School education is a significant part of one’s life span that endeavours to impart critical thinking, reasoning and logic among children. Within the paradigm of school education, science as a discipline is a dynamic, expanding body of knowledge covering ever new domains of experience. The very fact that science teaching entails questioning, experimenting, engaging in inquiry, innovating, and creating/ reinventing a body of knowledge by children as well as children in their classroom and in the laboratories is the basis of the historic Hoshangabad Science Teaching Programme.
Never A Dull Moment is an exceptional memoir by Sushil Joshi that details the experiences of the Hoshangabad Science Teaching Programme (HSTP). Divided into nineteen chapters, the book exemplifies the lessons learnt during this very popular programme that continued from 1972–2002, covering more than one thousand schools across fifteen districts of Madhya Pradesh. The book becomes more pertinent in the contemporary era where there are questions being raised related to creative teaching methodologies, engagement of children at the upper primary stage in learning principles of science through familiar experiences, working with hands to design simple technological units and modules and continuing to learn more on environment and health through activities and surveys. It makes one wonder if the HSTP was ahead of its times as it questioned the chalk and talk pedagogy way back in 1972, explored alternate ways of teaching and learning and set up a programme where both teachers and children were partners in attaining a sense of freedom to experiment and learnt by doing.
The book begins with a long foreword by Vijaya S. Varma who sets the tone for the readers to look toward celebrating the joy of learning about a programme as massive as the HSTP. The unique ingredient of the book is its detailed journey through the entire programme right from its inception by professionals from the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, University of Delhi, Indian Institute of Technology; research scholars, school teachers, college students and volunteers who contributed collectively and put a soul to a programme that aimed at breaking the hierarchical boundaries in imparting science education. The book broadly discusses the HSTP in three components namely, development of materials and its structure; teacher involvement, and examinations and student evaluation. So intricate are each of these elements that one feels the excitement of creating the first set of Bal Vaigyanik books, indulging in teachers’ training, conducting debates and various experiments in the classroom, moving freely during the field trips and writing the exam……
The first part of the book traces the journey of the HSTP through the Bombay Municipal Schools to Hoshangabad district in Madhya Pradesh with interventions by the veterans in the field of education. It relates its conception with emotional attachment in having child scientists in the classrooms instead of rote learners. It also documents the growth of the programme through experiential learning and insights/ inputs from various professionals. It charts out in an extremely scientific manner, the series of events in a chronicle through inclusion of flowcharts, personal correspondence, antecedents that makes the course of reading simple yet interesting and captivating.
The second part of the book details the development of flexible curricula and sequential development of indigenous tools keeping in mind the local environment/ context as its nucleus. It chalks out the development of pedagogy in transaction of curriculum with the continued focus on learning by doing. This part also raises debates on the challenges of adopting an experiment cum activity based pedagogy and teachers’ perspectives on moving beyond the boundaries of conventional teaching practices. It details how each chapter in the Bal Vaigyanik books was structured, its thrust on having field trips especially for teaching biology chapters and also reports on successes and failures, critical queries posed by children and teachers and testing of pre-conceived hypotheses. The HSTP visualized the process of learning as a ‘collective exercise’, a present day popular discourse in academics, four decades ago! Thus, one happily reads about the concepts of toli and efforts towards promotion of peer learning among upper primary school children. In fact, the paramount emphasis given to the role of a teacher as an enabler and a guide in the present day dialogue was an integral part of the entire Hoshangabad Science Teaching Programme which focussed on developing a ‘shared understanding’ in making science learning a ‘lived journey’ by both parties.
Painstaking efforts have been taken to present class wise summaries of the Bal Vaigyanik course books and work books. The evolvement of each chapter through its three editions (spanning from 1978–80 to 2000–02) is another striking part of the second section. It also contains bibliographies of three chapters—Looking at the Sky, Nutrition in Plants and; Force and Weight. The second part also covers the challenges of preparing and procuring science kits, training of teachers and preparation of their guides. How much effort went into thinking divergently by the Hoshangabad Science Teaching Programme team is strengthened by their creation of a fictitious character called Sawaliram who answered questions by thousands of children by mail each day! Teachers’ and children’s verbal narratives add the factual learning component to this part and make it relevant for anyone who wishes to learn and emulate their innovations.
The third and the last part of the book covers the system of examinations under the HSTP by means of having an open book examination, unlimited time for writing, group question paper setting and practicals. It covers their innovations in the system of evaluation of their efforts in terms of conceptual clarity among children.
The care and passion with which the book has been written makes the entire effort, its successes and failures through thousands of school children, hundreds of teachers and resource persons, a learning experience, and a celebration in the field of education.
Meenu Anand is Assistant Professor in the Department of Social Work, University of Delhi, Delhi.