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Top-down or participatory learning?

Who is the ideal child/student? One who dialogues with the teacher, or one who obeys, follows, copies? This is the first in a series of articles by Deepti Priya Mehrotra that will examine the values, biases and prejudices perpetuated by school textbooks

education in India

‘Gurbhakt Aruni', Hindi Class 4, Rajasthan Rajya Paathyapustak Mandal


What values, biases and prejudices are perpetuated by school textbooks through the content they run, misrepresent or are silent on? In a series of articles, Deepti Priya Mehrotra examines stereotypical treatments of the `ideal child/student’, gender, class, tribe, caste, disability, religious identity, the nation-state, conflict and culture in school textbooks. Insights into conceptions of knowledge, pedagogy, aesthetics and language are woven into the critiques. The articles especially explore primary school Hindi literature textbooks, focusing on the one state, Rajasthan, and national-level textbooks(1).  During 2009-11, the writer held textbook analysis workshops with teacher trainees and teacher educators in Rajasthan and Delhi(2). Selected quotes or brief excerpts from these discussions are included, indicating a tremendous ferment in schools and society, different thought-streams struggling over how to educate/ indoctrinate the child’s mind. Clearly, textbooks are a highly contested terrain: political weapons, as much as educational tools, seeking to mould the growing child in different ways.

What is the image of the child that emerges from school textbooks? Framed within various stories and poems, do we get any picture of the ideal child, the ideal student, situated within stereotypical adult-child, teacher-student relationships?   

Power within the text: Teaching, learning or blind obedience?

Gurubhakt Aruni is a typical lesson in Rajasthan state Class 4 Hindi textbook (3), prescribed to over 300,000 students per year. The lesson retells a popular story.

The teacher (guru) sends his student Aruni to construct a mud embankment to prevent the flooding of fields. Since it is raining heavily, Aruni realises he can prevent flooding only by lying down on the boundary between fields. He lies there all day in the lashing rain. By evening the teacher misses Aruni, whereupon other students remind him of the task he had set. The teacher walks to the field, appreciates Aruni’s behaviour, and predicts he will become a great sage one day.

The language used is heavy, formal Hindi close to Sanskrit, far from spoken language.  The story’s moral is explicitly spelt out – the importance of children imbibing the virtue of complete obedience, or devotion, to their teacher.

Teacher as god? Students’ views

“The guru has been portrayed as god. This is very problematic. There should not be such a stiff relationship between teacher and students. There should be relationships of more equality.” – BElEd students (4), Miranda House, Delhi University

Progressive educationists lay emphasis on egalitarian teacher-student relationships; Delhi University’s BElEd students seem to agree. Another student, however, at a semi-rural teacher-training college (5) at Hatundi, near Ajmer, expresses her approval of the `obedient student, authoritarian teacher’ paradigm.

Student 1: “Today children do not obey their teachers. This lesson shows the importance of obeying teachers.”

Most students at Hatundi preferred to examine and question the teacher’s behaviour, and offer constructive suggestions for improvement:

 Student 2: “The story exhibits that teachers give orders and students have to follow them, which is misleading for children today.”

Student 3: “The teacher should have given the task to two children, not just Aruni. It is not possible for one child to stop such heavy flow of water.”

Student 4: “In fact the task should have been given to a group of children.”
Student 5: “The child must have felt fear for the guru. He must have accomplished the task in a fit of fear.”
Student 6: “Another textbook has a story in which a guru suffers from a deadly disease and sends a student to fetch lion’s milk to cure the disease. As teachers, should we be giving such a dangerous task to children?”

Responsibility versus authority

The notion of obedient students is an emotive one for many teachers, often associated with a firm belief in the unquestioned authority of teachers. Teacher educators at Vidya Bhavan Gandhian Institute of Educational Studies, Udaipur (January 7–8, 2011), expressed their views in a lively exchange: some opposed while others condoned Aruni’s guru’s behaviour and expectation of blind devotion from students:

Teacher Educator 1: “This guru was very forgetful! It will be wrong on the guru’s part if he expects obedience, when he is not even concerned about the student.”
Teacher Educator 2 (incensed): “How can you say he was forgetful?! Earlier teachers used to test their students. We have to know this in order to understand the meaning of the story.”
Teacher Educator 3: “It is possible the guru would have remembered later in the evening….”
Teacher Educator 2: “From a moral perspective this story is good!”
Teacher Educator 1: “The time period should be explained properly in the lesson. Another problem is there are no girls and all the students shown in the story are brahmins.”
Teacher Educator 4: “Children can learn about gurubhakti and culture from ancient stories.”

Student 1: “There are many teacher-student stories, why not put a better one in a textbook?”
Student 2: “When we become teachers we want students’ respect, not their bhakti (devotion).”
Student 3: “Also earlier the teachers used to get too much work done by their students!”

Teaching methods: Top-down or participatory?

While one elderly teacher educator strongly felt that teachers should be accountable and responsible to students, another continued to argue that this was a non-issue. Students, for their part, said that when they become teachers they would like their students’ respect rather than mindless devotion!  

Somewhere at the root of the debate sparked off by the Aruni story are differing conceptions of adult authority versus children’s autonomy. On the one hand are those who see the teacher as a rigid disciplinarian, a kind of commander, while on the other are those who want the teacher to facilitate and guide rather than command. These differing conceptions lead to vastly different teaching styles: top-down, or participatory.

Interestingly, we had conceived our workshops on textbook analysis as participatory spaces, eliciting everybody’s thoughts and ideas through small group discussions and presentations. For the Rajasthan colleges, the workshops turned out to be a first-time exposure to participatory teaching/learning methods. At Udaipur, teacher educators and students said, “We learnt the participatory teaching method in this workshop, and will try to use it in our classrooms.” One teacher educator added, “So far, we teach even `activity-based learning’ through the lecture mode!” They used the top-down teaching style, yet most felt dissatisfied with it, and gravitated towards a more democratic mode. Teacher educators at the Hatundi college, however, were not interested in making any such change.   

Schools and colleges are microcosms of society. When teachers opt for top-down teaching styles, they are complicit in moulding citizens who will `fit’ into the given system, following orders and rules unquestioningly, passive rather than active thinkers.

At both Udaipur and Hatundi, we found students were not used to independent thinking or sharing of views. Initially they were quite scared of engaging in discussion even in small groups. Gradually, they opened up, many becoming enthusiastic and making good use of the opportunity to share their ideas. The participatory and respectful ethos seemed to allow fresh air into their mind-spaces. At Udaipur, several teachers were open to this different ethos. However, at the Hatundi college, teachers remained uneasy: we felt sad when leaving, aware that the established authoritarian ethos would take over the moment we departed.

Beyond stereotypical student-teacher/adult-child relationships

Almost all the lessons in the Rajasthan textbooks (6) are framed within in-egalitarian adult-child contexts. These lessons reinforce authoritarian teacher-student dynamics within a hierarchical understanding of the appropriate relationship between adults and children. Such stereotypical student-teacher relations are upheld by those who claim to protect ancient `culture’ – a claim that surely needs to be examined more closely. Who defines this as `our’ culture? Remember, all characters in the Aruni story are brahmins, and male! In a self-perpetuating vicious circle, `gurus’ or teachers (read: male feudal patriarchs) seem to be protecting a culture that privileges them, and reduces others to subservience. 

A story from Rimjhim Class 4 (NCERT’s Hindi textbook), Svatantrata ki Ore, offers a counter-perspective. The protagonist, Dhani, is a small boy in Sabarmati Ashram in 1930. Dhani’s relationship with Gandhi is one of mutual respect and deep affection. Gandhi listens to him as they chat, discuss and present points of view. Age and status pose no barriers to their friendship, though they do not always agree. When Dhani is keen to go for the Salt March, Gandhi persuades him to stay back and play his part -- caring for his beloved goat, so that Gandhi may have goat-milk upon his return, to help regain strength. Dhani agrees out of pure affection and joy to this reasonable plan of action. We have here an instance of perfect trust between child and adult, a non-authoritarian relationship in which the child has an independent identity, and takes his own decisions.

As educational tools, the Rajasthan textbooks are ill-designed for nurturing independent, articulate children—the adult citizens of tomorrow. They seem to address only the adult-defined `good child’, typically an `ideal boy’ from an elite social background. The lessons are overwhelmingly didactic, with little space for children’s own feelings or experiences.  Textbooks can help nurture children’s creativity, imagination and originality, but most textbooks, like the Rajasthan ones, tend to crush children’s creativity and self-confidence.

Rimjhim (NCERT Hindi) textbooks, on the other hand, seem to provide resources for children to be active learners and active citizens. Lessons enter into children’s worlds, encouraging diverse ideas and emotions. The exercises require children to conduct interviews, observe surroundings, gather information, express thoughts and feelings by writing, enactment or discussion, and imagine solutions to various problems. Questions are based on recall, comprehension, application, analysis, evaluation as well as creativity.  On the other hand, exercises in Rajasthan textbooks are stiff and boring. Skills developed are of copy-writing rather than original writing: taking down passages from the text, rather than encouraging expression of ideas or feelings. Most questions are based on recall, rote learning and repetition, some on comprehension, but none require critical thinking, observation or imagination.

Children are instructed to copy even illustrations, so you will find every child making a certain kind of flag, a rigid flower in a pot, and a sun rising identically from behind mountain peaks! In Hatundi, students (teacher trainees) defended this, insisting, “Otherwise children will not know how to draw”! This frightening sentiment demonstrates the powerful effect of a rigid top-down education in which students are taught only to obey, to follow, to copy. Such `education’ destroys students’ ability to draw, think, reflect, express, sing, write, imagine, decide or lead….

Rimjhim notes-to-teachers are a guide to innovative and child-friendly strategies; Rajasthan textbook notes-to-teachers instruct teachers on how to implement a top-down didactic mode of classroom transaction.

The paradox of textbooks
The textbook today is not only essential, but in fact central to the teaching-learning enterprise in most schools. It is typically treated as a repository of knowledge and wisdom, to be decoded by teachers, much like priests teach from sacred texts. Within a textbook, lessons like Gurubhakt Aruni further reinforce the power of the teacher, and accentuate the subordinate position of students. 

Rimjhim textbooks, created within NCERT’s National Curricular Framework (NCF)-2005, adopt a self-avowedly progressive pedagogic approach. Stories and poems depict friendly, non-hierarchical adult-child relationships, and exercises which nurture imagination and critical thinking. Yet there is a paradox at the heart of our school teaching processes, represented by the ubiquitous textbook. If pre-designed texts dominate classroom processes, the space for actively constructing knowledge gets severely limited. Adult `experts’ produce these tomes, which become a blueprint guiding teachers and students throughout the year. Progressive educationists, teachers and students must face, and deal with, this contradiction.

Of course, most textbook producers in the country, including private and state publishers (such as the Rajasthan Rajya Paatthyapustak Mandal) have no intention of pursuing any progressive pedagogic approach. They are anchored in the didactic, top-down school of teaching, wherein textbooks are part of disciplinary mechanisms, exercising coercive and hegemonic power. The lessons are crammed with stereotypical expectations of ideal behaviour from children.

It is surely time to ask: Do we want children to be participants in a democratic learning society, or are we content with positioning them as victims of a top-down authoritarian school and social system? 

primary education

Svatantrata ki Ore, Rimjhim Class 4, NCERT, showing the friendly, non-authoritarian child-adult relation between Dhani and Gandhi

(Deepti Priya Mehrotra is a Delhi-based writer and academic. Her recent book is entitled Burning Bright: Irom Sharmila and the Struggle for Peace in Manipur)


(1) Hindi Kaksha 3, Hindi Kaksha 4, Hindi Kaksha 5, produced by Rajasthan Rajya Paatthyapustak Mandal, Jaipur, 2009; and Rimjhim 3, Rimjhim 4, Rimjhim 5, produced by National Council for Educational Research and Training, New Delhi, 2007
(2) The workshops were supported by Sampurna Trust, Delhi and Sir Ratan Tata Trust, Mumbai
(3) Hindi Kaksha 4, Rajasthan Rajya Paatthyapustak Mandal, Jaipur, 2009
(4) Bachelor of Elementary Education, a 4-year teacher training course offered by Delhi University
(5) Students were pursuing a 2-year S.T.C. (School Teaching Certificate) course in Haribhav Upadhyay Shikshak Parishikshak College, Hatundi, Ajmer; the workshop was held at Hatundi in Nov. 22-24 2010
(6) We examined closely nearly 100 lessons in Hindi Kaksha 3, 4 and 5 textbooks, produced by Rajasthan Rajya Paatthyapustak Mandal, Jaipur, 2009

Infochange News & Features, June 2012