NEP 2020 For School Education: More Misses Than Hits; Its Success Now Depends On Radically Transforming Syllabus

NEP 2020 For School Education: More Misses Than Hits; Its Success Now Depends On Radically Transforming SyllabusPrime Minister Narendra Modi interacts with school children on his birthday. (PIB/Twitter)
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  • The NEP 2020 for school education has more misses than hits. But if the government manages to bring radical positive changes to curriculum, one could call it a success.

Of the three pieces I have written on National Education Policy 2020 (NEP) so far, the last one covered the higher education and the first two dealt with proposals regarding government and private schools separately.

In this piece, I will survey the changes proposed by NEP which will affect all school-going children (both in private and public schools) and analyse if those have the potential to deliver the transformation India needs in school education.

But first things first. What are the biggest issues with school education today?

First of all, the whole concept of fixed hours school (with fixed intervals of classes) and ‘universal schooling‘ is a ‘factory model of education’ designed for the Industrial Age to mass produce workers who learn to respond well to bells, log in and log out timings, commands of their bosses (like teachers) with education basic enough to be eligible for the grunt work and follow instructions without questioning too much.

Following conversation from the British TV show Yes, Prime Minister captures this humorously.

"Prime Minister Jim Hacker: Education in this country is a disaster. We're supposed to be preparing children for a working life. Three quarters of the time they're bored stiff!

Cabinet Secretary Sir Humphrey Appleby: Well, I should have thought that being bored stiff for three quarters of the time was an excellent preparation for working life."

But this model is now redundant. It has been for 10 years at least. As we enter the age of continuous and life-long learning where one would not only need to switch jobs but also the nature of jobs themselves, the time had come to overhaul the school system thoroughly and prepare the children for uncertain future.

So, what’s needed was to ease the opening and running of schools and allowing them the liberty to innovate with different kinds of models for schooling.

Second, the content taught in schools needed a big rejig. Apart from the long overdue overhaul in social science textbooks, coding needed to be introduced in school from early on along with emphasis on laying solid foundation in basic numeracy and literacy followed by greater focus on mathematics and science in higher grades - all increasingly taught in chiefly the mother tongue so that learning outcomes are better.

Flexibility in picking courses and then the ability to appear only for those subjects in examinations was also required.

Hence, the whole 10+2 system and current board exams structure was due for a reboot. Such changes have become the need of the hour especially when we are witnessing the proliferation of e-learning.

Third, a big revolution was needed in teaching. We no longer need to mass produce excellent teachers. With online classes, excellent teachers can impart quality knowledge to millions in one go. Good pedagogical approaches can be scaled easily and quickly.

To enable this, regulations that reward good teachers, break the monopoly of professional teachers and allow schools to engage field experts as teachers without teaching degrees on part-time basis either in exchange of payment or simply as a form of community service, were needed.

To sum up, regulations pertaining to school structure, content taught and the people teaching needed to be reformed with focus on freeing everyone - schools, students and teachers - from unnecessary and counterproductive regulatory overload.

Let’s see how far NEP 2020 succeeds in addressing these issues.

First, the 10+2 school setup will be converted into a 5+3+3+4 one where 5 refers to classes up to Grade 2, 3 + 3 refers to classes up to Grade 8 and 4 refers to final phases involving Grades 9 to 12. The current 10+2 system is actually a 3+10+2 where 3 refers to kindergarten/nursery classes. So, this is at best, a cosmetic change for now.

But the NEP proposes to prepare curriculum based on these four phases of school system and claims that the four-stages are “purely curricular and pedagogical, designed to optimise learning for students based on the cognitive development of children.’ So, one would wait for the NCERT to come up with the new syllabus before pronouncing any judgment.

Second, the above structure proposes to give flexibility in choosing courses especially in the last phase - the secondary stage (Grades 9 to 12). This is a good development.

However, it is to be seen how the examination system is designed and how much flexibility students get. There is no reason why a person interested in Maths and Physics should also take up Chemistry if he doesn’t like it rather than say Economics which may be more appealing to his mental faculties.

However, the success of this flexible approach will depend on the examination system.

If a person’s scores in Physics, Chemistry and Mathematics is going to decide whether he gets into IITs then he is not going to focus on optional subjects in Humanities or Arts.

Many subjects like Physical education, Music, Computer are still available as optionals but they are not taken seriously by those preparing for competitive examinations. So, too much choice may be counterproductive as it will distract students by diverting attention from core subjects towards optionals and prevent them from getting into good colleges.

In fact, the top colleges should tweak the current competition exam (one size fits all) approach and move towards a different model. Rather than admitting students in the college first on basis of overall marks and then allowing for the branch, they can start admitting candidates directly in specific branch based on subject scores. This alone will help ensure true flexibility to students in schools.

Third, NEP proposes to overhaul the syllabus content significantly. There are many aspects to this so let’s take them one by one.

a) Curriculum content will be reduced in each subject to its core essentials to make space for “critical thinking and more holistic, inquiry-based, discovery-based, discussion-based, and analysis based learning.”

Assuming that more syllabus is preventing students from improving critical thinking is ludicrous.

Learning in class is driven by two things: first, the teacher’s ability to make students learn in a constructive way and second, the race to get marks in the examinations. Now, the obvious solution is to improve supply of quality teachers and devise examinations that test for understanding rather than memory.

Cutting syllabus is a wrong solution especially when the focus is on giving students flexibility. Students don’t have problem with the syllabus but the syllabus that they are not interested in. So, if by providing flexibility, we can cut down subjects which don’t interest students, then there is a case to be made for actually increasing the syllabus for all subjects.

b) Experiential learning will be adopted in all stages ‘including arts integrated, sports integrated, hands-on learning’.

While sports integrated and hands-on learning is good, one wonders about the potential harm to impressionable minds due to arts-integrated education.

The NEP, thankfully, states that Indian arts and ethos will be imparted via this but one remains sceptical both about the content of such learning as well as involvement of NGO mafia with schools.

Experiential learning is good as far as STEM topics are concerned but we venture into dangerous territory when it comes to humanities. We will have to be vigilant towards this and see how this is actually implemented on ground.

c) Wherever possible, the medium of instruction until at least Grade 5, but preferably till Grade 8 and beyond, will be the mother tongue/regional language. The ‘language’ section in the NEP is an utter delight for lovers of Indian languages.

And to have the mother tongue/regional language as medium of instruction is the best recommendation of the policy in my opinion. But my enthusiasm is marred by two words “wherever possible”. These words will ensure that status quo continues.

A comprehensive approach was needed to give Indian languages the place of prominence. Nonetheless, all is not lost. The NEP promises that “all efforts will be made in preparing high-quality bilingual textbooks and teaching-learning materials for science and mathematics”. Perhaps, the reason for not mandating regional languages as medium of instruction was lack of textbooks and resources. Once that is resolved, it would be easier to remove ”wherever possible” from the policy.

Additionally, the NEP has made clever changes to the three-language formula by ensuring that two languages taught in schools must be Indian.

Except Tamil Nadu, other states seem to be fine with it. Students will benefit and so will Indian languages. Sanskrit might get a boost in the northern states.

d) The NEP lays great emphasis on foundational literacy and numeracy in school combined with definite learning outcomes to be achieved at each stage.

Moreover, it is focusing on imparting important life-skills to students during their school life such as proficiency in more than one language, evidence-based thinking, health education, sports, logical reasoning, vocational exposure, digital literacy, coding/computational thinking, etc which is very important.

However, one ventures into scepticism when it starts talking about imparting “skills” such as knowledge and practice of human and constitutional values; gender sensitivity; fundamental duties; citizenship skills and values; knowledge of India, critical issues facing local communities, states, the country, and the world, etc.

While one is elated at inclusion of ‘Indian knowledge systems’ as part of syllabus, one can’t help but facepalm when NEP talks about teaching students ‘what’s right’ by imparting values of ‘seva, ahimsa swachchhata, satya, nishkam karma, shanti, sacrifice, tolerance, diversity, pluralism, righteous conduct, gender sensitivity, respect for elders, respect for all people and their inherent capabilities regardless of background, respect for environment, helpfulness, courtesy, patience, forgiveness, empathy, compassion, patriotism, democratic outlook, integrity, responsibility, justice, liberty, equality, and fraternity.’

I am not skeptical about failure of this project. I am certain of it because I have full conviction that the Indian state doesn’t have it in it to teach ‘what’s right’ but ”what’s convenient” or “politically palatable”.

Fourth, NEP’s vision on student assessment has some disturbing suggestions. It states that “the existing system of Board and entrance examinations shall be reformed to eliminate the need for undertaking coaching classes”. This is a totally wrong diagnosis of the problem.

Coaching centres have proliferated because they attract quality teachers who are paid handsomely. They are not the problem but solution to the existing problem of terrible supply of quality teachers in schools, even the private ones, especially in higher grades.

People don’t go to coaching centres to pass board exams (which test memory) but they go there for tougher, competitive exams (like IIT, medical entrance, etc) which test for learning and core concepts. So, making board exams easier, which is the NEP’s recommendation is not going to solve the problem. They are already very easy to pass.

NEP has simply failed to appreciate the damage done to learning outcomes of students by previous government which made it impossible for students to fail in classes and changed to a grading system rather than percentages to ease their stress. This has only helped dent the quality of recent batches. If anything, the exams should be made tougher.

If the NEP’s approach is followed, the board exams will be rendered useless and the colleges will simply stop admitting students based on those scores (if they want to remain relevant).

The only good suggestion by NEP on this front is to have the National Testing Agency take “specialized common subject exams in the sciences, humanities, languages, arts, and vocational subjects‘ and ‘students will be able to choose the subjects for taking the test, and each university will be able to see each student’s individual subject portfolio and admit students into their programmes based on individual interests and talents.” This can be revolutionary but it can only be successful if the quality of these tests is very high and if they are not made “easier”.

Another great proposal by NEP that can make board exams completely irrelevant (at least for bright students) is to conduct “Olympiads and competitions in various subjects across the country“ and more importantly, allowing “Public and private universities, including premier institutions like the IITs and NITs“ to use their results as part of the criteria for admissions into their undergraduate programmes.

This is undoubtedly the best idea as far as student assessment is concerned. Such national tests will help stream bright children in different fields and they can be picked by good institutions/colleges/even firms for specialised training or job.

Fifth, NEP’s proposals regarding teachers are not satisfactory to say the least. To mandate everyone (who wishes to be teacher) to mandatorily go through a 1/2/4 year B.Ed program is daft in the 21st century. Why can’t someone who is working in an IT company volunteer to teach coding at his alma mater over the weekend? Why should that person need to have a B.Ed degree?

Why shouldn’t private schools be allowed to hire the best talent in various subjects (who are teaching at coaching centres) simply because they don’t have a B.Ed degree?

Such counter-productive regulations are the reason why coaching centres flourish. Rather than blaming rote-culture or exam system, it should look at such real reasons which have created space for coaching centres to grow by leaps and bounds.

Sixth, NEP is mostly silent on homeschooling. It only states that the option of homeschooling will remain available to children with disabilities. This is a big miss. The Right to Education Act of 2009 had effectively banned homeschooling in the country. One had hoped NEP would correct that mistake especially for higher grades.

In the age of e-learning, the avenues for homeschooling have greatly improved. Students today can easily take classes online for a select subjects, go out to play, take up other lessons in arts and culture, etc and do so by subscribing to different sources.

We are moving towards an era of e-schools and online tuition. In this context, not thinking seriously about homeschooling is a bad move.

To sum up, the flexibility in taking courses and exams is a very exciting feature of the policy and can actually improve things a lot in the long run. However, the NEP deserves downvotes for not suggesting regulations that are required in the 21st century and for continuing with failed policies of the past vis-a-vis teachers and teacher education.

Overall, the NEP has more misses than hits. But if the government manages to bring radical positive changes to curriculum, one would be ready to call the NEP a success.

Arihant Pawariya is Senior Editor, Swarajya.
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