The Union government has decided to reduce the burden of learning in schools offering the CBSE curriculum by cutting the syllabus by half. While the decision to trim the syllabus and eliminate information-overload is a step in the right direction, the reform should, at the same time, put alternatives in place. Substituting topics related to the development of other life skills should go hand in hand with the axing process so that students are not left in a vacuum. School education is a stepping stone to higher studies, careers and other vocations in life. All three require a firm grounding and intense training to cultivate the skills necessary to succeed. High school-leavers cannot afford to be left lacking in these when their academic input is already reduced. This is a reform that needs careful planning in order to achieve a smooth transition from book learning to wider arenas of activity.
However, the syllabus is not the only component of school education. Unless we have teachers who can hone alternative skills in their pupils, a mere slashing of the syllabus alone will not help. Cosmetic changes in the education system have been tried earlier and have failed. Right from 1964, when the Kothari Commission recommended changes in the school system to improve educational standards, we have travelled a long way trying to find out what makes a sound school syllabus. Yet, 55 years later, we are still groping in the dark. Now, after consultations with teachers, education experts and representatives from various state governments, the ministry has decided that mere book learning should be replaced by "life skills".
Teaching such alternative life skills needs imagination and creative thinking. Stereotypes will not do. Do we have teachers with the appropriate expertise to undertake such challenges? We may have the best of schools with excellent physical infrastructure. But none of them can replace a good teacher who combines knowledge with creativity, expertise with imagination. Since teachers are central to excellence in school education, their training is critical in any reform. If the teacher herself is lacking in essential inputs, even the best curriculum will not help. The HRD ministry would, therefore, do well to establish new teacher training programmes before embarking on changes in the syllabus. These programmes must incorporate new teaching methods. The old "chalk and talk" practice will not do. Teachers used to the stereotyped cramming and repeating processes will have to be trained in innovative methods of teaching. This calls for planning and reorganising the entire teaching cadre. Merely slashing the syllabus without improving the teaching infrastructure may dilute school education and leave students ill-equipped for future careers.