BOOK REVIEW : What is Worth Teaching by Krishna Kumar

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What is Worth Teaching ?
by Krishna Kumar
A Book Review
( I wrote this review for Education World in 2000 - I reproduce it on my blog to celebrate the announcement of the award of a Padma Shri for Dr. Krishna Kumar on 26th January 2011)
Why do we teach the way we teach? What is the purpose of what we teach? Could we teach in other ways? As teachers, teacher educators or any one connected with education we rarely get to reflect or understand our work in schools and classrooms within the context of the bigger historical, socio-political setting of the country. It never seems to be part of the training and induction process for the Indian teacher.
But it is a vital aspect and Dr. Krishna Kumar, Professor at the Department of Education (Central Institute of Education) Delhi University provides the Indian educator this valuable insight. His extensive writings and views on Indian education are unique in that they are thoughtful, coherent, incisive comments sans the rhetoric that mars much of Indian writing on education. For those who have never been acquainted with Krishna Kumar’s writings, his book What is Worth Teaching? would be an excellent start. This isn’t a brand new publication nor is it easily found on the shelves of even well-stocked, local book stores, but it is a must-read for any one who is even remotely concerned with education in our country. First published by Orient Longman in 1992, this revised, expanded 1997 edition, is a slim compilation of seven lecture- essays laid out as seven chapters : What is Worth Teaching? Textbooks and Educational Culture, Implications of a Divisive School System, Secularism: its Politics and Pedagogy, Reading in Primary School, Growing up Male, Listening to Gandhi.
In the title essay, What is Worth Teaching? Kumar discusses the ‘problem’ of the curriculum, its dissociation from the child’s immediate social, cultural and physical milieu. He rues the approach we have to curriculum in this country – “the problem of volume of content at any grade level does not originate in the so-called ‘explosion of knowledge’……it originates in the archaic notion of curriculum as a bag of facts and in the equally archaic view of teaching as a successful delivery of known facts. Unless we shed these notions and accept more modern, humanist concepts of curriculum and teaching, we are going to remain stuck as teachers with impossibly large syllabi and fat text-books to cover.”
“A textbook is prescribed for each subject, and the teacher has to teach it, lesson, by lesson, until there are no more lessons left.” The second essay - Textbooks and Educational Culture, explains the historical and socio-political reasons for the over-arching importance given to textbooks in our education system right to the present day. He cites pertinent reasons including the use of English as a compulsory subject in the secondary school, and as a medium of instruction and examination, for the rise and perpetuation of the textbook-culture. Kumar calls for improved teacher training and greater professional self-reliance and autonomy for the teacher in order to ‘thin’ the textbook culture.
In the essay, Implications of a Divisive School System Krishna Kumar argues, that contrary to popular opinion, our education system is backward and narrow. " I call it 'backward' for a widely accepted reason, namely its low capacity to produce or encourage excellence". While his description of the narrow and divisive nature of the Indian Education System is certain to strike a responsive chord amongst many educators, it is also likely to be sidelined - it is currently more fashionable to be writing about quick-fix IT- enabled solutions to the eternal education conundrum. It cannot be disputed however that our divisive school education is indeed responsible in great measure for the increasing inequity and contradictions that typify Indian society.
The problem begins very early on - in the primary school. As Kumar describes in Reading in Primary School, "…the school is not the place where he can 'make sense' of the world. Skills that any child would use to solve new problems have no place in the grade one class. Indeed 'making sense' and 'solving problems' are not on the agenda at all." What seems to be on the agenda is influencing and even subverting the teaching of history and civics in the country by exercising state control on text-book writing. Kumar elucidates this in Secularism: its Politics and Pedagogy.
If these essays don't have happy stories to tell, it is because much ails our education system. And in such a situation it is vital for schools and teachers to play a more assertive and positive role in the lives of their children. In the sixth essay Growing up Male, Kumar suggests such a role for schools, "we need to perceive the school in conflict with the community's code of socialisation .…while the larger social ethos offers stereotyped models of men's and women's roles, the school must insist that adults working in it will not act in stereotyped or stereotyping ways". Another critical intervention on the part of the school would be to ensure that learning for the young child is related to his/her immediate life. To make this happen, Krishna Kumar recommends Mahatma Gandhi's Basic Education model, reworked for present day relevance. He puts forth an integrated curricular design that incorporates Health and Hygiene, Nature and Social Study, Heritage Craft, Toy Craft, Expressive Arts, Reading, Writing and Maths. Despite the obvious merits of such a curriculum grounded in the Indian reality, how many policy makers will consider it worth teaching? And how many teachers will make it worth learning?
Written in an easy narrative style, What is Worth Teaching? takes the reader on a journey through the author's personal inquiry into education and his eloquent articulations on critical issues. While each of these essays may be read separately, they are inter-related too. The common thread running through them is the deep concern about the fractured, contradictory and divisive nature of curriculum and school knowledge in our country and its insidious disempowerment of the teacher.

Maya Menon

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