative solutions from the country’s education policymakers. Instead, the country’s premier examination body, the Central Board of Secondary Education (CBSE), has used the blunt and mechanical measure of reducing syllabi “by up to 30 per cent” to “reduce the course load for students of Class 10 to 12”. This means that students will graduate to the senior-secondary level without learning about the human eye and the magnetic effects of electric currents or engaging with social science concepts such as “democracy and diversity”, “gender, religion, caste” and “popular struggles and movements”. Excised from the syllabi of classes 11 and 12 are chapters on citizenship, nationalism, secularism and the Partition of the country. The algebra basic, the binomial theorem, and the chapter on mathematical reasoning have been sacrificed at the altar of “curriculum rationalisation”. The CBSE and the Union Ministry of Human Resource Development reason that the cuts will “ease the burden on students”. But their reasoning actually reflects an old failing of education policy-making in India — there has been scarcely any attempt amongst policymakers to understand what actually stresses the child. The “course load” has become an easy scapegoat for student anxiety.
Teachers have been given the vague instruction that the dropped topics are to be “explained to students to the extent required to connect different topics.” They have also been told that these topics “would not be a part of either internal assessment or the board examination”. Such trivialisation of knowledge is symptomatic of an outlook that regards textbooks as assemblages of facts, which have to be memorised and regurgitated in examinations — the curriculum only serves the utilitarian function of enabling students to pass examinations. This thinking has fostered an ecosystem in which coaching “institutes” mushroom and there is brisk business in guidebooks and compendia of questions of past examinations and “model answers”. There is now a growing body of scholarly work which shows how the emphasis on “model answers” stands in the way of students approaching examination questions in a creative way. These faultlines in the system were also exposed by the Vyapam scam in Madhya Pradesh, more than a decade ago.
Education studies experts have long agreed that the curriculum is not always the main cause of stress for students. They have shown how pedagogical systems are disconnected from a child’s lived reality and underlined how the examination-centred education system robs her of the joys of acquiring knowledge. The churn created by the pandemic should have led to — it can still spark — conversations on evolving teaching methods that encourage students to apply facts to real world problems and motivate them to seek knowledge. Instead, the CBSE has chosen to knock down some of the building blocks of knowledge.