The National Education Policy (NEP) 2020 recommends bringing in the early-years children (age group three to six years) within the realm of formal education, expanding compulsory school education up to grade 12, and making mother tongue/home language the medium of instruction up to grade 5. However, in the realm of curriculum and pedagogy, it has failed to articulate any imaginative or transformational ideas.
‘Experiential’ learning: A superficial vision
It is commendable that the policy talks about introducing ‘play/activity-based learning’ in the foundational (pre-school-grade 2) and preparatory (grades 3-6) stages, and ‘experiential learning’ in the middle stage (grades 6-8) in order to make learning joyful and engaging for children. In this context, the NEP suggests the inclusion of ‘hands on learning, arts–integrated and sports–integrated education, story-telling pedagogy’ (section 4.6) among others as standard teaching and learning strategies across different subjects.
This approach can certainly create space for providing concrete experiences to children and make learning enjoyable and interactive. However, when used as standalone pedagogic tools, there is every possibility that these can be reduced to mere fun activities. This will neither equip children with the required skills, nor lead to any significant learning.
Moreover, experiential learning cannot be reduced to merely providing children with a one-time experience. Even a simple Google search reveals that it begins with a ‘concrete experience’ following which children are encouraged to participate in ‘reflective observation’. This leads to ‘abstract conceptualisation’ based on which the children move to ‘active experimentation’. This helps in consolidating the learning of specific concepts and leads to generalisation. Thus, taken together, the four different stages constitute what is referred to as the experiential learning cycle. The NEP completely overlooks this.
As part of experiential learning, the policy also proposes the inclusion ‘integration of Indian art and culture in the teaching and learning process at every level’ in order to ‘strengthen the linkages between education and culture’ and imbibe ‘the Indian ethos’ (4.7).
While introducing children to Indian art form/s is highly recommended, there is no reason why such exposure should be limited to any one form. Rather it should be made more eclectic through inclusion of a wide range of forms and best practices both within the country and across the world. This will make learning robust and vibrant.
Specific emphasis is laid in the NEP on sports-integrated learning as a ‘cross-curricular pedagogical approach that utilises physical activities including indigenous sports’ as part of classroom transactions. This it is suggested would not only ‘help in developing skills such as collaboration, self-initiative…self-discipline …responsibility,’ but also encourage students to ‘adopt fitness as a lifelong attitude’ (4.8).
Although the integration of sports in a regular school curriculum can definitely foster physical and psychological well-being in students and make learning more holistic, can it by itself promote learning of complex concepts and ideas?
Moreover, experiential learning provides the possibility of including within it a range of experiences within, outside and beyond the classroom. These can range from reading and analysing case studies (based on fictional and real-life issues), simulations, role plays to field trips and community activism. This can provide the space for students to reflect, interpret, analyse, and evaluate various ideas, concepts and issues and thus, pave the way for mastering higher order thinking skills.
Thus, experiential learning certainly cannot be equated to learning through arts-based or sports-based one-time activities as suggested by the NEP. What explains this? Is it simply a result of lethargy on behalf of overworked minds or symptomatic of the sheer intellectual shallowness of the ‘experts’ at work?
Glorification of ‘Indian ethos’: Yesterday once more
Significant emphasis is laid in the NEP on creating awareness amongst the students about the contributions of ancient India to modern India in the sphere of education, health and environment. To achieve this, it proposes the designing of courses like ‘Knowledge of India’ and ‘Indian Knowledge Systems’ which would encompass tribal knowledge and indigenous and traditional ways of learning in diverse areas like mathematics, astronomy, philosophy, yoga, medicine, engineering, literature, sports, as well as in governance and conservation (4.27).
The aspiration to preserve indigenous practices and knowledge systems by making them popular amongst the younger generation is always worthwhile. However, an uncritical acceptance of the past or ‘ancient India’ in terms of traditions, customs and contribution of the same towards different branches of knowledge can easily result in suspension of scientific temper and denunciation of rational discourse. This can, therefore, become highly myopic.
The exclusive focus on the ancient period suggests a harkening back to India’s ‘glorious past’ with the exclusion of the medieval period and the significant developments that occurred during that time, especially in the field of literature, art and architecture among others. Although the document ensures that the above mentioned course will be designed in an ‘accurate and scientific manner’, one cannot but detect a striking resemblance with the national curriculum framework and textbooks that were introduced in 2000, which were highly controversial because of their unqualified glorification of ancient India (read Hindu), vilification of the medieval (read Islamic) period and construction of the ‘ideal’ Indian citizen as Hindu, upper caste and male.
‘Docile’ bodies and not agential citizens
An educational policy document in a modern nation state is primarily designed to provide guidelines regarding how the national education system is to be conceptualised. Undoubtedly, such a policy framework is almost always geared towards creating a body of citizens who will contribute towards nation – building in the best possible way. The visualisation of this ‘ideal’ citizen is usually aligned to the specific requirements and agenda of the regime in power.
This explains why a lot of emphasis is laid in the NEP about making the students aware of the importance of developing a healthy and fit body. The policy highlights the need for providing them with basic training in ‘preventive health, mental health, good nutrition, personal and public hygiene, disaster response and first-aid’ (4.28). Students, it is proposed, should also be made aware about the ‘detrimental and damaging effects of alcohol, tobacco and other drugs.’
Apart from bodily discipline, the NEP provides clear guidelines about disciplining the minds of the children. This, according to the policy, can be achieved through imparting among students ‘traditional Indian values’ – ‘seva, ahimsa, swachchhata, satya, nishkam karma, shanti, sacrifice’ etc as also basic human values like ‘helpfulness, patience, forgiveness, empathy…(4.28)’. All these, it is argued, will enable students to take ethical decisions with regard to the issues of ‘cheating, violence, plagiarism, littering’ in future.
Attention is also drawn in the NEP to ‘Constitutional values’ like pluralism, equality and diversity. While the importance of respecting ‘all people and their inherent capabilities regardless of background’ is emphasised, the document appears to maintain a deliberate silence on creating awareness about the issues of inequality and discrimination on the basis of caste, religion and ethnicity. This, perhaps, explains why there is no reference in the NEP about the foundational values of the Indian Constitution, namely social justice, secularism and egalitarianism.
While the importance of educating students in ethics and morality cannot be underscored, the way such knowledge is imparted is important. The NCF 2005, for instance, had situated citizenship education within the perspectives of human rights. In this context, the inclusion of the perspectives of marginalised communities (dalit, adivasi, women and religious minorities) were also encouraged. The aim was also to establish a democratic culture within classrooms where children could reflect critically on issues in terms of their political, social and moral aspects by actively participating in a process of debate and discussion.
The pedagogical approach that gets primacy in the NEP is, however, very different. It recommends providing children with opportunities to read stories from Panchatantra, Jataka, Hitopadesh, and ‘other fun fables and inspiring tales from the Indian tradition’. Further, though the importance of inculcating in children ‘critical thinking’ is mentioned, how such skills are to be developed is left untouched. The learner is thus not encouraged to actively participate in the construction of knowledge by sharing her lived experiences, reflect upon the same critically and arrive at multiple perspectives. Rather she is expected to be a passive recipient of handed down knowledge.
Perhaps, it is expected that children, when inducted in certain moral and ethical values and bodily discipline, will grow up to become obedient and patriotic citizens, what the French philosopher Michel Foucault refers to as ‘docile’, disciplined bodies. Such citizens will rarely ask questions or rise in dissent against the decisions of the ruling establishment. This perhaps explains why the document makes no mention about making students learn about ‘fundamental rights’, but focuses on ‘fundamental duties’ (4.23).
In conclusion, it can be argued that the NEP 2020 has little to offer in the realm of curriculum and pedagogy. It suffers from a bankruptcy of ideas, lacks rigour in terms of pedagogical approach and promotes a curricular vision that is meant to please the current political establishment and their ideological mentors. The image of the learner that emerges in the process is that of a passive beneficiary of received knowledge who neither has the capacity to engage in critical thinking nor the agency and moral courage to raise questions against discrimination and injustice.
The NEP certainly does not take forward the radical shifts introduced by the NCF 2005. How it will translate into a national curriculum framework and textbooks is yet to be seen.
(The author works in the area of curriculum development and teacher education. She is based in Delhi)
(The Federal seeks to present views and opinions from all sides of the spectrum. The information, ideas or opinions in the articles are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Federal)