“Fulo Fing Fong.”
That’s the sound of a tortoise singing. At least, according to the tall, gray-haired man sitting cross-legged on the floor among Class I students of Kendriya Vidyalaya in Delhi. On this particular day, he passes around a coconut shell made into a tortoise that delights the room of six-year-olds.
When the tale ends, the storyteller walks out, meets the principal briefly and hurries to a meeting at his office. Krishna Kumar—professor, child advocate, director of the National Council of Educational Research and Training—has just begun his day and continued his mission: reducing the stress levels of Indian children.
Halfway through his five-year term, Kumar heads the government agency that decides what and how children in 8,000 public and private schools nationwide will study between ages five and 17.
His verdict? They are studying too much.
“Textbooks have got fatter and fatter. Examination stress has gone up. Suicide rates have gone up,” says the 55-year-old Kumar from his bright sunny office. “We try to teach too much in our schools, without taking into account teachability and the number of hours available. That is because teachers are not involved in syllabus framing or textbook framework.”
This concern led to the formation of the National Curriculum Framework, a two-year exercise involving over 2,000 people—education activists, teachers and university professors from Chandigarh to Shillong. Via satellite link on television, the thinkers gathered to ease the Indian child’s life. Their findings: Dull and incomprehensible curricula. Teachers delivering lectures on a subject, then immediately leaving. Subjects taught in isolation from one another. No attempts made to understand if students could deal with an avalanche of facts.
As a national debate across private and public sectors waged over the crisis in Indian education, the group decided to provide some of the missing links. For example, if a science syllabus includes the study of water, it will break down the theme. The chemical composition of water is H2O. Meanwhile, countries fight over rights to water and others struggle for clean drinking water. Some women must march miles to fetch water.
The new proposed curriculum tackles other areas of child development, such as sports, music and art. “For too long, schools have thought of preparing one Sachin Tendulkar,” Kumar said. “Only the talented will get sports training. We don’t realize that sports is a developmental necessity for children; we have to provide facilities for every child.”
Schools have just begun to feel the effects. A political science textbook for 14-year-olds has been redesigned into a colourful presentation of world and domestic politics, illustrated with cartoons from Shankar and R.K. Laxman. Students are asked for their opinions on current events. What sort of relations should India have with the military rulers of Myanmar? Do the rich have better lawyers in court, resulting in an inequity in justice? The textbooks mention world events from allegations of torture at Guantanomo Bay to the ethnic cleansing in Kosovo.
India is not spared: The massacre of Muslims during the Gujarat riots is discussed on page 108.
For this latter inclusion, the political science textbook created a stir in Parliament. Lawmakers also objected to a Hindi textbook for six-year-olds that included “chokri,” a north Indian slang term for girl that was seen as having derogatory undertones. Kumar and his agency made headlines—and Kumar now makes clear that he is wary of any attention from the press.
Still, Kumar does not have to look too far for support. “Krishna Kumar is a brave man. The controversy is a minor thing. It arises from a narrow view of things,” said Yash Pal, a professor and astrophysicist whose association with Kumar started in 1983, when the two collaborated on a report about learning without burden. The report represents Kumar’s first step toward becoming an advocate for child rights. He taught at Delhi University from 1971 after getting a Ph.D. in education but had become increasingly dissatisfied with its structure. “The higher education scene is very suffocating,” he said.
Despite his exit, Kumar and his Canadian wife continue to entertain Delhi University students who drop in at random.
Changing the life of the Indian child will not be easy; especially as government and private school systems are sharply divided on resources at their disposal. “The private sector has chosen to work outside the government school system instead of strengthening it,” he said. Kumar said Indian business can help by sponsoring something as basic as geometry boxes for poor children.
The non-profit NCERT is funded by government grants and textbook sales. Its textbooks have a government-dictated price cap of Rs30. Curriculum and textbook consultants receive an honorarium below market value. Salaries of regular staff are drawn from a government grant that totalled Rs75 crore last year.
To counter the stress of his job—and to perhaps help de-stress young pupils—Kumar holds storytelling sessions such as the one at Kendriya Vidyalaya. He also confesses a weakness for Bollywood movies—although even they are subjects of intellectualization. During an interview, Kumar resorted to discussing the text and subtext of the cheeky hit song Kajra Re from the movie Bunty Aur Babli.
But Kumar’s biggest fans—and the ones that matter to him most—are school principals and teachers following the new curriculum. The private Ramjas School in Delhi’s R.K. Puram uses the new textbooks and finds instructions less packed and rushed now.
“The whole approach to teaching has changed,” said the school’s principal, Meera Balachandran.
Teachers say they feel less pressure and are having more fun. Simple exercises such as body movements are used to explain how joints in the human body function. “Of course, a student told me how The Exorcist showed rotating skulls, and therefore the joint could be completely rotated,” laughed Neeta Joshi, who also taught her class of 11-year-olds to make a torch with a cell, wire and bulb.
Still, the Ramjas principal expresses concern about the mathematics syllabus being diluted too much; the subject is now more activity-based than driven by drills. “Our traditional skill in maths, such as learning tables and ability to calculate quickly, should not be lost,” Balachandran said.
Kumar himself says he doesn’t expect to see tangible drops in stress levels until 2008, when exam reforms kick in. “Please don’t expect drama,” a blunt Kumar said. “Education reform is a slow process.”
Sixty in Sixty is a special series that we plan to run through 2007, the 60th anniversary of India’s independence. We will introduce you to sixty Indians—both here and abroad—who are not rich or famous. These are people who are making quiet, but important, contributions without seeking headlines, to help make India and, in some cases, the world a better place. We also welcome your suggestions on people whom you think should be profiled in this series. Please send your suggestions by e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org