12 June 2012

Textbook turbulence

In the past few weeks, many debates have been going on about cartoons in school textbooks  published by NCERT. While cartoons in lessons may be  effective resources in our classrooms, other contents are also important. In fact all contents in textbooks are important.

After reading Standards 11 and 12  Mathematics, Physics and Chemistry textbooks published by NCERT, any competent education professional would be able to see that these books are perfect examples of what a textbook should not be.

Sometimes, in spite of earnest attempts, involvement of competent professionals in textbook writing doesn't happen because of the rigid systems in which we work. Our Central and many State Board Textbook Development Committees do not consist of adequate number of competent practising teachers as illustrated, for example, in Standard 12 Physics textbook published by NCERT. As we can easily see, only 5 out of 20 (25%) are practising school teachers.

A few years back when I was heading a K-12 school in Chennai, Mrs Latha, chief education officer of our district, asked me to head a subject experts panel which was working on Standards 11 and 12 of Tamilnadu Higher Secondary Board. She was one of  the most honest officers in the Department and hence very respected. It would have been a privilege to  work in a team with which she was involved. But, when I sought permission from my school management, it was refused as the management thought that my time in the school would be compromised. Hence I had to decline the nomination.

Earlier in late '90s, I was trying for some meaningful occupation in Chennai after resigning my post at a school in Chittoor, Andhra Pradesh. As I had read several articles by Mini Krishnan, a well known writer who was commissioning editor at Macmillan India Limited, I thought of meeting her. She asked me to write a sample lesson, which I did. My work was accepted and I was about to  sign a contract. This was a time when the Company needed an education officer in Mathematics and Science on a full time basis. After a recruitment assessment,  I was selected for this position too and was given the option  of selecting between the two. I  preferred the latter instead of the former (which I think, was a mistake).

Quality of our school textbooks can only be enhanced if our State Boards and NCERT revamp the whole curriculum development process by involving outstanding school teachers  with proven experience instead of scientists (however eminent they may be) as members and chairpersons of authors' panels.  Teachers are the most competent professionals when it comes to developing lesson materials (print or digital).

When working for PREPARE, a Chennai based NGO, I was involved with Green Valley Public School, a K-8 school catering to children from tribal communities in the area between Rayagada and J K Pur in Odisha. The school was run by the NGO. All the teachers had a degree in a school subject but some didn't have their B Ed degrees (as it was not a mandatory requirement for that upcoming school). In fact not having B Ed was an advantages. We did away with textbooks and teachers were encouraged to develop their own curriculum and teaching materials. As they knew their children well, the exercise was very fruitful though it took time. Lessons were very child friendly and children enjoyed them.  

As many schools cannot afford to have their own curriculum due to  mixed ability classrooms which large pupil intake (exceeding recommended teacher pupil ratio), heavy workload of teachers, in countries like India, teachers resort to textbooks as a single source. Hence it is important to (i) involve practising school teachers in textbook development and (ii) prescribe textbooks which meet certain minimum benchmarks in terms of quality. (I tried an interesting experiment many years ago, considering the situation which prevailed at that time).  

The issue is not confined only to our country India. It is global. I have come across several  textbooks which are poorly written and published in  countries like USA and UK. In the late '80s, when I was teaching Physics in schools in Southern Africa, the government was about to replace `O Level Physics' by A F Abbott (a very good textbook) by `Physics is Fun' by Tom Duncan.

All physics teachers were asked to study the book and let the government know about their viewpoint. In one of the physics teachers workshops conducted for the purpose, we were asked to  give our feedback on the new book in a questionnaire developed by the Education Ministry. I wrote that the new book was not even fit to be used as a revision material let alone as a textbook and that the other book should be retained. My viewpoint was based on numerous conceptual mistakes in the book (for example, units of mass and weight were messed up on several pages). (When I  wrote my feedback, my friends including Mr Chinnappan, who taught physics in Lawrence School, Ooty (India) and in some schools in the US earlier, cautioned me that my adverse remark might mean that my contract wouldn't be renewed. However, I was least bothered about the outcome of my feedback because I knew that I would be able to get a good job or even a better job if the Government didn't renew my contract. I considered honesty to be most important).    Thankfully enough, later editions of the book were free from mistakes.

Any textbook from any country written by whoever be it, should be free from any kind of mistake and it should be 100% quality oriented. Otherwise, I think that the material is junk.

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About Me

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Chennai, Tamilnadu, India
I am a retired K-12 Education Management Professional. I have worked at different levels in K-12 school systems, textbook publishing, elearning and Education NGOs. I have held memberships in The Association for Science Education (UK), American Association of Physics Teachers and The Malaysian Institute of Physics. I hold a 1st class B Sc Degree in Physics followed by B Ed [English and Physical Science] and M A [Childcare and Education] degrees. My published works include 59 articles in teacher development magazines in India and the US and a book entitled `Creative Classrooms and Child Friendly Schools' (listed in Amazon). This book is almost an anecdotal account of my professional experience in six countries (including Cambodia where I worked as Technical Adviser to the Ministry of Education, Youth And Sports). I served as mentor in the Certificate of Teaching Mastery Program offered by Teachers Without Borders.