June 5, 2023The Intersectionpublic policyeducationscience

Put the important science back into NCERT high school textbooks

The textbook bureaucracy has shown very poor judgement by excluding natural selection, the periodic table and Pythagoras' theorem from Class X textbooks

Mint This is an early unedited version of The Intersection column; published in Mint.

India, unlike Western and Middle Eastern societies, does not have a doctrinal problem with science. There is no holy book, word of god or scripture whose literality must be defended against new discoveries. I can understand why religious conservatives in the United States challenge modern biology and the evolutionary science it is based on, for it directly contradicts their article of faith. Darwin does not pose such a fundamental threat to religious conservatives of Indic faiths — the story of the origin of the earth and of humans is not a major concern. In fact, there are many different versions of the origin story, none of which are central to the practice of one’s faith, none of which matter to the conduct of daily life, and none of which get in the way of one’s pursuit of knowledge.

Which why NCERTs deletion of Evolution from the Class X Science textbook is baffling. Now, genetics and evolution are part of the Class XII curriculum, it is not that Darwin has been totally expunged from the CBSE curriculum. Even so, given only a small fraction of CBSE students take biology in Class XII, the vast majority of CBSE students will leave school without being taught one the most important principles of science. Understanding natural selection is important for everyone — not just biology students — for everything from learning how to deal with pandemics, take care of one’s health, improve agricultural productivity and care for our environment. Genomics and synthetic biology promises to be a growth engine for the Indian economy, so equipping future generations to grab the upstream and downstream career opportunities ought to be a national priority.

While political and ideological factors are relevant in determining the social sciences curriculum, the rationalisation of science and mathematics textbooks seems to be an exercise of poor judgement by the textbook bureaucracy. Try as I might, I am unable to see how dropping the periodic table in chemistry and the Pythagoras’s theorem in mathematics promote Indian nationalism. Dropping linear equations in two variables does not harm our sense of national pride. On the contrary, an incomplete education in science and mathematics undermines the national interest by damaging the foundations of a youthful, aspirational society.

To be fair, there is some justification in the need to rationalise the curriculum in the immediate post-pandemic world. Students and schools are catching up the lost pandemic years. Yet all NCERT had to do was to declare that some parts of the syllabus will not be examinable for the next three years. There was no need to change entire textbooks, a costly and controversial exercise.

The current controversy is a good opportunity to ask why is it that natural selection, the periodic table or atomic structure are taught as late as Class X? As one of my daughters asked me when she was in Class XI, why is it that we find out that many of the concepts we studied up to Class X were outdated? We don’t have to pass through Mendel, Mendeleev and Bohr in order understand the latest ideas on genetics, periodic table and atomic structure. We can start by teaching the latest and then explaining how we got to where we are today. We don’t have to waste four years of secondary school teaching the history of science. The earlier we introduce the state-of-the-art science to our children, the better it is for our society.

A common pushback against science is that it is a western” thing. Even people with degrees in science-related disciplines sometimes make this argument. This is in part because of the way science is taught — as a subject” like history or English, and not as a method of acquiring good knowledge, which it really is. While most of the big discoveries in science have been made in Western countries in recent centuries, philosophy and the practice of science was very much part of Indian culture. If India’s weight in international science and technology is disproportionate compared to developing country peers, it is in part because we stand on much deeper scientific and intellectual foundations. Besides even if science were somehow to be a western thing, it is in India’s national interest to embrace, adopt and exploit it to our benefit.

The good news is that CBSE is not the only show in town: there other national and state boards. There is nothing to stop States from strengthening their boards with robust science and mathematics. Doing so will check the drift towards CBSE schools. Meanwhile, the dilution of the CBSE curriculum is likely to drive greater demand for the booming coaching class industry. Families will end up having to spend more of their incomes on fees. Those who cannot afford it will be the worst affected.

It is a misconception that high school science is for students who want to take science for their higher studies. On the contrary, it is for everyone, especially those who intend to drop it after Class X. Our curricula should thus empower our future citizens with the knowledge necessary to lead healthy and successful lives.

Krishna Kumar on the Origins of India’s Textbook Culture in CER (Nov 1988)

Tailpiece: Colonial pedagogy outlasted colonial rule, and in independent India curriculum continues to be textbook bound. (The system of education) has not been able to shed colonial policies of prescription of textbooks and examinations.” - Krishna Kumar (1988)

Update (2023-06-19): M Jagadesh Kumar, Chairperson of UGC, agrees that the dropped subjects must be re-introduced.

In some respects, I agree with the criticism that teaching evolution, the periodic table and similar topics only in Classes 11 and 12 — skipping them at earlier stages — will impact all students, especially those who drop out of school by the end of Class 10 or choose to study disciplines other than science at a later stage. The global practice is that topics such as evolution, the periodic table and sources of energy are taught to students before they complete 10th standard. Indian Express

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