Transcript of Education in India audio podcast of Subir Shukla of IGNUS-ERG talking to K. Satyanarayan

This a transcript of the first episode of the Education in India audio podcast, with Subir Shukla, Principal Co-ordinator at IGNUS-ERG, recorded on June 27, 2013. Subir talks about a wide range of topics relating to education in India. Subir has worked for over 25 years in school education in India in the areas of quality improvement, curriculum and textbook development and teacher training, amongst many other things.

You can listen to the audio podcast (~77 minutes), or download the podcast (~18MB; MP3) and listen to it at your convenience. To download the audio podcast, right-click on the download link and select "Save Link/Target As".

This chat with Subir covered some of the important projects and programmes in education in India over the past 20-30 years like the DPEP started in 1994, the SSA in 2002 and the NCF in 2005. The time markers (hh:mm:ss) of each broad topic within the audio podcast is also mentioned below, for those who may want to jump to a specific point in the audio podcast.


Subir: Hi, I am Subir Shukla. I've been working in the field of education from the year 1986.

I began by going to an urban village near Delhi and worked in a school there. Later I joined Ekalavya, then I lived in a tribal village for 6-7 years from 1986-1992. Then I came back to Delhi and was with the National Book Trust. I set up the National Centre for Children's Literature. And then from 1994 onwards I was involved with DPEP till 1998. Since then I've been working independently on large scale educational programmes.


Satya: What actually got you interested in education?

Subir: When I was finishing my college studies, if you were growing up in late 70s or early 80s, there was lot more stark poverty around. One of the things all of us used to feel was how can we see all the poverty around us and lead our lives without being affected by it. I got the feeling that the way to break out of poverty was to have the right kind of education. I conceptualised a project where children would learn and earn.

I found that nobody knew what was the right kind of education. If you went to govt. schools in villages, you found that everything was based on two assumptions:

1. All the children are homogeneous

2. They would come to school everyday

Both assumptions were not valid on the ground. As a result, we didn't know what kind of education would actually be both desirable and practical. The idea was to develop that. I had a very managerial notion - I didn't see myself as an education person. I just saw myself as someone who would carry the education to the people. But when I worked with children in the field, I realised that it was something very different and slowly I evolved into another person.


Satya: So your first attempt at doing something in education was in the tribal areas?

Subir: I was part of a group called Ekalvya which had done a lot of work on science teaching in upper primary and had expanded into primary and had done some work on language and mathematics. Ekalavya was started in the 1970s. There was a project started by a group of scientists. There were two organisations Kishore Bharti - which worked on agriculture, labour and such issues, and the Rural Friends Centre in Hoshangabad. They worked on other activities like dairy farming. They found that farmers could not measure things properly and so they were losing out on profits. So they felt the need for science education.

They thought that working with young children was difficult so they worked with upper primary children. They created what was called the Hoshangabad Science Teaching Programme. It worked very well, but it was felt that to run it, a dedicated group of people for that programme was required and that was how Ekalvya was created by these two parent organisations around 1982.

Ekalvya then worked on social studies for upper primary and also started working on primary. When I joined in 1986, I helped them put the language and the math together to create a primary education programme. To know what works and doesn't work, it had to be field tested. We had to work in a field area. So we chose to work in a place where there were many languages present, which was typically a tribal area. That's how we shifted to another district called Betul and I chose to work in a place called Shahpur.


Satya: After you had worked there in Ekalavya, what prompted you to move on to publishing?

Subir: I was in Ekalavya for 6-7 years. I believe that every person who is seriously working in education has a certain length of life in the field and after some time you become jaded like every other person. The work is so hard and the output is always less than what you put in. Sometimes you went to a village to do some major work, but ended up filling 20 buckets of water.

When I would come up with ideas, some senior person would say this was tried in this year and this year and for the following reasons, it would not work. After I'd been there for some 6-7 years, some young people came and suggested many things - and they suggested many things. And to my horror, I found myself saying this was tried in this year and that year and for the following reasons it would not work and at that moment I left Ekalvya. I realised I was no more fit to be there.

I was not able to go and live in a big city. I went and lived in a small city - Jabalpur, my mother's place. Almost for an year, I had no work. I began working for NGOs and they couldn't pay resource persons. I would write in newspapers to earn some money. I would write for one week and work for three weeks.

The NBT advertised for the National Centre for Children's Literature. I had done a lot of work in this space - my background is in literature and I wrote for children and tested my writing. Luckily, I got the job - the director came home with the appointment letter and and said he wanted to make sure I joined. I had a very nice time there.


Satya: At some time you must have got the idea of going back to education.

Subir: I have now realised that there is a cycle of 6-7 years. After that you need a little break and then you again come back. If you work continuosly, you become jaded and cannot retain your enthusiasm that you had when you started.

So when I had been at NBT for 2-3 years, the Govt. of India was starting a big programme - the DPEP - the District Primary Education Programme. They needed what is called Technical/academic support. They were negotiating for loans and grants from foreign bodies like the DFID, the World Bank, the European Union etc... and they asked me to do some assignments for them, like looking at readability studies and then they sent me on missions to the states to do planning and appraisal of plans and then asked me to give 15 days of my time to them.

It was interesting and exciting work, but the NBT was a bit unhappy. So I had to make choice if I wanted to do it full time or not. I decided it was too important not to be done. So I went over as Chief Consultant to the Govt of India on Quality Improvement and Teacher Training under the DPEP.


Satya: What were the goals of DPEP when they started out? What was the idea behind starting it out then?

Subir: DPEP was the outcome of the Jomtien summit which was held in 1993 in Jomtien in Thailand. It was organised by UNESCO, with over 180+ nations participating with their heads of state attending. It was the first time that India made an international commitment that we would educate every single child and univeralise education. It was the first time that India agreed to take foreign funding. Till then we had refused to take funding from the world bank and other foreign agencies.

Arjun Singh was the HR minister at that time - his first term as HR minister - under Narasimha Rao. The DPEP was a large scale project and there were two three others that had been done around that time.

Usually, large scale projects typcially have 3-4 main objectives. The first one in the case of the DPEP, was to increase access. Currently, SSA also wants to increase access. But the difference is that DPEP mentioned certain time-bound goals. For e.g. they said that all children will have access to schools within one km by the end of DPEP. They wanted to increase retention. Another very important thing, they actually said that learning levels will increase by 25% in so much time.

Satya: Did they have a sense of what the learning levels were when they started out?

Subir: So when we started out in 1994, the first every countrywide survey of learning levels was conducted in India across the country by the NCERT. It threw up some very suprising results. One of them was that the learning levels in Kerala was very low compared even to states like Bihar. That gave Kerala such a punch that they worked for several years - it was something they were unable to digest. That is one of the reaons why they are doing really well now.

I was quite closely involved with Kerala. They got a big kick and they immediately started out rolling out training programmes. When a World Bank expert visited them, he said in your training you are talking about children learning through acitivities. But the person who is telling you this is telling it to you through a lecture. This happened in a place where somebody was actually giving a lecture and using a long stick to point to 10 characteristics of activities. The trainer responded saying, this was they only way one could teach this. The World Bank expert said I am not a pedagogue, but can you discuss in groups for 5 minutes, out of these ten points, which two are the most important ones and at the end of animated discussion, each group had very different ideas.

The State Project Director said what is this, we have been doing the wrong kind of training. I was lucky in the sense that the World Bank expert suggested to the State Project Director that he should contact Subir Shukla in Delhi, who can help.

So I was invited and went to Kerala and we agreed to do a training on training methods. We did a 10 day workshop on training methods. After that they changed their training and did a short workshop across the whole state.

When it reached the teachers, they said this is very good, this is the right thing, but if this is true, then what we have in our teacher's handbooks is all wrong. So we have to change. So the state asked me to change the handbooks. It was an intensive process and we did that over 5-6 months. They came up with a nice handbooks -designed to fit into a teachers' handbag. Most of the teachers were women.

The teachers really liked it, but if that is the case, then our textbooks are all wrong. So there was pressure to change the textbooks and the state asked me to help change the textbooks. I agreed on the condition that they would change the curriculum. The curriculum was based on the MLL (minimum levels of learning, which were in force in the country at that time - there were serious issues with that, we'll talk about it). They agreed to change the textbooks of all classes from Class I-IV in one go in all the three languages - Malayalam, Kannada and Tamil. 300 people worked in a building from the basement to the 7th floor and the rooftop. In every corner textbooks were being written! This was in 1997.

This is how Kerala responded. One good thing is that unlike other states, they have broadly stuck with the philosophy they started out with and today you can see that learning levels are indeed very high.

Satya: So that one spark of becoming aware that the learning levels were actually really low led to a lot of change in the processes and systems over the years.

Subir: The responsiveness of the teachers and the ability of the teachers and the state to put pressure - that's nothing to do with DPEP. That's because it was Kerala. When we were making the textbooks for e.g. - the guy who used to operate the lift would have arguments with the State Project Director every day saying that your are making books that were not good for poor children. He had a view and in a state like that you can do things that you cannot do in any other states.

One of the best memories I have is of a photo of the State Project Director sitting in an office talking to two little children, one on each knee, with the clock showing 10pm! These children were the teachers of children who were writing the textbooks and they were not in a position to leave them at home, so the SPD himself was taking care of the kids so that the teachers could work on textbooks. That kind of commitment is very rare.

Satya: How long did DPEP run?

Subir: DPEP was launched in the end of 1994 and became functional in early 1995. It was a seven year program and ran in different phases in different states. It started first in 7 states and then another 6 states and eventually covered 18 states. The last bit of it was around 2003.

Towards the end of 2003, it started morphing into Sarva Shiksha Abhiyaan. Today's SSA was DPEP in its earlier avatar, with some changes.


Satya: At the end of DPEP, did it achieve the goals that were set at the start?

Subir: To make a broad professional comparison, I would say DPEP achieved a lot more of its goals than SSA. Overall there's been a huge increase in access. When we began, the number of schools were around 6 lakhs, today it is around 17 lakhs. There literally is a school now within 1 km everywhere. That started happening with DPEP.

Retention rates improved. Initially 60% of the children were not completing primary school. That came down quite drastically.

Learing levels definitely improved. There was a baseline, mid term and and terminal assessment. But this was fairly hazy mainly because some of the states when they made their curriculum did certain things differently from the original curriculum.

Let me explain.

In the case of the country-wide survey, spellings were considered very important. Kerala took the view that spellings were less important, but creativity was more importat. You are not measuring creativity as in a child's ability to write on his own, but measuring spelling, which we are not emphasising. We may appear to be doing poorly, but actually we are not doing poorly.

The NCERT itself felt the need to change since the national curriculm changed. Broadly, there was a fair improvement in learning levels and till 2003 or 2004, in the country learning levels were marginally going up. But in the last few years, they have been declining. So SSA is facing a kind of crisis which DPEP never had. Another difference is that in SSA, there was a lot more of emphasis on access - construction of buildingsetc.., but DPEP emphasised quality.

Overall the feeling is that DPEP was more able to achieve its goals for a variety of reasons. It was structurally different. It had a quality/pedagogy team in each state office - 10 to 15 people. But that's not the case in SSA. It depends on people in NCERT or non-permanent staff like state resource group etc. As a result its ability to deliver quality is compromised.


Satya: When DPEP ended, what was the thinking behind launching SSA or continuing it as Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan?

Subir: It was a political thing really. DPEP was a Congress thing and SSA was a BJP thing. SSA was launched when Murli Manohar Joshi was the HR Minister. I'm convinced that the main reason was to have their own flagship program and add a more Indian touch to it. So there was less importance to certain goals that DPEP emphasised. DPEP had a very strong technical support group - highly qualified and capable consultants. Though that group continued in SSA, the people they were replaced by were much lower qualified and much lower paid persons. So the quality of inputs suffered.

A big shift in SSA was the shift to something called norm-based planning. They started issuing norms. For instance, DPEP said teachers must learn to do the following things through training. So states would devise a training program. SSA said you can take 20 days of training x so many rupees per head per day per teacher to do the same thing. So they fixed the inputs. As a result, quality has definitely suffered.

Satya: Does that thinking still continue?

Subir: That thinking continues, There has been a lot more emphasis unfortunately on inputs in SSA. But of late, due to general pressure from civil society, the govt has realised that children are not learning, so there has been some shift to thinking about outcomes.

In 2007, when I was asked by the Govt of India to review teacher training. I said teacher training cannot be reviewed since you have no agreement on what is good training. You have agreement only on what must go into training. But how will a teacher be different after the training? How can I say if the training was good or not? What are the minimum qualities that a training must have for it to be called good? This is happening because you have no performance standards for teachers.

What is good teaching?

If a teacher's students have high scores in exams, it could be because of cheating, beating, social reasons, parents... You can't assume that these are good teachers. So in fact, I was asked to develop performance standards which I did in a country wide process called ADEPTS - Advancement of Educational Performance through Teacher Support.

Those performance standards are outcomes of teacher training. This continued till 2009. Then key officials were changed and this stopped. The outcome focus has been very sporadic. Right now, the biggest sort of shift which is about to happen in SSA is the shift towards focussing on outcomes.

Satya: Is teacher training the responsibility of the states or does the centre have a role? Historically, how has it been and how has it changed?

Subir: There are two strands - pre-service and in-service training. In the pre-service training, the NCTE sets up the parameters and norms. There is also a national curriculum. So the centre has a strong role. But in the in-service training, the states are supposed to do it entirely on their own. Every state can use the in-service to promote a particular pedagogical model that it is implementing. In fact there is a lot of variety across the country.

In pre-service, states are free to make their own pre-service curriculum, but they do follow a broad frame. So the centre has a stronger role in pre-service and in the in-service the states are free. But in coming years, we will see the centre insisting that there are certain minimal things that a teacher must be doing in the class.

Satya: So going ahead, states won't have much of leeway?

Subir: It will be like a having a common frame - everybody has to do that. Above that you can do whatever you want to do. But there is a certain essential requirement. For instance, every teacher must know what is an activity and how to do an activity. If you want to do a lot mnore you can do it - if you want to use technology, no one stops you. Currently, the bare essentials or the critical requirements are not being met, but other frills are being done. So we are not seeing serious change in the learning levels.

Satya: In terms of the philosophy of how teaching and learning should happen in the classroom, how have things changed over time?


Subir: Basically, there are three broad phases or stages. All of us who are currently 30 years or older have been through all the 3 stages.

The first stage is knowledge - learning, content, information, concepts...- this was considered very important. This is called the content-driven curriculum. This has been in practice for some 3,000 years. The guru would give you 'gyan' initially through speech and later on through drawings or the written word. The role of the teacher was to explain things and that of the student to understand and memorise. That is still very much in vogue.

Around the 1920s, what happened was that a different view of human beings from a scientific perspective began to take shape. Scientific management, division of labour, manpower planning and other ideas were talked about. That's when behaviourism began. The understanding was that learning is not about giving, but about stimulation, reinforcement, the idea of Pavlov's dog. Lot of people would have studied in their B.Ed. statements like learning is nothing but changing behaviour. Making behavioural changes was the ultimate goal in life.

This was stated in the form of specific sub skill level changes like competencies (an American word). All over the world this was going on - the purpose was that you should not only have content and knowledge, but you should be able to do things. Learning by doing was a common phrase.

This trend started in India in the late 1960s and the early 1970s. There was the Nuffield program in the UK which was a science teaching program which was the origin of learning by doing kind of a thing. Lot of work was done in the U.S. - in California there was a new curriculum. Around the time Russia sent the first man to space, this shift began to take shape. This is what eventually led to the concept of activity - learning by activity.

This happened in India too and took place in the form of 'Minimum Levels of Learning.' (MLL). The curriculum framework that NCERT had made earlier talked of competencies. This was a shift away from memorising. This was more or a skill or practice kind of a thing. In every subject there was a list of things that a child should be able to do. At the end of this chapter, you will be able to do the following. Not just know.

In the first one, you see the child as an empty pot you have to fill up. In the second one, you see the child as wet clay to be shaped and moulded in the direction you want through the stimulus, response, reinforcement etc.. Get the child to do what we want the child to do.

Our objective is to fulfill the needs of society by producing enough plumbers, engineers, doctors etc.. The manpower planning thing became very important. Textbooks were made in accordance with this approach. The specific competencies that were being developed were written in the textbooks in India. They used to have a thing called competency numbers - for e.g. 1.1.1 was the ability to do something specific.

This was from the mid 1980s till the mid 1990s. The textbooks were created by the NCERT and the states. Tamil Nadu was one of the earlierst states to use this. Most states had books based on what were called MLLs. MLLs were essentially behavioural outcomes stated in a linear sequenced format. While in the content-drive model, the teacher's job was to transfer knowledge, in this the teacher was more like a manager - managing the activity in the class to generate the desired outcomes. That was the general perception.

That is why the assessment in the first model tested if the student had learned the content by asking him to repeat or write. In the second model, you tested if the student could solve certain sums or problems or do certain actions. At no point, did the model remain purely of one kind. There was always a bit of this and a bit of that.

From the 1950s onwards, a different view of looking at children and society began to become very prominent across the world. The idea of child-centred learning, child-rights began to grow. This was backed by an understanding of greater - equity, equality and less discrimination etc.. The 1986 policy talks about a warm welcoming atmosphere in the classroom without any discrimination.

By the time we came to the mid to late 1990s, the notion became that instead of moulding the child, we have to get the innate potential of the child to flower to the maximum extent. That is a right of the child and what child-centredness means. Also look upon the school as the manifestation of the future society based on justice and equality. This is why there has been a lot of talk about not having discrimination in the classroom. If you look at the RTE and the NCF, they come from this third philosophy which is more a process-driven philosophy.

The first is called content-driven, the second is objectives-driven and the third is process-driven.

In the third, you say the right of the child is to flower, explore learning in his own way in his own pace, not to fit into to any given slot - a little bit romantic, but that's the way it is. Also, you practice equality in the classroom - gender or other issues are seriously addressed. Right to Education talks about discrimination free place where childs potential will manifest itself. NCF gives lot of emphasis to local knowledge, rather than moulding the child to some externally given mould. So this is the big shift that is now happening.

The teacher's job is not to give knowledge, but to make the child to go through exercise, to provide opportunities, generate a process and be a fellow traveller with the child and explore and understand along with the child. That is a big shift to a situation where the child learns by asking, exploring, experimenting, deriving etc. and constructing his own understanding with the support of the teacher. This is called the constructivist way.

It also means that the teacher is engaged with the child at all times and is aware if the child is learning or not, since that is the right of the child, constantly modifying his inputs, not only looking at the scholastic development, but all around development.

This is why assessment by definition has to be continous and comprehensive. If you follow this, you must do Continuous Comprehensive Evaluatoin (CCE), which is not there because of a whim or fancy. It is the right of the child to learn and it is the duty of the state to teach. The child cannot be penalised for the failure of the duty of the state. This is the reason why detention has been removed, because detention penalises the child for the teacher or the school not fulfilling the needs of the child. You can no more say as an excuse that the child is not coming to the school. It means you have made the school unattractive or not provided the right conditions for the child to come to the school. This is also the reason why as part of the RTE Act, all the conditions that prevent the child form coming to the school - food, clothing, stationery, books, cycles, transportation, lack of school building, lack of teachers - all these provisions are being made so that there is no reason for anyone to say the child is not coming to school.

So starting from a situation where education was a privilege - the guru gave you gyan because he thought you were fit for it and not everybody was thought fit for it. The story of Ekalavya is very important because the guru did not want to give him gyan even though he was capable of it. That is the content-driven situation.

Then you come to a situation where we decide for you that you are fit to be a plumber or IAS officer or an electrician. That is also discriminatory. Now we come to a point where you say - whoever you are, it is our job to do the best for each one of you so that you attain your own possible maximum potential. We are no one to say you should be this or that.

Instead of children being accountable to school, the shift is now to the school being accountable to the children. That's the journey conceptually that we have covered in 20-25 years.


Satya: You talked about the shifts from the content-driven to the objectives-driven to the process-driven models. What was the thinking behind these shifts in the Indian context. Was it due to the global trends or due to local factors?

Subir: Global trends do have a role, but it was also felt that Indian students were becoming nothing more than a parrot who could repeat things, but could not think on his own. The idea was to move beyond memorisation to more of an autonomous learner who was capable of doing things on his own. That was the basic thrust. In the more recent times, we have been talking about India as a knowledge economy - a different kind of nation. At that time, the basic thing was that being just good at a scholarly subject but not being able to do any thing was not enough.

While employability and have might been in the background, the basic thrust was this.

Satya: When did this shift happen from content-driven to objectives-driven?

Subir: The shift from the content-driven to the objectives-drive model began in the early 1980s though there were murmurings about it all long. Formally, it began when the MLLs were formulated around 1982-85.

Satya: The shift from objectives-driven to process-driven? When did that happen and how did that happen?

The MLLs - though the idea was not bad, they had a number limitations. The good part was that they moved away from memorisation. The limitation was that they were sequenced in such a way that the interconnections were getting lost. For e.g. when you first teach only listening in a language, then you stop listening and teach speaking, then you stop that and teach only reading - you won't get very far.

They broke things down into too minute stages. They did not have enough interconnections between them - there was not enough repetition. Overall, what ever could not be converted into a competency was getting ignored. Higher order skills like - scientific attitude, or the ability to co-operate, to infer - because they could not be broken down into a single small defined competency, they were not figuring sufficiently strongly enough. So the higher order learning which is the objective of education was getting ignored and the lower level skills were being emphasised.

One state where this was starkly visible is Tamil Nadu. When we did an assessment of the learning levels in the ABL programme recently, we found that Tamil Nadu had continued with the same list of competencies which were made under MLL. For e.g. if the children were to learn 10 things and you focussed on 5 and they learnt all 5, your achivement is not 100%, it is 50%. In TN, they focussed on a few competencies - they didn't do everything that was required within language - like creativity, thinking for oneself, writing original stuff - all these were missing. As a result their learning levels were much below what they should have been given the effort they made.

So for all these reasons, apart from the general thrust, there was a shift away from MLLs. Another thing that led to the shift was that MLLs were made for specific subjects. They could not be made for things that were considered co-scholastic like drawing, music and so on. There was a committee set up to come up with co-scholastic MLLs. But since it could never come to a decision, it was discontinued. Another thing was that they could not make MLLs even for upper-primary. It was very difficult. Finally, one very big issue is that it is very difficult to sequence learning.

For. eg. take the case of shapes - we teach this to children in class I around the time they are learning numbers. Should I teach them shapes before they learn the number 0 or after? Should I teach them 1-5 and then addition and subtraction within 1 to 5 or within 1-9 or within 1-10? How do you define it? It is not so easy.

Even though nationally, you may take a view, all such strict sequences are ultimately artifical. Overall, it was a shift away from behaviourism, which has some serious issues - the belief that you can manipulate someone into doing what they want to with a set of incentives and disincentives - that is not a good view of humanity.

Satya: After SSA had started out, the National Curricular Framework (NCF) came about in 2005. What was the thinking behind it. Was NCF part of SSA?


Subir: SSA can't lay any claim to credit for the NCF. SSA is a user of the NCF. The push came from the NCERT and the MHRD, mainly the minister. While the MLL was there and curriculum had been formualted, in 2000, NCF 2000 had been developed. NCF 2000, for various reasons, people felt it had been saffronised. Murali Manohar Joshi used to say things like science is spiritual.

In 2005, when Krishna Kumar became the Director of NCERT, in the beginning he even said to Arjun Singh that NCERT should not make textbooks. But Arjun Singh said that's ok, but for history, you have to make the text books. Since you can't make text books only in history, they ended up doing it in all subjects. Since you are making textbooks for all subjects, you need a curriculum.

Krishna Kumar, partly inspired by the work of DPEP took a different route to making a curriculum. In DPEP, a large state resource group would be created. People from all walks of life - from bus drivers to doctors and others were invited. Across the state, there would be consultations and slowly there would evolve a series of what were called base papers. What was the vision of a child, vision of society, what are the beliefs and assumptions on which we are working. What are the approaches to knowledge and the subjects and therefore what does it mean for each subject and then look at hard core practical reality - how much time do you have and what kind of children do you have - and then based on that they would formulate in each subject the objectives. This is a process that was started only in DPEP. Up till then there was a committee approach.

Inspired by this, particularly from U.P. and Kerala, Krishna Kumar got a very large number of 400 academics from all over the country involved. They created a number of thematic papers on various issues. The NCF is essentially a summary of this, of 15-19 thematic groups. Based on that they made the syllabus and then the textbooks. So the NCF was the work mainly of the NCERT and they should get the credit. The role of the NCERT's own staff was more of managers and organisers - it was a large number of outside people who contributed it.

Satya: When NCERT created the NCF, was it something to be used by the states or were the states supposed to take this as a guideline and develop their own curriculum?

Subir: Under our federal structure, there is no national curriculum. The NCERT cannot impose this. Indeed in the NCF 2000, 17 states refused to take the NCF. In one particular instance, Assam wrote to the NCERT "You can kindly take look at our curriculum - it is better than your framework. We will not take it."

Every state is supposed to take it as a framework. It is marketed quite well and broadly there was support for it. Some states have taken it as it is, some have adapted it, some have developed their own. There are about some 10 points like respecting the constitution kind of thing - which every state has to abide by.

Satya: Did NCERT continue to create textbooks after that?

Yes, the NCERT did make text books. But things are never pure as I said. Some things that are content-driven, some things that are objectives-drive are still there in the textbooks. The NCF talks about how the different subjects are closely interlinked. It mentions that there should be integration of subjects. In fact, several states like Assam, U.P, Harayana, Gujarat, when they make textbooks, in Class I there is only one book and from the same lesson, you learn three subjects. For e.g. there's a poem about coconuts - you learn language (reading, rhyme, repeated words and sounds), you also learn about environmental stuides about how coconuts grow etc.. and also do mathematics around coconuts.

For some reason, NCERT was unable to do this. They made separate mathematics book and a separate language book. The textbooks did not match the full understanding of the NCF - they also did not match what I consider the practical requirements. There were three problems with the NCERT books.

1. The size was so big that if you take them to a govt school, with children sitting on the floor, the books would overlap if they were opened. There's not enough space.

2. The book is so thick, it assumes the school will run for the full 220 days - but it doesn't. So it cannot be completed in the school year.

3. It is very costly. A book costs about 50 plus rupees to print and the subsidy comes to Rs. 30. States have to give this free and they can't give it easily.

Why will a state use it if this is so? NCERT books are mainly used in CBSE schools and better off private schools. They have been adapted by a few states, but there are limitations.


Satya: One of the things that people say now is that what children are learning today is much more than what we learnt when were at the same age. Do you see a trend of that sort and what are your views on that?

Subir: Growth in information is not the same as growth in knowledge. There can be whole lot more of information growing, but not necessarily knowledge. Globally there is a shift. For e.g., in science, there is no way that even a super specialist in an area can keep pace with everything. In science, the shift is to teaching scientific literacy - the ability to figure out the science and not necessarily knowing content about everything, since that is way beyond reach. We haven't yet gone there, but that is the direction of the shift.

Children's exposure levels today are much higher than when we were children. We didn't have all these channels on TV like National Geographic and so on, or the Internet or devices like the iPad.

So if you look at that, it is definitely happening. However, having said that, there is one issue which is happening on the content streak which still continues. There is a tendency in the curriculum to work backwards. If you say in order to qualify for medical school, this is what a student must know in Class XII. Therefore in class X they must know this and therefore in class V they must know about, say Oxygen, which you were teaching in Class VI earlier. So there has been a lot of downward flow. There is a struggle going on across the country, between the NCF push which is to have age-appropriate learning, versus the states which want to increase their standards, by which they mean the number of children passing through the competitive exams. So in the state's curricula, the trend is definitely there. Children are being compelled to go through stuff that they can't actually understand.

Satya: Like you talked about the example of the test conducted across the country to identify the learning levels in 1994 at the time of the DPEP, have there been tests conducted subsequently after that?

Subir: Every year or two years, the NCERT does a country wide survey of learning and achievement levels. They have made some shift in the surveys, so it is not easy to compare across the years. Those surveys continue to show that there is low increase. It is not always easy to read what they are looking at. Sometimes it appears to show improvement, but I am not convinced. For e.g. if it shows 63% level in reading, I don't know what that means. One has to analyse it a lot more.

Satya: More recently in the 7-8 years Pratham has been conducting its ASER tests and India also participated in the 2009 PISA round of tests. How do you look at that those tests and what do you think they tell us about what's happening?

Subir: When I began work in 1986, one of the big issues for us was that children come to class VI and they cant read well. From then we have been seeing that children are not able to read. So if a countrywide test tells you the same thing that you already know and keeps telling you the same thing for 7 years, what does it add? There's nothing dramatically new.

I believe that the first test is fine. After that the tests have been of limited value. It is not a survey of education. It is a survey of reading, writing and arithmetic. This is a very small subset - you can't even take it as a proxy for education. For e.g. if I go to a school where I find the children are very caring for each other, but they can't read well, I can't say they are totally uneducuated. They may be non-literate. So there are issues of methodology, consistency and so on. The good part is that it is making people look at whether outcomes are taking place or not. But we are not able to have a serious response to that.

And there are reasons for that. Suppose the child is not learning numbers. So, what is the solution. The solution is not to teach the same thing in the way in which he did not learn earlier. The problem I face here is that I do not know why the child is not learning. The child may not be learning because the expectation is too high, or it is away from his context, or the language is too difficult, or I'm not using concrete materials. I can think of 25 reasons why a child is not learning. In one school, I found, one girl who said in moral science, you ask me not to borrow things from others. But here, in subtraction, why are you asking me to borrow. She was unable to deal with it emotionally. Another child had a confusion, if I have to borrow, why do I borrow only one, why can't I borrow two?

The point is that those surveys, including the surveys are like the way you weigh a child to know if it is nutritionally ok or not. I weigh the child and find that the child's nutrition level is low and the child is not healthy. And if I keep weighing - the child's health is not going to improve. I have to do somethign about that. Pratham's ASER studies are not backed by the second part and they are of very limited value. It reaffirms what we otherwise intuitively know - that children are not able to read and write. It doesn't add value to the knowledge and doesn't lead us to something better.

But it does have a negative value. There are two parts. One is that states say that when we work with Pratham, they show us as very good and when we don't work with them, they show us as bad. Pratham has found it as a way of using it as a stick to bully the states into agreeing to work with them or not. The other thing is that in a lot of places, people are beginning to feel that it doesn't matter what you do, what is tested is only basic reading. So they have started teaching only that. When you teach only the basics and don't do reading in say science or social studies, the overall reading doesn't grow. Maybe one reason why reading levels are coming down is because everybody is trying to live upto Pratham's expectations of reading. So I believe that ASER may be having a negative impact as well. We should get out of this kind of testing and do a different kind of testing altogether. We should do a more holistic, wholesome education testing and not just testing reading.

Satya: But in terms of looking at any test, as you said, its like weighing a child or looking at the temperature at any point of time, if the temperature is remaining low when you expect it should be higher, then at least it tells you that whatever you are doing is not helping it rise. As a metric to track whatever efforts are being taken from year to year, maybe it is useful. Maybe we are not taking enough efforts to make the change, so it is not being reflected in the tests.

Subir: True. I believe we should be finding out whether children are learning or not. We should not fall into what is called the Pulse Polio trap. When we focus so much on Pulse Polio, the rest of the immunisations are not done. So you may reduce Polio, but you are not actually improving overall health, since you focussed only on one part.

So we should do a general education testing and not just a limited thing. We must find a better way to monitor health of the system. Perhaps a better way is to get teachers to do that in their own class. Teachers need to know whether children are learning or not.


Satya: But would teachers be able to do it objectively enough, since they wouldn't want to show themselves up?

Subir: Let's go back a bit to the testing. When children don't learn, we blame teachers, right? But when teachers don't work, who do we blame?

Satya: There's nobody to blame.

Subir: Why not? Suppose, I am a trainer. Across the whole country we do 30 million man days of training eveyr year. So someone has trained the teachers and the teachers are not able to do their job well. So why isn't it that the trainer isn't affected by this? Why is that the person who prepared the trainer is never accountable? Why is it that we look for accountability only at one particular level? The system as a whole has to be accountable as a whole.

For example, when I want a child to learn reading by Class II using certain methods. So my teacher must know how to teach reading using those methods. So the trainer must know how to train the teacher to do that. Which means my monitor and supervisor must know how to trainer the trainer and the teacher and monitor the whole thing. It is not the teacher alone. It is a dipstick at the wrong part of the system. It has to be the system at a whole. For e.g. how many trainers have been able to create teachers who are effectively teaching reading. If you take that kind of approach, we will find that the system has an incentive to do something across the board.

Satya: So you are saying, come top down.

Subir: Yeah, I think accountability has to start top down. Somethings don't work bottom-up. Somethings work better top-down.

Satya: That's a very interesting thought. I don't think anybody has ever talked about looking at accountability at that end.

Subir: No, but Isn't that true? We were discussing how the power minsiter is accountable if power is not there, though it may be a last mile issue there. Here we are looking only at the last mile and we are only blaming the last mile. The problem may be due to so many other reasons. Maybe the books are not supplied in time. Maybe the monitoring is not being done. Maybe the teacher's salary is not being released on time. Maybe the wrong people have been recruited through various corrupt means. Maybe the school year started late. Maybe the minister didn't issue orders of a certain kind. There are so many issues. Why pick up on the last mile? That's wrong.

As a consultant, when I do a training, if my training is not good or what I suggest is not practical, I will never be called again. So there is an inbuilt accountability that to survive, I have to do the right things. In some ways, this kind of incentive that your future depends on your present performance has to be brought in at all levels. For a govt officer, it simply doesn't matter if what he does works or not. He is there for a little while and goes away. There's no accountability of any kind.

I believe that accountability is not of the teacher. The school is only a manifestation of the system. You can't isolate the school from the system and say that the school is accountable, but the rest of the system is not. There are places where the teacher is taken away from academic work. Or the local officer rewards persons who does his clerical or accounting work. So there is disincentive for others to perform. Why is that person not held accountable?

We are actually victimising the teacher quite unnecessarily.


Satya: The PISA level of testing for 15 year olds at school leaving level. What are your thoughts on that?

Subir: I believe that the testing is fine. Our children have not gone through that kind of work and therefore they can't do it. But that's ok. The decision we need to take is whether that is the international future for us. Our problem is we have not defined our own serious vision of what kind of secondary school students we are creating. For example, PISA may value a student who can think for himself. But at present we are neither here nor there on this issue. We pay lip service to autonomy, but we don't do it. We do not value understanding as much as reproducing. PISA tests are not like that. So there will be issues. If we decide what kind of future we envisage for ourselves and then work backwards from there and have our own model of secondary education, what quality we really want in the students, then we have a clear way to go about it.

If I look at a very different kind of example, in North Korea, where I went two times to work on curriculum. They will tell you five qualities that every North Korean will have. For instance they will tell you North Koreans will not be jealous of others. You can go out on the street and actually you will find it. For instance, they have decided that we don't care about other things, but every person must be able to play at least one musical instrument. You can stop anybody on the street and they will tell you which musical instrument they can play and you give them the instrument and they will play it. I have seen it in many many cases. Each one of them will have practiced at least one sport. So there are certain things they have in mind - if a person can play at least one musical instrument and one sport, he must be a certain kind of person. I am conviced that if ever they take PISA they will do well. They have a very clear vision of what kind of person they want - we may have issues with that, but that's a different story. But in our case we are not clear about that.

Satya: So what you are saying is that first step is to set a vision as to what is that we want our 15 year olds to know.

Subir: Right, what we want our 15 year olds to be like, and to be like that what should they know, what should they do, what should the experience, what should they feel, what are the different areas of exposure they should have. Once we have that clear, we can decide whether we want to participate in PISA or not. We can create our own rigorous high quality international test. That is not an issue - we have the knowhow to do that. But the issue is we don't have that serious vision. We are just wishy-washy. Most of our boards, who sometimes have a say in these things, they think our children should pass competitive exams. They have that kind of a vision.

Take Finland about which every is talking. In Finland, there are 3-4 very critical things. One is society as a whole values equity a lot and equality. They are very very ambitious for their chidlren. They believe that children will learn a lot - not learn as in content and information, but a whole lot of things. They start education very late at the age of 7.

Satya: So, they don't necessary want them to learn early, but learn a lot by the time they graduate.

Subir: They want children to be autonomous learners, seekers, who are willing to grapple with things. We want children to follow instructions and not grapple with things. In our country, if a student asks questions or gives his opiniion, we will say, oh you are acting smart, just shut up.

Forget it, there's no way we are going to do well in any international test.

Satya: Forget about international, but we probably should set up some kind of - first a vision on what we want our students to be like and then set up some kind of evaluation mechanism.

Subir: We may be doing things, but we don't want to acknowledge it. Let us say clearly we want compliers - only students who comply with adults' wishes. and not think on their own. Have the guts to say it openly. We don't say it openly.

Actually in our country this is really a problem. This is one of the reasons why education is difficult in our country. If any group goes through what I call serious pedagogical experience - teachers or students, they refuse to take nonsense from others. For e.g. I saw a teacher stand up and tell a state project director, Sir, what you say may be right, but from our experience of 25 years, and from all the research that I have read, for these following reasons, with evidence, I feel what you are saying is not borne out by facts. If I have missed out something, could you please tell me and then I can change my opinion. This was very politely said. That State Project Director, an IAS officer, was so upset. He is used to the notion that something is right because I say it, not because evidence backs it. His implicit notion is - you are supposed to believe something I say, irrespective of facts. In turn others who are senior, like teachers, feel this about children. You have to listen to whatever I say. Don't argue. This is a very common thing in India. We are not able to proceed beyond a certain point because everytime people become empowered, there is huge conflict. In a hierachical society, anyone lower down when he is empowered, those above them have serious problems. As a country, do we have the courage to have the vision and live with the consequences of the vision?

Satya: Would it make sense then to, independent of the govt, devise a vision and put it out into the public sphere for debate.

Subir: Yes, absolutely, it will make sense and we are doing it. We are working on our own approach and model - when I say our own, it doesn't mean that it is so deviant from what is existing that it cannot be used. But I think we have to overtly and clearly say that when students emerge from our school - what they ought to be, what are their most critical abilities, qualities, understanding and knowledge they have to have. And that has to be what kind of society we want to see and what kind of country we want to be.

I believe that India has to be a responsible international community member - not necessarily a power centre. We are one sixth of humanity. We are responsible for everything - our carbon emissions, our economy - we have an impact on the world. How should we be as a nation and what kind of society will be that nation? Currently people don't see the contradiction between calling India their mother, Bharat Mata, and immediately spitting on the ground, not realising that they are spreading tubercolosis apart from being unhygienic in every possible way. From these small things to the larger vision, they have to be very overtly and clearly spelt out and in an inspiring way communciated to a whole lot of people. I feel that if a teacher knows the vision for his child, we can do wonders. He will know where I have to go. Currently, he knows this is the vehicle, but he doesn't know where he has to go. He goes where the vehicle takes him. That lack of vision is what is resulting in our wishy-washyness. We are neither here nor there.

Satya: Thank you so much Subir for this excellent overview of the history of education in the last 20-30 years.