Getting Around Syllabus Deletions: The Dynamism of the Teaching-Learning Matrix

Recently, a fresh set of deletions from the CBSE syllabus have created an uproar on social media. One such post was titled ‘Banished from the syllabus’ and included a list of the topics that have been removed so far.

This has not been the first, and will not be the last alteration and erasure in the curriculum or the syllabus. Each ruling party amends textbooks and curricula as per their own ideology and worldview. History and other Social Sciences are often the prime targets.

George Orwell’s quote gains immense meaning at this juncture, “Those who control the present, control the past and those who control the past control the future.”

But is there a way around this seesaw, this constant upheaval?

In no way do I mean to justify syllabus deletions, or to discourage discontent regarding them. Rather, I wish to bring attention to the dynamic potential of the teaching-learning relationship. We must explore the role of teachers and educators in such a situation. Are they to give up and give in to the stress of syllabus completion, and let such essential topics go unexplored?

Let us start by examining the nature of the “syllabus” in spaces of teaching. I am specifically referring to the syllabus as incorporated via textbooks. Teachers have expertise and advanced knowledge in their disciplines. In my experience as a student and subsequently as a teacher, learning is never limited to the text. Here I wish to note my privilege of having studied and taught in elite public schools which have given me such a perspective.

Thus, teaching is guided by concepts outlined in the text but it is never a recitation of it. Concepts are explored via discussions with students, and with the use of extra material. Often, additional topics are also covered if they are related to what is mentioned in the text. For example, when I was teaching “schools as agents of socialisation”, which comprises just a few paragraphs in the textbook, I brought in references to various additional texts and concepts such as “ideological state apparatus”, “cultural capital” and schools and examinations as contributing to a sense of a “panopticon”. This is the dynamic potential of the learning space.

Also read: Chapters on Citizenship, Secularism, Federalism Scrapped as CBSE Prunes Syllabus for COVID

Syllabus preparation and its implementation are essentially distinct processes. Those making the guidelines cannot dictate exactly how the teaching will take place. It would be naive to assume that the text is transmitted verbatim to students. Not all parts of the text are taught similarly, and certain prescribed parts of the syllabus are sometimes not even taught!

There could be some deletions at the level of the school, at the level of departments within schools, or even by teachers – if exams are held internally. Also, all portions of the syllabus are not covered with equal fervour and enthusiasm. It is a natural tendency of a teacher to gravitate towards and delve more deeply into topics they are interested in, and skim over others. It has been my personal effort to overcome this drawback, and to teach all portions with equal zeal.

The meandering relationship between syllabi, teaching and learning lends immense potential to cover topics that have been removed from the syllabus though they comprise essential learning components. Some ways in which I have been able to deal with deletions of important topics, or ways in which I have envision doing the same in the future, are as follows:

(i) By weaving in such concepts within teaching and discussions of the current modified syllabus.

(ii) Setting apart a few classes for the discussion of these topics and also exploring the rationale behind their removal.

(iii) Encouraging students to take up these topics as areas for research via personal or group projects.

(iv) Exploring the topics in class assemblies and other such avenues.

(v) Sharing additional readings with the students.

Teachers often believe that students of higher classes are not interested in such activities and extra reading material. However, in my experience, engagement and excitement may start with a few students but permeate to others. Learning thus extends within peer groups. A professor of mine used to sign his emails with “the eternal optimist”, hoping that students would read and engage with texts within and beyond the syllabus. I guess I have also turned into one!

One cannot ignore or downplay the complex constraints within which teaching and teachers operate. The desire to bring attention to a world beyond the text is bound by pressure from various directions. Sometimes students themselves could be disinterested in engaging beyond the syllabus, thereby transferring their lack of enthusiasm and motivation to the teacher.

Another point of difficulty could arise when parents interfere with what is being taught, and this becomes magnified with online classes, since they could be listening to the sessions. The biggest factor that can determine a teacher’s approach and rigour regarding such matters is the overall political ethos of the institution in which they are employed. Is it a space that dislikes, tolerates, accepts or encourages such efforts?

Should essential topics then be left outside the learning space because of school authorities, parents or students posing difficulties? School authorities and parents have to be dealt with carefully. This is something that educators have to negotiate through experience and consultation with colleagues. Students are relatively easier to convince, as they are often willing to take on additional topics if they are provided with a good reason, and if the atmosphere of such exchanges is open and free.

When the syllabus is neither static in its content, nor in its transference, the potential for manoeuvrability between topics within, outside, and previously within the syllabus can be explored. The success of this approach definitely requires willingness and tenacity on the part of teachers and students, as well as support from school authorities which would help create more openness, and contribute to the dynamism of the teaching-learning matrix.

Shambhavi Gupta is a post-graduate in Sociology, an educator and a classical dancer who likes to read, sing, bake, and write down her thoughts. 

Featured image: Thomas Galvez/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)