Meeta Sengupta argues that while the single government texbook is a useful (or simply unavoidable) tool for learning, there are dangers to having one narrative and dependence on textbooks must reduce beyond primary education.

This article originally appeared in the Daily Pioneer.

Giving one author or publisher of books authority over knowledge dissemination for an entire generation does sound dangerous when put like that. But this is exactly what designated textbooks do, especially when organised by a national authority. India is not alone in having standardised textbooks, nor is it the only one to have controversies about the content of its textbooks. Yet, it does seem to be one of the few countries where teachers accept the changes without expressing their professional opinion on them. In countries such as England the changes to the history textbooks were received with much protest against the “Stalinisation” of the curriculum.

Textbooks are one clear way of sharing a single narrative across thousands, nay, millions of classrooms in one sweep. They are also — for the very same reason — a great tool to ensure that all children get the same level of education, regardless of location or economic capacity of the school. But here lies the catch: The best schools do not rely only on textbooks to deliver learning; they have access to great libraries, excellent teachers, Internet-based resources, school tours and exchanges and so much more to add to the perspective that the textbooks provide. Again, it is those with fewer resources who are trapped in the single narrative provided by a national authority.

There is a great deal of good in having a basic low-cost textbook at especially in the younger years. The NCERT textbooks provide vast amounts of knowledge at the cost of a basic roadside meal or the daily wage at the poverty line designated by the government. But in trying to create a low-cost ecosystem there have been compromises on quality. The rate for editing a government agency textbook is five-to-10 per cent of a commercial editor’s rate. Peanuts and monkeys come to mind.

Image credit: Flickr/World Bank Photo Collection

Image credit: Flickr/World Bank Photo Collection

Textbooks are an anchor for learning. In distant villages with lone teachers holding the bastion of knowledge and mobility for the children in their classrooms, the textbook is what gives them continuity. It gives them authority and direction. This is what they are there for — to deliver on the textbook. In a way the textbook is where accountability is anchored — the teacher is held responsible on ensuring that at a minimum the contents of the text are communicated to the students, at the same time the students are accountable for reporting back on the contents of the textbook.

Interestingly, a good student is seen as one who can do just that — replicate the textbook in an exam. To that student, much else is forgiven as long as they can demonstrate knowledge of the text via recitation in the classroom or examination in other ways. The internalisation of the textbook, often to the exclusion of all else, is seen as an objective of schooling.

When there is just one textbook all of this is possible. As is the danger of single narratives taking over, and narratives flip-flopping with changes in regimes. This is easily remedied, at least theoretically by a single move — competition in the world of textbooks. While it is tempting to say that the government has no business being in the business of producing textbooks, it is also sensible to accept that this is unlikely to change soon.

At the same time, many schools have supplemental texts that are changed every few years. The national and state authorities could be tasked with creating books with contra-narratives that supplement the main text. As one goes through primary to higher education the dependence on textbooks must reduce. There can be no room for a single textbook in higher education, especially professional education. And this process of researching across various sources must start in schools.

About the Author

Meeta Sengupta is an educator and advisor specialising in business education, cross border skill development, and coaching and mentoring. She is founder of the Centre for Education Strategy, a member of the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry Skills Development Forum and the member Education Expert on the National Council of NISA (National Independent Schools Alliance). She also sits on the India Advisory Board of STIR Education. 

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