Systemic Response to Textbook Errors

24 Sep

NCERT Textbooks

Women are the cause of unemployment in India – says a textbook for the state of Chhatisgarh. “Ah, must be another private publisher”, came the first comment. “We had a similar uproar last month and it turned out to be a small private outfit that had printed nonsense in their textbook and sold it to schools”

For a moment I wondered if I should plunge down the rabbit hole of sarkaari vs private, and how so many good private players hold up excellent standards and how it is amazing that people spend thousands of rupees per child on private sector published reference and guide books and yet speak disparagingly of private publishers. But regardless of ownership, textbook quality is an issue. This book in question was published by the state, and the news article even quotes the SCERT (State Council for Education Research and Training) representative responding to the criticism with
very little seriousness. Obviously, textbooks by state governments and the national provider NCERT are riddled with errors and prejudice.

Finding misogyny in NCERT and other textbooks is the easiest possible. it shows up in different ways, sometimes direct, sometimes indirect. Often women will be shown in support service roles such as nurses and men in dominant roles such as doctors. Women will be shown cooking, men shown farming. And so on. This is equally damaging to both the genders who are reading the books and being fed this division of roles – what if a little boy is a talented care giver and wants to become a nurse? What of the children of male nurses who are reading the book and wonder whether their fathers are atypical? There are many men who cook for their families but to look to these textbooks you would not believe this was possible. They seem to reinforce the strange belief that women belong in the kitchen. To paraphrase the response doing the rounds on the internet – “Women belong in the kitchen. Men belong in the kitchen. We all belong in the kitchen. There is food in the kitchen!”. It is as simple as that – textbooks need to reflect common sense, humanity and equal opportunity at the very least.

This is not the only type of error that has been caught in textbooks. Many have pointed out that these books have a clearly leftist skew. Leftist or right wing – a skew is a skew and is not fair to dump that on young minds. What troubles me more than the skew is that these books state ideas, ideologies and opinions as facts and there is little room in the timetable to debate these points of view. To be fair to the NCERT, some small proportion of ‘factoids’ are questioned within the book itself forming an excellent bridge to critical thinking and independent investigation to form opinions. Unfortunately these are seen only as extension activities because ‘it will not come in the exam’. So in a rote learning culture children are forced to parrot the merits of private hospitals over inadequate public hospitals, or the travails of some sections of rural populations with no references, no process that encourages students to do some research and verify statements and no space for discussion or dissent. The text must be the truth and the assertions therein are to be received and repeated. This is how belief systems are built. Worse, this is how a generation of believers are created – followers who will believe everything they are told without engaging or questioning assumptions and statements. India is a complex country and presenting broad sweeping generalisations as statements of fact may start with inadequate editing but ends up in creating a generation that suffers from the skews.

There are various other types of errors that litter the texts – many grammatical errors make the books a joy for the inner code breaker in us – the errors make the sentences very difficult to understand. Other errors are factual and have been caught time and again. The books have errors both in omission and commission. Many protest at the history that is taught and wonder at the many heroes (all genders) whose stories are left out, others at the omission of much of the history of science and mathematics. While it is not possible to please all and still maintain a reasonable load on students, there really ought to be a mechanism for students to be able to engage with a wider range of knowledge based on their interest.

Undoubtedly the official textbook agencies have a bigger challenge than the private publishers as they must serve the entire curriculum framework while keeping the costs minimal. Private publishers of course are challenged by the fact that they do not have a ready made market like the official book makers and are thus under pressure to invest less in accuracy and readability. It is unfortunate that in both the cases the pressures seem to be on cost and impact quality. There seems to be no agency or mechanism that puts pressure on the publishers to invest in quality. The ones who do are the elite of the industry.

Since education is a concurrent subject, each state needs to engage with the issue of textbook quality or run the risk that their students will fall behind in national and international tests. Education is a clear cause of economic prosperity and a poor textbook today could mean a poorer state for another generation. To postpone textbook reform is to postpone prosperity. At the national level, NCERT has been engaging with errors as pointed out by teachers, tutors and students but the process is painful. Some have even had to file PIL cases in court to engage with the institution. Others have received a response but little action has been taken – reports say that often the errata and changes are not even reflected on the website or online versions of the book in time for the examinations. Paper textbooks are subject to a multi year cycle before changes can be effected – by which time other errors have crept in say frustrated parents.

There is a standard procedure to remove errors in books but it has obviously not proved to be very successful. This clearly needs a review and reform. The standard procedure would include pulling together an impartial team to review all the books and trawl through the books looking for certain types of errors. While this is essential, this is only the middle of the process. What comes before it and what happens after is equally important to be able to deliver a fair service experience to the students and more. This needs institutional solutions that can layer, flex and be responsive. It is not as easy as it looks – for example how does one find a person who is not sexist, partisan, nor an ideologue and is literate, socially and politically aware and above all – who can embed learning without prejudice. It is a daunting task to find a committee of these. Everyday sexism, bigotry and hidden ‘isms’ are so deeply embedded that they are almost unconscious. It is the biased who are not aware of their biases who will be asked to remove biases from books. This is clearly not a fool proof system, nor will it ever be one.

However that is no reason for it to remain a slow, inaccessible process that seems to be done on a best efforts basis. Among other possible solutions, here are a few that I propose to serve the twin goals of fairness and responsiveness. This suggestion humbly goes out not just to the state textbook agencies, to the NCERT or the CBSE but also to all the other education agencies who are truly in the business of serving the public. The universalisation of education means that these agencies are in the retail business, no less, and just like any large scale retail effort they must engage with their public at every stage in order to serve them well. Feedback from the consumer (and indeed customer – textbooks are purchased!) must be taken seriously and its response must be tracked in an open and transparent manner in order to hold the service provider accountable. This is best if it is done in the spirit of partnership, for of course all of us want the same thing – better textbooks with (almost) no errors.

Some suggestions here:

Textbook agencies MUST have a transparent and visible section of their website devoted to tracking errors. This must be done on an urgent basis. Crowdsource the identification of problems and receive them as constructive suggestions. Respond to them rapidly – and that means action and not just acknowledgement. Errors can be rectified immediately online within 48 hours, biases and errors of omission may have to go through a far more rigorous process. Assertions and statements in the books that have been flagged by the public must be backed up by evidence if challenged, and the response must be time bound. This is a suggestion for  a simple four column website with hyperlinks that can track and date every query and its response – The query, its response, links to the solution/errata/evidence, and finally acknowledgement of further action or status with a timestamp. (Other agencies too must reach out to the public, for example the CBSE could have an open queries area and a password protected area for each school to resolve their issues – more on that later)
Textbook agencies must incorporate stakeholders in the process of creating books – no retail producer of consumables would ever dream of releasing a product to the market without testing it first to ensure that it will do well. Agencies need to recognise that they are a public service agency and their task is to provide a brilliant customer experience via their products and direct engagement.
Create an ombudsman for textbooks – for all boards, for all private and public publishers. If an issue cannot be resolved between publishers and their public (teachers, students, tutors inclusive) then it must be taken to an impartial and autonomous ombudsman that holds authority similar to a court and can call for evidence and impose penalties. The ombudsman holds the agencies to account for responsiveness and accountability.

Ultimately one wants an open, honest and constructive engagement between users and makers of a product. There is a huge amount of wonderful work that is done by textbook publishers and the support of the teaching community can only make things better. At this stage, let me admit – I would have loved to suggest private publishing or privatisation since the government really does not to be in the business of printing textbooks – its job is to govern and hold them accountable. Sadly, with the exception of a very few, most private publishers have disappointed and cannot be deemed to be worthy of the students they serve. In a full textbook reform process this must be part of the grand debate where private providers can even bid for public service based on quality, not just cost. At that stage one must discuss other options too – such as build your own book pedagogies, open source materials and making textbooks redundant for some levels etc. The time for that will come, but before that it is a priority for autonomous and government agencies including the NCERT, SCERTs etc. to recognise that first and foremost they are in service of the public, the first ask is access to the public. It cannot sit in splendid isolation even if it is the best provider in the world… which in this case it clearly is not. The matter of errors is an unnecessary embarrassment that must be converted into an opportunity for a true partnership between the publisher and the public.

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