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February 1, 2007
Vol. 49
No. 2

India's National Curriculum Framework Fosters Active Learning

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By all accounts, India is developing as a worldwide economic force to be reckoned with. As Fareed Zakaria reported earlier last year in Newsweek (March 6, 2006), "Messy, raucous, democratic India is growing fast, and now may partner up with the world's richest democracy—America."
Zakaria went on to point out that India has been growing fast economically over the past 15 years; only China is growing faster. In 2005, India's gross domestic product grew 7.6 percent, after a 15-year average of 6 percent.
On a recent ASCD Board of Directors visit to India, it became evident to all of us that India is indeed struggling, messy, chaotic, and largely unplanned. It was equally clear, however, that much activity is occurring on many fronts—including education—to try to pull this broad and stunning democracy together.
India is not developing its education system in a methodical way, but it is developing its education approach in a way that speaks with one voice as a culture. India takes a unique approach to the organization of its schools. Following tradition that dates from its past as a British colony, "public schools" are actually private schools. Schools that much of the world would call "public" schools are called "government" schools in India. There are thousands of each but, unlike many other countries, private "public" schools in India outnumber government schools.

Learning First for Every Child

Despite a great diversity of approaches, the theme of learning for every child was first and foremost in every school we visited and among the educators with whom we met. Achievement of high test scores is seen by most as secondary to learning. Rather than stressing out about test scores, Indian educators are most concerned with developing students who are able to face future challenges as active learners.
Schooling in India is guided by the country's National Curriculum Framework. That document states, “The fact that learning has become a source of burden and stress on children and their parents is an evidence of a deep distortion in educational aims and quality,” and offers five guiding principles of curriculum development:
  • Connecting knowledge to life outside school.
  • Ensuring that learning doesn't rely on rote methods.
  • Enriching the curriculum to provide for children's overall development rather than remaining textbook-centric.
  • Making examinations more flexible and integrated with classroom life.
  • Nurturing an overriding identity informed by caring concern within the democratic polity of the country.
The framework adds that "teaching should aim at enhancing children's natural desire and strategies to learn. . . . Knowledge needs to be distinguished from information and teaching needs to be seen as a professional activity, not as coaching for memorization or as transmission of facts" (NCERT, 2005, p. viii).
That approach to education resonates with me and mirrors ASCD's emphasis on the whole child. It honors the ideal that, for meaningful learning to take place, educators must focus on all aspects of a child's development. It advances the goal that each child is "ensured health, nutrition and an inclusive school environment empowering all children in their learning, across differences of caste, religion, gender, or disability" (NCERT, 2005, p. viii). India's education system places a strong emphasis on the arts at all stages as an important way to build a sense of one's self.
The National Curriculum Framework opens with the quotation from India's great poet Rabindranath Tagore (see page 4). It is a clarion call for learning, a sensibility that pervades the document.

Learning to Respond

The framework, like India's constitution, focuses on the values of social justice and equality. It emphasizes "independence of thought and action, sensitivity to others' well-being and feelings, learning to respond to new situations in a flexible and creative manner, predisposition towards participation in democratic processes, and the ability to work towards and contribute to economic processes and social change" (NCERT, 2005, p. vii).
As one looks at India and its "messy, raucous" character, it seems almost impossible that this vision could be realized in the society as it is. However, the Indian will is strong and the spirit is engaged. The country's leaders and decision makers have a great deal of work to do to accomplish the task. But I found it encouraging that, in every school we visited, we saw similar goals being articulated.
Of course, every country and culture faces its own unique struggles to ensure that children are the focus of education, that their needs as learners should surpass other considerations as educators develop curricula and instruction. The great emphasis on testing and competitive test scores across the globe has taken us away from the basic needs of learners in too many cases. India's emphasis on learning can encourage us all to reassess our priorities.
In my October 2006 Education Update "Message from the President" concerning education in China, I wrote, "Schools should encourage and nurture children now so that they will develop into complete human beings who can participate meaningfully in society in the future" (p. 4). India shares a similar vision with China.
How do the rest of us view the importance of each child as a learner? It's an important question worth a good deal of reflection, wherever we live in the world.

Hanzelka, R. (2006). Harmonious learning for the whole child: Education perspectives from China. Education Update, 48(10), 4–5.

National Council of Educational Research and Training (NCERT). (2005). National curriculum framework 2005. New Delhi, India: Author.

Richard Hanzelka is a former president of ASCD.

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