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Contexts, Content and the Social-Science Classroom

The Central Board for Secondary Education's Teachers' Manual on Formative Assessment which engages with textbooks and the syllabi was designed under the National Curriculum Framework for Class IX a few years ago. Although it facilitates formative assessment of the learner as opposed to the end of the term examination, the significance of this manual has not been acknowledged. This article evaluates the manual in terms of its principles and contents as well as the inclusions and exclusions and also examines it in terms of the guidelines that were laid down in the curriculum framework.


basis of continuous abilities. Yogyataa,

Contexts, Content and

by any stretch of imagination, cannot be the equivalent of assessment. As we the Social-Science Classroom go through the text, we find other telling instances of a preoccupation with abilities, and using these as the basis for clas-Kumkum Roy sifying learners, assigning them tasks and

The Central Board for Secondary Education’s Teachers’ Manual on Formative Assessment which engages with textbooks and the syllabi was designed under the National Curriculum Framework for Class IX a few years ago. Although it facilitates formative assessment of the learner as opposed to the end of the term examination, the significance of this manual has not been acknowledged. This article evaluates the manual in terms of its principles and contents as well as the inclusions and exclusions and also examines it in terms of the guidelines that were laid down in the curriculum framework.

Thanks to Anita Rampal and all the participants in the discussion held at the Central Institute of Education (Delhi University) on 16 June 2011 for their lively, perceptive interventions that helped me clarify some of the ideas presented in this article.

Kumkum Roy ( is with the Centre for Historical Studies, School of Social Sciences, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.

Economic & Political Weekly

september 24, 2011

he Central Board for Secondary Education (CBSE) produced a manual that appeared in August 2010, and is also available on their website.1 Designed to facilitate formative assessment of the learner as opposed to the end of the term examination (described as summative assessment), the document is significant for a variety of reasons. Titled the Teachers’ Manual on Formative Assessment (henceforth TMFA), it engages with the textbooks and the syllabi designed under the National Curriculum Framework (NCF) 2005 for Class IX, handling history, geo graphy, political science, economics and disaster management.

The curriculum framework as well as the textbooks and syllabi generated considerable debate and discussion. Five to six years down the line, the manual, although a significant document, seems to have a ttracted less attention and interest. It is quite likely that it has/will be operationalised and used as a tool by overworked teachers, who bear the brunt of the workload in our school system. Hence, the need to try and understand the manual in terms of principles and contents, inclusions and exclusions. It is also necessary to evaluate it in terms of the guidelines that were laid down in the curriculum framework, which was remarkable for its potential for opening up education to meet the challenges of democratisation and respect for diversity in a variety of ways. What I will attempt to do is to highlight issues that would benefit from discussion, debate and even dissent.

From Assessment to Abilities

The very first, unnumbered page of the TMFA contains a Hindi poem. What is i nteresting and revealing about the poem is its refrain:

Nirantar yogyataa ke nirnaya se Parinaam aakalan hogaa (My italics and transliteration).

Roughly translated, it would read as follows: the results will be calculated on the

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assessing them. Let us consider some examples of this before turning to their possible implications.

The prefatory remarks (p xxxviii) contain the following statement:

In order to cater to multiple intelligence, teachers could adopt a flexible approach with regard to giving tasks to students. For instance, students good in written work may be given tasks different from students good at practical work.

This is significant for two reasons. On the one hand, we find a classification of learners into two categories – those with skills in writing and those who are better in practical work. One has a sense that we are drifting back into a hierarchy, between thinkers and doers, between intellectuals and manual workers. What is perhaps more worrying is that each of these categories is to be encouraged to do what they are good at – the scope of learning something that one may find difficult, different or challenging is lost in the insistence on slotting learners into these categories and then insisting that they remain there.

In other instances, the classification is more elaborate. Thus, in the context of a possible project for geography (TMFA, pp 69-70), it is suggested:

The students who are probing in nature should find out information on climate, vegetation and wildlife. Those who have a flair for writing they do the writing on the poster. The ones good at drawing can do the map work or show the characteristics of the vegetation, draw kind of leaves, height of trees, kind of roots, e g, breathing roots in case of mangrove vegetation. The one who is a smart speaker assimilates the points and speaks about the poster display, they have made on correlation of climate, vegetation and wildlife. Thus all children with diverse talents get an exposure and are rightly judged for their talent (italics mine).

At one level, it seems a good idea to put together a team that has an assemblage of probers, writers, drawers and speakers, and collaborative teamwork is certainly a good strategy. However, once again, the possibility that a certain kind of specialisation


will be encouraged, and learners will not have an opportunity to acquire other kinds of skills, is worrisome.

In yet another instance, this time from the section on economics (TMFA,p 121 and elsewhere), a project involving fieldwork includes the following proviso:

It is possible that a few students did not actively participate in the group activity. The teacher could ask such students to make a brief presentation of their group's findings.

What is interesting here is a division of labour – between those who do the actual investigation and those who present the findings. Each of these distinctions has the potential of becoming hierarchical and lending itself to the creation of stereotypes about and amongst learners. As such, far more reflection needs to go into their efficacy as pedagogic strategies. Also, while investigating drawing, writing and speaking are basic skills one would expect of learners, they are not specific to the social sciences, where considerable emphasis is laid, to cite just one example on developing skills of comparison – across time and space, across communities and social groups. Besides, there is an emphasis on analysing material – textual, visual and oral and interpreting these from different perspectives. If the mode of assessment does not focus on these skills upfront and consistently, the tendency to fall back on modes of assessment that have been in existence for decades will be rather tempting.

Reverting to Rote Learning

At another level, what is worrisome is the way in which exercises that create possibilities for rote learning are reinserted into the manual. Here are just some instances. On the one hand, the text promises something that is quite the contrary. In the preface (TMFA,p xii) we are told:

The assessment in learning places the question at the centre of teaching and learning. It deflects the teaching from its focus on a ‘correct answer’ to focus on ‘a fertile question’.

And yet, when we turn to specific instances of the testing of learning, we find, more often than not, a return to tests that require a recall of detail, often insignificant detail, rather than of other possibilities. The ground for this shift is laid towards the end of the prefatory statement itself (p xlii) where we learn:

To do this it is important that equal teaching time and marks be allocated to the various components in the social sciences like facts, dates, events, laws, locations, trends and patterns and theories (italics mine).

Once again, it is worth pausing over the implications of this statement. The time devoted as well as the assessment of the social sciences is converted into a handy checklist, something that is likely to prove attractive to the teacher for its neatness and apparent simplicity. What is noteworthy is the place assigned to facts, dates and events. Much of the discussion in the social sciences has centred around the impossibility of assigning a unique, context-free significance to facts

– facts, we have argued, acquire significance only when they are located within

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september 24, 2011 vol xlvi no 39


a framework of analysis and viewed/ presented from specific perspectives. By treating facts as autonomous, as happens in this listing, the ground is laid for a reversal of this understanding.

More specifically, in the context of h istory, the obsession with memorising dates, which terrorised generations of learners, was replaced deliberately and systematically in the NCF and the textbooks with material where the dates were placed in the background, simply to provide an understanding of chronological sequence, rather than as sacrosanct mantras to be memorised and chanted. So, to see facts and dates being given positions of pride in this list, with theories being ranked last, is startling, to say the least. In a classroom situation, moreover, where teachers are constantly compelled to prioritise, it would not be surprising if both teachers and learners fell back on the first few items of the checklist.

These possibilities and fears are in fact realised when we consider some examples of the kinds of questions formulated as models for teachers to build on. The ones I have selected are chosen from the exercises suggested for the chapter on the French Revolution, one of the more exciting and challenging chapters in the history book (NCERT) for Class IX.

The following questions (from pp 3-4 of the manual) are illustrative:

Put a (tick) mark for the correct response and a (u) mark for the wrong response.

Replace the wrong response with the right answer.

  • (a) The French society was divided into two estates.
  • (b) Louis XVI ascended the throne of France in 1774.
  • (c) The people of Third Estate declared themselves a National Assembly in 1789.
  • (d) Napoleon Bonaparte became the French emperor in 1780.
  • (e) The French Constitution of 1791 began with the The Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen.
  • Note that three of the five questions posed relate to memorising dates.

    However, fortunately, not all the activities are of this nature. Some are more open-ended, as for instance, the debate around the theme: “The French Revolution laid the foundation of Democracy”,

    Economic Political Weekly

    september 24, 2011

    (p 6), which is intended, amongst other things, to achieve the following:

    Comprehend both positive and negative impact of the Revolution. Analyse its impact on France and on other countries. Develop the skill of organising one's thoughts. Develop oratory skill and self-confidence.

    At least, it has the potential of becoming an open-ended exercise. However, much of the richness of the chapter in the textbook is not even tapped in many of these activities. To cite just three instances

    – the chapter explains how visual symbols were used to convey revolutionary ideas. Creative exercises based on interpreting/ using these symbols in posters could be used to stimulate interest as well sensitise the learner to some of the ways in which visual representations work.

    Other activities suggested include tracking an event through the newspapers for a week. It derives from the fact that during the French Revolution, newspapers were an important medium for disseminating ideas and information. Variations on the theme in terms of television news or internet sources could have been developed which would allow the learner to engage critically with the media, while trying to understand how and why something is considered newsworthy and the strategies used to highlight it.

    A third example from the chapter is the following question (India and the Contemporary World, NCERT, New Delhi, 2006, p 24):

    Which groups of French society benefited from the revolution? Which groups were forced to relinquish power? Which sections of society would have been disappointed with the outcome of the revolution?

    Notice how the question enables the learner to focus on the same event/process from at least three distinct perspectives to understand that its impact would have been experienced differently, depending on social, economic and political locations. Once again, such possibilities are not developed in the manual.

    Trivialising the Text

    If the imminent danger of slipping into the strategy of rote learning is one possibility, the other, perhaps more insidious, is that of converting the content and concepts of chapters into apparently entertaining acti vities. Once again, this obviously derives from the

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    popular notion about the joys of learning, as well as the temptation to convert learning, in the words of the manual, into a fun activity. While recognising that humour is an extremely valuable emotional and intellectual resource, we also need to be critical and cautious about the c ontexts in which it is deployed, so as to ensure that it does not become a substitute for an engagement with issues that can be disturbing or unsettling. Neither should humour deflect attention away from the gravity of certain themes. Cartoons, for example, can be both enjoyed and analysed for the ways in which they reflect on situations, but what perhaps needs to be avoided are the kinds of exercises suggested in the manual. Once again, I will draw on three examples, based, ostensibly, on the Class IX history syllabus/textbook.

    The manual (pp 35-38) suggests as many as seven activities for the chapter on cricket. While one can debate about their significance, if any in developing skills of historical analysis, two are particularly striking in terms of their irrelevance. In one, the teacher is expected to organise a cricket match between two sections of the class. And in another, the learner is expected to improvise and provide a running commentary on a match. In the case of the commentary, the commentator/learner is to be evaluated in terms of the following criteria: o ratory skill, knowledge of the sport, modulation of voice. While the entertainment value of the exercise might obviously help to generate excitement and enthusiasm, its relevance in terms of the historical value of the concepts discussed in the chapter are rather uncertain, to say the least.

    A simple, practical, yet much more challenging activity could easily have been d evised. Learners could have been asked to listen to or view the commentary on a specific cricket match, and then analyse it in terms of some of the issues raised in the chapter – issues of nationalism, gender, caste, class and community, apart from commerce, and the ways in which these impinge on the presentation of the sport. This would have been far more productive than, say, organising a cricket match.

    Perhaps one of the most bizarre turns that the pedagogical strategies adopted in the manual takes is in the activities suggested for the chapter on Nazism. Once again, if we turn to the syllabus and


    the textbook, we find that the chapter is complex, demanding, disturbing, as it unmasks and helps us understand one of the most traumatic phases of history.

    In the manual (p 18), the last activity suggested for this chapter has the caption Learning is “Fun”. It consists of a pyramid of empty blocks, with the first letter in place, to be filled up by the learner. The clues are as follows:

  • Most oppressed race in Germany
  • Party founded by Hitler
  • Purest race according to Hitler
  • First German Republic
  • Secret police
  • Youth organisation
  • German Parliament
  • Humiliating treaty was signed here.
  • To treat these facts as part of an exercise that is supposed to be pleasurable for the learner is deeply disturbing, to say the least.

    Erasures and Invocations

    There are other problems as well. These are less apparent, as they consist of erasures. We can find several of these – in terms of religious identities, regional differences, caste. There is no mention of Hindu or Hinduism, one reference to M uslim reformers in Russia (p 12) in a match the columns exercise, none to I slam. Christianity figures in the following question, which is cited as an example of an opinion based question (p xlvii):

    Analyse the similarities and differences in Judeo-Christian and Greco-Roman views of law, reason and faith, and duties of the i ndividual.

    The Buddha and Buddhism are absent, as also are Jains, Jainism and the Mahavira. Sikhs and Sikhism fare no better. One a rgument for these absences can be that they are not directly the subject-matter of any particular chapter/theme. But, as we have seen, several of the activities that have been suggested are not directly relevant: the time and space occupied by these could have been used to discuss i ssues of religious identity, including but not confined to fundamentalism, to enrich and challenge the learner.

    Communalism figures only once (p 35) in the following question:

    How did the British sow the seed of commu

    nalism through cricket in the early phase of

    the game?

    And fundamentalism not at all. In other words, a blissful secular heaven is created by simply ignoring the domain of religion. However, even secular/secularism itself is treated as a given, rather than a category whose understanding needs to be strengthened through grappling with its implications in terms of exercises/activities. Two of the three occasions on which it is invoked draw on the Preamble of the Constitution, and occur in the prefatory pages, with only one reference in the substantive part of the text (p 97). In fact, even in the last instance, the activity suggested deals with the advantages and disadvantages of a one party and a multiparty system: thus secularism is both invoked and erased in one quick gesture.

    Such invocations and erasures occur in terms of other issues such as regions and caste as well. Examining what happens in the treatment of the latter will enable us to understand the strategies and anxieties at work. The term dalit is entirely absent from the document. Caste itself is only slightly more fortunate. There is a recall exercise (p 98), which requires the learner to mention the number of seats in the Lok Sabha that are reserved for the scheduled castes.

    Another instance, which occurs as an example of an assignment, is found in the prefatory statement (pp xxii-xxiii). This i llustrates some of the strategies at work. Here, an example of dramatisation is s uggested, based on the Class VIII History chapter titled “Women, Caste and Reform”. The instructions are as follows:

    (1) Students will be divided into groups.

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    They will in their groups, discuss and prepare a short skit on any of the social ills prevalent in the Indian society at different periods of time.

  • (2) The social ills may include sati, child marriage, female infanticide, denial of education to women and gender disparity.
  • (3) Each group will prepare a small skit and perform it. Each student will be asked to speak some dialogue.
  • (4) After the presentation, students will have a discussion. Note how caste, mentioned in the title, and implicit in the first point, is quickly erased in the actual listing that takes place in point 2. Clearly, gender discrimination is regarded as something that can be discussed, whereas issues related to caste are considered far more difficult, and are dismissed as being best avoided, implicitly if not explicitly. One of the few instances where caste figures as a category is during a fieldwork exercise on clothing practices, where, amongst several questions, there is scope for asking about variations in terms of r eligion and caste (p 41). In yet another i nstance, this time around a presentation on racial discrimination in South Africa (p 90), the learners are encouraged to compare it either with caste and religious discrimination in I ndia, or with racialism in British policies t owards India in the colonial period. This is clearly a brave step forward in the manual, but remains a solitary gesture. So an issue that obviously calls for sustained interven

    tion and engagement is accommodated, at best, as an optional exercise.

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    As opposed to these exercises, women seem to fare relatively better in terms of visibility within the manual. While this in itself might seem reassuring, it is worth examining the contexts and contents within which women figure, as well as the hesitancy to engage with issues of gender and sexuality, or even structures or concepts such as patriarchy.

    Gender disparity figures twice, once as a general “social ill” in the example cited earlier (p xxii) and then again, in the context of reading a graph on literacy, part of the activities associated with the chapter on “Understanding Economic Development” (p 113). Sex is introduced as a marker of populations (p 74), in the chapter on population in geography. The same section includes a provision for discussing declining sex ratios (p 74). There is also a provision for discussing the discrimination against women in representative institutions in the context of political science (p 95).

    If gender and sex find mention in certain carefully delimited contexts, sexuality and patriarchy are conspicuous by their absence. And, it is in this context that we can locate the relatively numerous references to women.

    The absence of women’s right to vote figures in a match the columns exercise (p 87). Women are also mentioned in the context of reservation of seats in representative bodies (pp 98-99). They are mentioned as well amongst those who do not receive access to equal economic opportunities (p 112), and in terms of assessing their place within Nazi ideology (pp 18-19). They figure in the context of clothes (p 40). And then we have a question that is repeated twice (p 40 and p 43), asking why the clothes worn by Indian women have not changed very much, while those of western women changed dramatically between the two world wars. In the second instance (p 43), this is accompanied by a visual of three sari-clad women.

    On the one hand, the fact that references to women are strewn across all the disciplines within the social sciences might seem reassuring. Also, some of the questions draw attention to significant disparities, and this is welcome. At the same time, there is a general problem that r emains masked under this visibility. Women are regarded as a homogeneous

    Economic Political Weekly

    september 24, 2011

    category, with virtually no references to other markers of difference in terms of caste, community, region, class, or the d ifferently abled. As such, the attention d irected towards women is at the same time effectively decontextualised.

    It is in this context that the reiteration of the question about the clothes worn by women assumes significance. Note that in one instance, Indian women are contrasted with western women. The latter are prone to change, whereas the former, the question suggests, are relatively stable. The question, we may note, is posed as a closed one – it is not whether Indian women have been wearing the same clothes, but why. Second, there is an assumption that there is a universal category called the Indian woman, all of whom have always been sariclad. Framed as it is, the question does not allow the learner to observe, notice, or e ngage with the differences in women’s clothes over time, regions, castes, communities, class. And even the fact that the sari has been worn differently to project distinct identities is lost once the question is framed in this fashion. More broadly, this is symptomatic of an attempt to treat sociopolitical concerns in isolation. There is no scope for exploring the interrelated nature of gender, caste and community identities. Thus, the potential for a challenging pedagogy is reduced to a banal, superficial e ngagement with issues of gender.

    Attitudes towards State Policies

    A final area that we need to consider is the attitude towards government policies and programmes. The syllabus and the textbooks create ample scope for a critical e ngagement with government policies, which can be evaluated in terms of their objectives, implementation and impact. Most of these possibilities are carefully shut out in the manual. Once again, a handful of examples must suffice to elucidate this. Here, I will focus on the section dealing with economics. In one instance (p 119), we learn that one of the learning outcomes of the chapter on poverty should be to ensure that the learners “appreciate the anti-poverty measures adopted by the government in India”. Another activity, preparing a scrapbook on poverty alleviation, is accompanied by the following objective:

    vol xlvi no 39

    Understand that why a government can't alleviate poverty despite all its efforts (p 123).

    Sometimes, the balance is recognised as being more fragile, as for instance, with regard to the question of food security, where the formulation of the learning

    o bjective is somewhat more complex:

    Appreciate and critically evaluate the role of government in ensuring food supply (p 125).

    But, just a little later (p 128), the learner is asked to appreciate and critically evaluate the role played by the government through the rationing system.

    In some instances, it leads to assertions such as the following:

    The Government plays the role of a friend, philosopher and guide, promoters and financier of the activities of the cooperatives and therefore has a huge role in the functioning of a cooperative. For example, if a housing cooperative has to be formed, the involvement of government machinery would be necessary for allotment of land till the a llotment of the houses to the members. The Government also provides policy support and policies are reviewed and modified from time to time (p 129).

    Clearly, with these objectives laid down and reiterated, there will be little scope for critical evaluation of government policies. So much for the space for fertile questions.

    It is also worth considering the implications of one of the activities suggested for political science (TMFA, pp 83-84):

    Preparing an album, collage/bulletin board or a wall paper on the following topics (any one)

  • (1) What makes a government democratic?
  • (2) What makes a government non-democratic?
  • (3) What are the reasonable demands of the people in India? By doing this activity the students will be able to:-Identify the factors that make a government democratic or non-democratic. Understand what are the justified/non-justified demands of the people in a democratic country like India.
  • What this activity assumes, of course, is that there is a consensus on justified or non-justified demands. Questions of perspective are brushed aside in the exercise.

    Back to the Classroom

    Let us now consider some of the implications of the manual for pedagogic practice. Emanating as it does from the CBSE, an allpowerful institution in a situation where


    examinations still remain the central if not the only preoccupation of parents, learners, and the school authorities, it is bound to be taken seriously. What is more, teachers are likely to turn to it for guidance, to find out how the new systems of assessment are to be put in place. Also, we must remember that the emphasis on continuous, comprehensive evaluation (CCE), while in itself a welcome shift from the end term examination, is likely to be converted into reams of paperwork by school administrative systems. Faced with this additional task, teachers will, in all likelihood, dip into the manual for ways and means of devising activities and tests to ease their burden. Factor in the situation where most schoolteachers in public/ private schools in particular are upper caste/class women from the majority community, one can see how the manual can be used to simply reinforce the status quo rather than develop skills of questioning and arguing, debating and discussing what are at perceived as contentious issues, liable to disrupt the sterile, fragile peace of the classroom.

    In other words, the potential of the NCF 2005, as well as the materials that were generated under its inspiration, will be d iluted, if not dismissed. Redressing this situation will require immense institutional and individual energies and visions, which do not seem to be immediately available.


    Meanwhile, may be we can return to Rabindranath Tagore’s prayer, voiced more than a century ago, now that we are busily celebrating his 150th birth anniversary:

    Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high; Where knowledge is free; … Where the clear stream of reason has not lost its way into the dreary desert sand of dead habit; … Into that heaven of freedom, my Father, let my country awake.


    1 All references to the manual are from the website, downloaded on 13 June 2011.




    september 24, 2011 vol xlvi no 39

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