Axing a science teaching programme

Print edition : August 31, 2002

The termination of the innovative Hoshangabad Science Teaching Programme, running in a thousand schools in Madhya Pradesh, is a retrograde step.

The school curricula have tended to be rigid and stagnant, lacking in responses to new methods and innovations in educational practice.

- A Perspective Paper on Education, Acharya Ramamurti Committee for a Review of the 1986 National Policy on Education (1990).

BY closing summarily the 30-year-old, path-breaking Hoshangabad Science Teaching Programme (HSTP) in Madhya Pradesh, the State government has opted to go back to the "rigid" and "stagnant" middle school science curricula, and the rote-learning and the 'memory and recall' testing examination system that go with it. It is being seen as a demonstration of lack of political will to respond positively to innovative methods of teaching science to children that have been hailed by educationists at home and abroad. This has happened under Chief Minister Digvijay Singh's government, one with an upbeat and progressive image.

A committee constituted by the National Council of Educational Research and Training (NCERT) had recommended in 1991 the expansion of the programme to the entire State from its present operation in 1,000 schools in 15 districts. However, on July 3 the axe fell on the programme. This has come in for allround criticism. Members of the scientific and academic community in the country and abroad have appealed to Digvijay Singh, through signature campaigns, petitions and individual letters, to reverse the order.

"The decision and the order smacks of high-handedness," said M.G.K. Menon, former Union Minister for Science and Technology, who had been closely associated with the programme in its early days. "To stop educational programmes, involving practical scientific demonstrations, of the nature that I know are carried out in the Hoshangabad programme, in my view is entirely wrong." he said in a letter. "Allowing HSTP to be killed would be a tremendous loss to Madhya Pradesh and the country," said Yash Pal, the physicist and former Chairman of the University Grants Commission (UGC), in his letter to the Chief Minister. "Such efforts come only once or twice in a century," he observed.


Scenes from a school where the Hoshangabad Science Teaching Programme was under way.

"Decentralised governance" is the catchword today for many of the actions of the Madhya Pradesh government. The facade of that same premise has been used to put an end to years of dedicated work by the non-governmental organisation (NGO) Eklavya that conducted the programme in the State-run rural schools.

The sequence of events that led up to the closure would suggest that the Chief Minister himself may have been misled and not have been fully made aware of the game plan. In the end, however, he found it convenient to play along. It seems unlikely that political calculations would have dictated Digvijay Singh's decision. The decision has had the combined effect of giving greater apparent power to district-level institutions and of marginalising an NGO - instances of which have been very much in evidence in Madhya Pradesh in recent years.

The process was triggered by Sitasharan Sharma, a Bharatiya Janata Party MLA from Itarsi and a non-voting member of the Hoshangabad District Planning Committee (DPC). He voiced his displeasure at Eklavya, and not the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, having been allowed to operate in schools.

An August 9 order put an end to the Social Science Teaching Programme (SSTP) of Eklavya, operational in about eight schools for classes six to eight, as well. The axe had fallen in 1999 on Eklavya's primary school teaching programme aimed for classes one to five, Prashika, that was being implemented in 150 rural schools. So the target was not just the science teaching programme but all activities of Eklavya that intervened in the school curriculum in a bid to improve it and promote values of secularism, democracy and creative and rational thinking.

The objective of the HSTP was to help improve the quality of science teaching in middle school (classes six to eight) within the existing government school system, and within the mainstream syllabus, based on the principles of 'learning by discovery', 'learning through activity' and 'learning from the environment' in contrast to the prevailing textbook-centered 'learning by cramming'. This innovative pedagogic approach used experiments performed in the classroom by the students to learn through observations and discussion; that is, execute the 'method of science' in the classroom. The package was developed by scientists and academicians of various universities, Indian Institutes of Technology and research institutions, most notably Delhi University and the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR), which collaborated with the NGOs which promoted the concept in Hoshangabad district.

The HSTP was started by two organisations, the Friends Rural Centre (FRC) and Kishore Bharati (KB), in collaboration with the State government in 16 rural middle schools of the district in 1972. In 1978 the programme was extended to the entire district (which has since become two districts, Hoshangabad and Harda). In 1986, the State government expanded it to include 13 other Central and Western districts. Its expansion required an autonomous institution to serve as the nodal agency to develop the curriculum and associated pedagogy, train teachers and implement the programme in collaboration with the government. In 1982, Eklavya was formed in Bhopal as an independent institution with the support of the Planning Commission, the UGC, the Department of Science and Technology (DST) and the Ministry of Education. Today the HSTP implemented by Eklavya covers 650 schools of Hoshangabad, 250 schools of Harda and one school complex - seven to ten schools - each in the State's 13 other districts.

The reason given in the July 3 order on the closure of the HSTP, issued by Amita Sharma, Secretary (Primary Education), and Mission Director, Rajiv Gandhi Prathamik Shiksha Mission, was a unanimous recommendation by the DPC on February 7 that the HSTP in Hoshangabad district be closed. The letter was marked for information to the District Collectors of Harda and the 13 districts where the HSTP was being implemented, and the Text Book Corporation (TBC), among others which, strangely, did not include the most affected party, Eklavya. It became aware of the order only on July 11.

The authority to review the functioning of the HSTP vests properly with the Education Department and not the bureaucrats associated with primary education and the Rajiv Gandhi Mission. Indeed, in the Digvijay Singh government, as regards matters pertaining to educational reforms, the Education Department seems to have been marginalised. Amita Sharma and Secretary to the Chief Minister R. Gopalakrishnan, both Indian Administrative Service (IAS) officers, seem to be shaping the key decisions in the sector. Any review of the HSTP, as pointed out by Eklavya, should have been carried out by experts appointed by that department.

The DPC's discussions on the termination of the HSTP following the move by the BJP MLA were not based on any formal report from the Education Department on the HSTP. When DPC members were made aware of the facts after the meeting, nine out of 12 of them wrote to the DPC chairperson to review the decision. On March 3, members of Eklavya met the Chief Minister, who asked for the DPC decision to be reversed. The Chief Minister assured them that a review of the HSTP would be undertaken through a committee comprising experts as suggested by Eklavya.

Eklavya then made a detailed presentation on the programme to Amita Sharma on April 1 and produced documents to answer the questions raised by her. The DPC undertook a review of the February 7 decision on May 9, following the demand by nine members. After a discussion, the DPC concluded that a decision should be taken after the promised review by the Chief Minister. The closure order, however, ignored this process and foreclosed any fair and authoritative assessment even as Eklavya was being led to believe that a review was being instituted. Even on July 3, perhaps as the order was being issued, Eklavya was in discussion with key officials, who did not inform Eklavya of the decision. A negative assessment prepared by Gopalakrishnan was being presented as the basis for a decision on the HSTP. Eklavya issued a point-by-point rebuttal of the report on July 8, little knowing that the HSTP's fate had already been sealed.

Eklavya had another meeting with Digvijay Singh on July 10. He then agreed to convene a meeting in the following week to consider the issues raised by Eklavya. It is unclear whether the Chief Minister was unaware of the July 3 order when he met Eklavya on July 10. Subsequent to his assurance of instituting a proper review, there has been no official order that authorises Gopalakrishnan to conduct a review. However, in the absence of any other assessment by the State government, Gopalakrishnan's report - which actually came after the DPC decision as well as the July 3 order - has assumed the status of review by the government and is being used to justify the decision on the HSTP.

The report has basically looked at whether children using HSTP textbooks in Hoshangabad (at their middle school) were doing better in science in the Class 10 Board examination. Using the data of the 2001-02 examination results - which Eklavya has claimed to be wrong - the report finds that (a) Hoshangabad was not among the top 20 districts in the State in terms of performance in the examination; (b) nearly 70 per cent of the children were scoring less than 50 per cent marks in science; (c) while only 26.3 per cent children failed in science overall in the State, the failure rate in Hoshangabad was 30 per cent; and, (d) the literacy growth rate in Hoshangabad was only 16 per cent whereas districts bordering Hoshangabad had registered a growth rate of 20 to 32 per cent, according to the 2001 Census. "Based on the above," the assessment said, "the government concurred with the view of the DPC that there was cause for parental anxiety and that children in Hoshangabad should be given the right to study standard books." It added that children of Hoshangabad should be given the right to study the standard textbooks and the HSTP curriculum could be used as a supplementary one.

Eklavya argued that comparing Class 10 results was an inappropriate test of efficacy of the HSTP as, for one thing, the programme is only for classes six to eight and any comparison should be done at that level. Also, the present annual examinations, such as the Class 10 Board examinations, are largely confined to testing information recall ability and there is little or no emphasis on testing for problem solving, analytical and experimental skills or conceptual understanding. Eklavya said: "Whether Hoshangabad is at the 3rd or 33rd place in the Class 10 examinations is a fictitious game, of no particular value. At no stage was it the objective of HSTP or claim of HSTP that HSTP children would do better in Class 10 or 12 or other high school competitive examinations."

Pointing out that the nature of data that the report had used was inadequate to support the conclusion that the HSTP has had no positive impact on children's learning, Eklavya said that the variation in efficiency of functioning of the high school system across districts had to be accounted for through properly designed sample surveys and research tools. Eklavya added that Hoshangabad did have an average record in terms of overall performance, and the performance level in science was in accordance with this average level of high school efficiency. "An educationally sound method would test the cognitive understanding of the concepts in science, between HSTP and non-HSTP students of the same class using tests such TOSRA or TOUS which had been internationally evolved," Eklavya said. It pointed to a detailed study carried out some years ago along these lines which showed that HSTP children performed better than others.

More pertinently, what about the districts that have a worse record than Hoshangabad? For instance, the Chief Minister's own district has the worst failure rate in Class 10 examinations despite the money that is poured in for its development.

Even assuming that there are genuine concerns about the programme in Hoshangabad, as discussed in the DPC, the government has no locus standi to extend the decision based on the Hoshangabad DPC's move to the other 14 districts. The July 3 order mentions only Hoshangabad district (since the DPC's jurisdiction is only over Hoshangabad). But marking copies to all the District Collectors and the TBC, and that too without informing the programme implementing body, is seen to betray intentions of the issuing authority. Moreover, close on the heels of the July 3 order, Amita Sharma informed the TBC that "as the HSTP has been closed down, TBC should ensure the availability of the other science textbooks." This too was marked to the districts where the HSTP was being implemented.

Indeed, following the order and the July 6 note to the TBC, local administrative and educational authorities moved to close down the HSTP in their areas. Also, the July 6 letter to the TBC ensured that HSTP books - the 'Bal Vaigyanik' series - did not reach the different districts. The order had achieved the desired effect of influencing decisions outside Hoshangabad. None of the other DPCs had any reason to discuss the closure of the HSTP in their respective districts. When asked about this, Gopalakrishnan, who till then had maintained that the order was restricted to Hoshangabad, said on July 8 that the programme has been terminated in all the thousand schools.

Even the claim that there was dissatisfaction in the community with the HSTP is a myth, it is pointed out. Other than the representation made against the HSTP by the BJP MLA there has been no complaint. On the other hand, the closure order saw an appeal by nearly 1,800 school students, 150 college students, 100 teachers and about 300 parents of the district against the step. But this was dismissed by the Hoshangabad District Collector saying that there was no provision for a referendum while introducing the HSTP in schools.

In response to the demand from intellectuals for the withdrawal of the order, Digvijay Singh stated on August 1 that the decision was taken with a view to having a common set of textbooks across government schools in the State, which should draw from the best practices from all good initiatives of education including the HSTP. "Nowhere in the country is there a practice of adopting an alternative package for any one district when students are expected to qualify in a common evaluation system." He added, apparently unaware of the appeal made by nearly 2,000 people from Hoshangabad, that there was not a single representation from the people of Hoshangabad against the decision. "On the contrary, people have welcomed the decision," he claimed.

When it all began, the DPC decision was officially projected as an example of community dissatisfaction and decentralised governance. The decision was subsequently attributed to Class 10 results in Hoshangabad. The July 3 order meant only for Hoshangabad was being forced on all the 1,000 schools when no other DPC had asked for a termination. Now the whole thing is being justified on the grounds of a common curriculum. Vinod Raina, the co-founder of Eklavya who has been involved with the HSTP from its inception, says: "No one talks of the DPC or the Class 10 results anymore. It has been reduced to a measure to facilitate the administration of education. Whither decentralisation? If this was the issue, they need not have waited for 30 years; they could have done it at any point of time. Why this farce of assessment of HSTP, etc.?"

The most damaging outcome of the HSTP episode is the shrinking of the space for intervention by civic society, in particular forward-looking NGOs, in government policies and schemes in Madhya Pradesh.

Raina points out: "For two years between 1990 and 1992, Sunderlal Patwa's BJP government tried its best to close down the HSTP. They could not do it because the government fell in the aftermath of the Babri Masjid incident. The 'secular' and 'efficient' government of Digvijay Singh has taken only a few months to kill perhaps the best educational programmes ever by upholding the single complaint of a BJP MLA."

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