The great Indian tradition


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THE Yashpal Committee went around the country a few years ago to elicit peoples’ perceptions of the problem of curriculum burden, following the great Indian tradition of janapada mataanveshana. As a research assistant to the committee, I too talked to teachers and educators in several parts of the country to try and understand how they perceived the problem. One common opinion I heard was that, yes, there is a load, but that it is also necessary: ‘We have to catch up with the world and be prepared for the twenty-first century.’

Let us for now bypass the debate of whether the millennium begins this year or the next, or that we would have been spared this confusion if only the West had been introduced earlier to counting from the great Indian Zero. The 21st century is now officially here, and our national educators have taken on a new challenge: moving from a ‘burdened curriculum’ towards a ‘curriculum of the unknown’ (p. 21).* They are like their counterparts in the great Indian tradition, the ajnatanvestas or seekers of the unknown, as they stand now on the shores of the vast brahmandam of the third millennium, and boldly, yet humbly, seek to make sense of and prepare for it.

The recently released discussion document – the National Curriculum Framework for School Education – gives an idea of the entire scope of the issues that our educators grappled with when it was drafted. The philosophical underpinnings of education had to be definitively moved back more than 3000 years, from the 1960s development discourse to ‘the Great Indian Tradition’. And to demonstrate that the ‘Indian way of thinking’ (p. 1) is up-to-date in matters such as secularism and social welfare for the under-privileged, Mahatma Gandhi had to be included in good measure.

As regards the curriculum itself, the document had to ensure the pre-servation of the behaviouristic core with which our national curriculum planners and textbook writers are most comfortable; at the same time one had to demonstrate familiarity with modern concepts like the ‘zone of proximal development’ (p. 32), ‘multiple intelligence’ (p. 18), ‘indigenous knowledge’ (p. 9) and ‘culture specific pedagogies’ (p. 18), many of which are fundamentally anti behaviouristic. Perhaps it is because of the lack of time and the ‘compelling circumstances’ which have necessitated immediate renewal of syllabi and textbooks (Preface), that the resulting document was forced to sacrifice the great Indian tradition of brevity – the sutra or aphoristic form. Unfortunate, because we stakeholders in education must now decipher and discuss 125 dense pages of text.

On reading I soon found myself struggling against the paralysing seduction of an unexpected string of words with extraordinary visual and auditory impact: ‘facilitate horizontal and vertical mobility of the learners’ (p. 5), ‘avoid the catastrophe of human obsolescence’ (p. 20), and so on. The trick is to steer clear of these literary vortices. One must not be distracted by the magisterial, ponderous if not bombastic and self-assured rhetorical style of the document. Once this is achieved, most parts can be read very quickly, unencumbered as they are by any meaning.



Written in the style of traditional Indian popular wisdom, the text consists of self-affirming, empty tautologies, viz. the need to ‘adequately provide appropriate learning experiences to learners.’ It is of course an indisputable truth that learning experiences need to be adequate and appropriate. But one is no wiser at the end as to what adequacy or appropriateness entail. Other recommendations include well-known mantras such as ‘simple to complex’, ‘immediate to remote’. Still others reflect little more than the syndrome of keeping-up-with-the-international-Joneses. The plethora of fashionable concerns includes the ‘alarming deficiency: emotional illiteracy’ (p. 17), ‘girl child’ (p. 8) and ‘children with special needs’ (p. 7). Perhaps the only one missing from the document is the nationwide District Primary Education Programme’s favourite: ‘community participation’.

At the end, one put down the document with mixed emotions – amused, irritated, surprised, but most of all, deeply disturbed. In matters of how knowledge, the learner and the process of learning is to be conceptualized, or the direction that Indian education must take, there were profound contradictions and a veritable lack of clarity. The only agenda expressed with any consistency was the assertion of the great Indian tradition.



From the 1950s, curriculum development in India (textbook writing) approached both knowledge and learning from an essentially behaviourist paradigm. Although no official document presented any explicit model of the child as learner, implicitly curriculum developers and textbook writers drew on the behaviourist-connectionist framework wherein knowledge is treated as a given and broken down into a hierarchical taxonomy of ‘specific learning objectives’. This approach is marked by a minimalist model of the child – essentially in terms of ‘previous knowledge’ and the ability to respond and show ‘observable behaviour’ when motivated, which the teachers can then select and shape. Children can be easily evaluated against these learning objectives; failure is handled with remedial teaching. The process is teacher-centred. There is no need for a theory of cognition and learning; only one of altering and reinforcing responses with appropriate feedback – rewards such as praise and punishment like teacher disapproval. These concepts and vocabulary can be traced back to the influence of Benjamin Bloom and other American curriculum experts of the 1950s on the newly created NCERT.

The debate that gathered force 1970s onwards – whether to model the child’s learning in behaviourist or constructivist terms – passed Indian curriculum developers by. According to constructivism, the child like any other human being is regarded as engaged in making sense of the world, acting upon it, and producing knowledge. A curriculum based on this model is interactional; the child’s present and potential development determine the kind of learning experiences the teacher must provide. By the early 1990s, it was difficult to ignore the fact that a paradigm shift had occurred everywhere else in the world. Our documents reflected the growing centrality of the child in discussions of education, but only in the phrase ‘child-centred’. The cult of ‘specific learning objectives’, however, survived by reinventing itself, in the form of ‘minimum levels of learning’ (MLL).** These levels, it was claimed, would not only establish standards of achievement, they would also help to free the teacher from textbook and evaluation-centred teaching and practice child-friendly pedagogy.



But by their very nature, the MLL is no different from the highly specific, fragmentary learning objectives in terms of observable behaviour. It comprises of long, detailed subject-wise lists for classes I to V. For example, the list in Mathematics for class I begins with ‘Count 1-20 using objects and pictures’. Other items in the same list include: ‘Identify zero as the number representing nothing or the absence of objects in a collection’, ‘Arrange numbers 1-100 in ascending and descending order’, and so on (MLL, p. 20-21). Not surprisingly, the MLL has not brought about any Copernican revolution in which the child replaces the teacher as the centre of the curriculum. Post-MLL curriculum related activities continue to be narrowly teacher-defined and led, and are geared to evaluation. The problem is not one of creating standards or defining objectives. Education needs both. Rather it is one of defining these standards and objectives based on a model of the child as essentially receiving knowledge as also a model of learning as exhibiting ‘observable behaviour’ according to a narrowly defined timetable.



Compare the two objectives given above to ‘national standards’ defined by the NCTM*** for the same area, numeracy, from kindergarten to grade 4: ‘Construct number meanings through real-world experiences and the use of physical materials’... ‘Interpret the multiple uses of numbers encountered in the real world’ (NCTM, p. 29). This is followed by a discussion of what abilities and understanding can be developed, with what kind of learning experiences. Such a statement of standards reflects a perspective in which mathematical knowledge, even of numbers, is not fragmented into logical bits, but seen as growing out of the child’s efforts at ‘mathematizing’ her experiences; using what she knows, interpreting and learning. Learning is not seen as the outcome of specific pedagogic acts, but as emerging over a period of time.

Given the formidable presence of the MLL in all new curricular initiatives of the state, it was a pleasant surprise to see on page 17 of the new National Curriculum Framework, a section titled ‘Child as a Constructor of his Knowledge’. Finally it appeared that the foundations of school curriculum would be shifted away from archaic misconceptions of the child as a learner. Just how can we aspire to be ‘a knowledge-centred India’ or ‘learn to learn’ unless children are made active participants in their learning? Espousing the constructivist paradigm should have led to its logical conclusion of reorienting the approach to the curriculum – in matters of selection, organization, transaction and evaluation. Unfortunately, nothing in the following chapters indicated that the edifice was going to be reconstructed.

Instead, in chapter 2, there was a restatement of commitment to the MLL, followed by one of the most explicitly stated commitment to behaviourism I have seen! ‘While identifying objectives, it is necessary to proceed towards various degrees of specificity, from very general objectives of curriculum, through somewhat specific objectives for each stage of education, to precisely stated specific objectives for each subject area in the form of expected learning outcomes indicating the exact behaviour a learner would be able to demonstrate after the curriculum transaction’ (pp. 28-29, emphasis mine).



A number of explanations could be offered for this goof-up. A charitable one would be that the various chapters were written by different people who didn’t know what the others were writing, and it was by oversight that the editorial board missed the fact that chapter 1 and 2 fundamentally contradict each other. A less charitable one would be that chapter 1 is based on the great Indian tradition of trying to please everybody: we say what they would like to hear, sweetly, but we don’t really mean it. This paradigmatic contradiction makes the document seriously flawed. But this apart, the recommitment to behaviourism suggests a mulish refusal to reconsider the foundation on which curricula and pedagogy have been structured so far. At a time when we need to creatively rethink curriculum if we want to achieve universal elementary education, this stubborn restatement of a flawed perspective is retrograde.



In retrospect, one should have caught an indication earlier within chapter 1 itself, which suggests that the old order is not about to give way to the new; it is only going to re-invent itself. The call to ‘link cognition and emotion’ and incorporate a ‘multiple intelligence approach’ seemed to signal the much awaited cognitive and rational approach to old Indian favourites: ‘character’, ‘morals’ and ‘values’. Even though this was an anguished response to ‘alarming deficiency: emotional intelligence’, still, there seemed hope that we might be moving beyond simplistic solutions such as making value education a school subject. (Where, in the learning objectives approach, after hearing the story of ‘the honest woodcutter’, children can be expected to demonstrate honest behaviour). In contrast to this section was a much longer one on ‘value education’, described as ‘non cognitive’ areas of learning for personal and social growth. Its list of key qualities included regularity, punctuality, industriousness/diligence, sense of duty and service, and of course cleanliness (p. 14). It seemed to have been drawn straight from a medieval text, the sarada tilak on adarsh vidhyarthi (model student).

There was no conceptual clarity on the direction that Indian education must forge. First generation learners were referred to in the same breath as physically, mentally and visually challenged pupils, and disadvantaged sections of society (p. 7). Surely after 50 years of post-Independence educational effort and understanding we need less patronizing ways of responding to the need for universalizing elementary education. The document noted the ‘worldwide recognition of the indigenous knowledge system’ (p. 10). It also recognized the need for consciously incorporating ‘the fundamental rights of minorities and people coming from disadvantaged groups like scheduled castes, scheduled tribes and other backward communities’ (p. 8), and ‘using culture-specific pedagogies’ (p. 18). And yet it failed completely in combining them and making a conceptual breakthrough in the matter of educating children in their cultural contexts.

‘Contextualization’ is not simply a matter of detail that can be taken care of in textbooks (p. 8) or through pedagogic exercises such as story telling, dramatics and puppetry (p. 18). Instruments such as MLL which measure students against narrow, decontextualized standards, will continue to show tribal and lower caste people as ‘disadvantaged’ and ‘deprived’ in educational settings. And no amount of remedial teaching, and/or condensing the core curriculum for migratory children, will mitigate its disastrous consequences for identity, personal and collective. Never mind that children across the country are burdened by the total lack of meaning of what they learn in school, mostly through the great Indian tradition of memorization. There was barely a mention of this central problem of the Indian school curriculum.



Periodically there were articulations akin to the dangerous political discourse that feeds off Indian chauvinism. We are informed at the very start of the document of ‘facts of history’ such as the world’s first universities were in India and that the 18 subjects for study mentioned in the Chandogya Upanishad included disaster management, linguistics and defence studies (p. 1). The document also panders to what it called ‘paradoxes’ – that our students know more about Newton than Aryabhatta, are knowledgeable about the computer but not about the concept of zero (p. 10). Both these are educationally irrelevant preoccupations.



The Indian tradition can be depended upon to find ancient equivalents for all modern conditions: Vasudaiva kutumbam’ for the global village (p. 10), and sehriddya sarvabhutam for social cohesion and learning to live together (p. 9). Perhaps it is only to bring out the continuity between cultural tradition and information sciences that ‘computer simulation and drill’ is specially highlighted as an important learning tool for social science study (p. 53). (Interestingly, the mathematics curriculum specialists seem to have felt that though computers are growing in importance, they are not absolutely essential, especially given the economic disparities in the country [p. 43].)

More ominous was a sentence buried deep in the section on science as a subject of the core curriculum. After the usual rhetoric on scientific temper as essential to a wholesome attitude, we are told that the spirit of enquiry must extend ‘to sustain some popular traditional faiths which have been rejected outright because of impatient rationality and motivated cynicism’, ‘even in areas where scientific evidence is not so far available’ (p. 49).

At the end of the ‘hefty’ 125 pages, one wonders what holds together the variety of ideas and intentions expressed in this document. The answer lies within the document itself; another great Indian tradition, which is gaining popularity – a more politically expedient technique derived from purna ganita or holistic mathematics. Here, in order to synthesize a whole from some parts, you simply put all the parts together and give it an appropriate name. In the past this great Indian method for adding dissimilar things had been used to create the subject ‘Environmental Studies’: 1 subject (Environmental studies) = 1 subject (science) + 1 subject (social studies); 1= 1+1.

In the accounting ledger for curriculum load, this looks very neat. Of course in reality, this ‘subject’ is represented by two separate books – one for science and the other for social studies. Similarly, 1 subject (social studies) = 1 subject (history) + 1 subject (geography) + 1 subject (civics?) + 1 subject (economics).



We find this technique being repeatedly invoked in the document to add new areas to the curriculum without attracting the attention of the load-watchdogs: ‘The three areas of work education, arts (fine and performing), and health activities may be put together and a suitable name be given to them’ (p. 36, emphasis mine). (The inclusion of ‘aesthetics’ and renewal of interest in ‘work’ were the only promising parts of the document, until this travesty.)

This then seems to have been the technique to produce the discussion document. First list everything that must be included, then write them up, sort them into chapters, and finally bind everything into a document. The great Indian traditions of eclecticism and synthesis can help tide over any difficulty. Leafing through the wordy, cliche ridden document, I was struck repeatedly by the myriad, mediocre ideas and expression. I mused a la Goethe: Is it that ‘when ideas fail, words come in handy’?




* Unless otherwise mentioned, all phrases and sentences within quotes and/or followed by page numbers are taken from the National Curriculum Framework for School Education: a discussion document (NCERT, New Delhi, 2000).

** Minimum Levels of Learning (NCERT, 1991).

*** Curriculum and Evaluation Standards for School Mathematics (NCTM, 1989).