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Corona in the curriculum

EducationWorld June 2020 | Expert Comment

UNESCO’S Journal, PROSPECTS has scheduled an entire issue later in the year to the implications of the coronavirus crisis for curriculum design. Its guest editor will be Prof. William Pinar of the University of British Columbia, Vancouver (Canada). The idea is to explore how future curriculum developers in different countries can incorporate the corona pandemic and its lessons into school curriculums.

It’s difficult to say how India’s education system will respond to the matter. Right now, our national exam boards and state government directorates are preoccupied with the task of conducting exams. The pandemic has disturbed the annual routine of class X and XII school-leaving board exams. Delayed exams will be followed by delayed results. Colleges and universities will not progress far in their admission process for first year undergraduate classes without the marks-sheets of class XII school-leavers showing the total of ‘best of four’.

Some states have reverted to board exams in classes v and vIII, following the amendment made in the Right of Children to Free & Compulsory Education (RTE) Act, 2009. These exams are completely unnecessary from a pedagogic point of view, but they matter to the bureaucracy. The same is true of the class X exam. While the corona crisis is far from over, the state enterprise of harassing the young with unnecessary exams is still going full speed.

A day will soon come when corona-related questions will figure in these exams. Imagine the class X boards of 2022. You can expect multiple choice questions (MCQs) about the trains that were run after weeks of delay to carry migrant workers home from cities such as Mumbai and Delhi. We can anticipate a question like this one: “What was the name given to the trains introduced for carrying migrant workers home: (i) Corona Express; (ii) Mazdoor Express; (iii) Shramik Express; (iv) Garib Rath. Children will be expected to recall the correct answer from an essay that will probably form a chapter in their social science textbook. How this chapter will cover the various details and the chronology of the novel corona outbreak is not hard to imagine. In all likelihood, it will present the official version, carefully omitting critical details that might suggest any confusion or lapses in handling of the crisis. We can also predict that the chapter will be full of statistics and dates, offering a field day to paper-setters and their good friends: writers and publishers of exam guides.

Am I being too cynical? To avoid this charge, let me portray an alternative scenario. In this portrait, we start by letting schools decide how to introduce the corona pandemic as a study topic in the curriculum. Teachers will be free to suggest a wide range of resources to encourage children to investigate what happened. Science and social science teachers will work together with children to research how a new virus spread to different countries, using air travellers as vectors. The math teachers will select country-wise and states data of tests and their outcomes. Geography teachers will help children draw patterns of infection rates correlated with change of season from the winter of 2019 to the summer and monsoon of 2020. Economics teachers will draw upon contending claims made about financial losses and compensation packages. And language and literature teachers might select photographs of people walking on highways to ask children to write essays and narratives.

Anyone who has worked in our education system will read the above paragraph with total disbelief. Perhaps a handful of principals and teachers will identify themselves with the possibilities I have indicated. Some of them may already be doing this kind of pedagogic homework. On the other hand, the majority of teachers are busy covering the syllabus with online classes and preparing children for delayed exams. One cannot criticise these tens of thousands of teachers for losing an opportunity to use the corona crisis as study material. They are not free or autonomous enough to do so. Nor have they had any substantial experience of curriculum planning. They were recruited to follow a routine which requires teaching exclusively from prescribed textbooks on which exam questions are based.

It is never too late to imagine doing things differently. A pandemic is as good a time as any, if not better, to reflect on present-day limitations of the system and the effort required to transcend these limits. Maybe some half dozen schools will make the effort for now, and the story of their effort will gradually spread to others. Let me recommend to their teachers a unique children’s storybook Vimla in Virusland (NCERT, 2010). It was originally written by Dr. Khurshid M. Pavri, a former director of Pune’s National Institute of virology. In 2010, it was updated by Dr. Deepak A. Gadkari of the same institute. It is the story of vimla, a school girl, who has caught a viral fever. As she sleeps, she is introduced by the virus to many different types of viruses, how they live and why they occasionally create a crisis for human beings.

(Dr. Krishna Kumar is former director of NCERT and former professor of education at Delhi University)

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