July 3, 2002 was a dark day in the history of education. It was on this day that the Madhya Pradesh government decided to draw the curtains on an innovative educational programme known the world over as the Hoshangabad Science Teaching Programme (HSTP). The state government’s ill-conceived move did not come as a surprise to those conversant with the processes of privatization and globalization, their analysis of its root causes pointing to its inevitability.

The HSTP initiative began as a small experiment in 1972. Anecdotal lore tells the story of two voluntary organizations – Friends Rural Centre (FRC) and Kishore Bharati (KB) - approaching the Madhya Pradesh government to seek permission to conduct an exploration in science education in its state-run middle schools. Setting aside any possible objections to giving the required approval, the then Director of Public Instruction, Dr B.D. Sharma famously observed, “The present state of science education in these schools is so deplorable that these novices cannot possibly make it any worse.  So I see no reason to deny them permission.” This tongue-in-cheek – but insightful - observation of a bureaucrat with his heart in the right place paved the way for a remarkable adventure in school science education.

The forum newly created by these two voluntary organizations quickly drew scientists from the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR) in Mumbai, members of the All India Science Teachers’ Association (AISTA), and academic staff from Delhi University (DU) to join hands with the teachers of 16 middle schools in the Hoshangabad district of Madhya Pradesh to embark on a journey to make education, in particular science education, a meaningful and joyful experience for school children. It drew countless participants along the way as it evolved, attracting scholars, teachers and scientists from colleges, universities and research institutions across the country.

This was, perhaps, the HSTP’s most significant feature. It provided a platform in the field of education where the creative energies of an entire nation could be unleashed.  It was a collective effort to improve science education in schools in which professors and students from colleges and universities, scientists and research scholars from research establishments, school teachers, artisans and craftsmen, farmers, social activists, engineers, doctors, educationists, etc, participated.

Its second important feature was that it showed that teaching-learning in the classroom is not an individual enterprise but a collective process in which every participant is actively involved. It is also a joyful experience, the constant interaction ensuring there is never a dull moment for the students, teachers and others.  The environment it created was of shared joy that bound the participants together. It attracted new entrants down the years, encouraging them to contribute their best and giving them the courage to try out new ideas in education. This is why the HSTP was always able to retain a measure of freshness and vitality throughout its 30-year history.       

One other aspect also needs to be considered. The HSTP process may have been fun, but it did not lack in educational rigour, with zero tolerance for laxity in analysis, research and implementation. The task on hand could be writing a chapter, trying out an experiment, ensuring the authenticity of a diagram, teacher training or even proof-reading the Bal Vaigyanik, compromises on quality were never part of the equation.    

Discovery and the environment

The HSTP was a discovery and environment-based innovation in which children interacted with their environment, conducted experiments, arrived at a hypothesis based on their observations, and then  tested their hypothesis. It was, perhaps, for the very first time in the country that children in middle schools learnt scientific concepts by conducting experiments in groups, going on field trips, recording their observations and then analyzing their tabulated data to derive their conclusions. Their teacher was their guide and companion in the process. And the children enjoyed doing all this, quite literally throwing the traditional method of rote learning out of the window.

The HSTP group emphasized the fun aspect of learning, which was later incorporated into the mainstream education lexicon as the ‘Joy of Learning’. When resource person Panchapakesan was asked to list the learnings from the HSTP following its closure, he answered with little hesitation, “We enjoyed ourselves. The teachers enjoyed themselves. The children enjoyed themselves. What more do you want?”

But ‘fun and enjoyment’, apparently, wasn’t considered a component of learning by the bureaucracy.  Submitting a report recommending that the HSTP be shut down, a senior bureaucrat of the Madhya Pradesh education department dismissed the innovation as being without merit, scarcely disguising his sarcasm as he wrote, “The only remaining argument in its favour is the ‘enjoyment of the children’, which is an intangible and inadequate index of the quality of learning.”

Stated briefly, the HSTP sought to structure the curriculum around ‘science by doing’, around developing an understanding of scientific concepts rather than incorporating the explosion of scientific facts and information in textbooks.  Its guiding principle was that the children learn scientific laws, definitions and concepts not by memorising them but by conducting experiments, tabulating and analysing their observations and data and engaging in group discussions in the classroom.

The essence of the programme was its emphasis on self learning by the children. To equip them for the task, it sought to familiarize them with methods and activities that would help them seek answers to new questions and problems they constantly confront.

The HSTP experiment entered its second phase in 1975, when it was scaled up to all the middle schools in Hoshangabad district following intensive field testing in its pilot phase in 16 middle schools.

At the time the state government took the ill-fated decision to close down the programme, the HSTP was operative in over 800 schools spread over 15 districts of the state. The population of students who had studied science using its methodology over the 30 years of its existence numbered over 250,000. More than 3,000 teachers were involved in its implementation, having undergone a series of remarkable trainings whose depth and rigour can only be appreciated through actual experience. A core group of around 200 resource teachers who could train teachers and organise large-scale trainings was another of its contributions. Many of these have taken a leading role in conducting teacher training camps in other states.

The HSTP set a new standard for teacher involvement. Every aspect of the innovation invited participation from the teachers and they responded admirable, becoming integral players in its evolution.

When the experiment in science education began in 1972, it was clear to the founding group that the teachers were the lowest rung in the education hierarchy. Within the classroom, they were the unquestioned fount of all knowledge to their students but the moment they confronted even the most insignificant authority in the education bureaucracy they became servile and submissive. The may have been considered part of the exploiting classes in the larger social order, but they were the exploited class within the school system, victims of their departmental officers, lacking in self esteem yet, ironically, forced to wear the mantle of omniscience in the classroom. So it was clear from the very beginning that educational change cannot occur unless the teachers were accorded respect and the honourable status that is their due. That was a ground condition.

These concerns shaped the HSTP’s interactions with the teachers. Most importantly, a serious attempt was made to create an official teachers’ forum that could give an honourable identity to the teaching profession and allow the teachers to conduct an ‘educational dialogue’ on wider philosophical and pedagogical issues, apart from discussions on their working conditions.

Arguably, the HSTP’s impact was unprecedented in the Indian context. Its influence on contemporary thinking in education and its imprint on the education system are clearly evident today. Not only did it highlight the vast array of possibilities for educational change, it also pioneered a path for change, showing how each separate aspect of the process can be implemented and sustained.

The HSTP viewed intervention as a multi-pronged process requiring simultaneous action on many fronts. Tinkering here and there was not enough; that was clear from the outset. All academic aspects of the teaching-learning process were addressed, beginning with the teachers actively participating in developing the curriculum. A kit for conducting experiments was put together to go with the new workbooks that were being written.

Another important component was teacher training, which we have referred to earlier. In addition, an institutional framework under the name of ‘Sawaliram’ was set up to answer the flood of questions from the children, whose curiosity about their environment was aroused by what they were learning.  A decentralised system of follow up to schools was also put in place to help the teachers in the classroom and to collect feedback on how the innovation was being implemented in the field.

The examination system went through fundamental changes to free it of the tension it usually generated in the minds of the children. New ways of assessing what the children had learnt were introduced, the emphasis shifting from testing for rote learning and memory recall to assessing the development of conceptual understanding and experimental skills.

The HSTP can also be seen as the first instance of an intervention for educational change in the government school system conducted by an agency other than the state education department. It was a fresh breeze that shook the foundations of a moribund system and sought to rid it of its ‘educational inertia’.

Not being tied to the education department hierarchy was a decided advantage. So was the virtual absence in the HSTP group of people formally trained in ‘education’.  This allowed the HSTP to establish an equation of equality at all levels among those interested in education and change. 

The HSTP created and consolidated a framework of decentralised structures for its implementation, breathing new life into concepts such as the school complex and sangam kendra enunciated in the 1964-66 Education Commission report (Kothari Commission). It also helped to weaken the stranglehold of officialdom over the teachers while adding an academic dimension to the administrative apparatus.

The HSTP was a singular experiment in India’s education scenario and a source of inspiration for other initiatives across the country, adding new facets to the dialogue on education. The purpose of this volume is to recreate its aura by presenting its academic and administrative contributions in an organised and structured manner.

We discuss three main components of the HSTP in the book:

  • Content: development and structure
  • Teacher involvement: groundwork and inputs
  • Examinations and student evaluation

Content includes syllabus, science topics covered, workbooks, kit for experiments, etc. This book seeks to trace the process of content development, choice of topics/concepts and their periodic revision. While clarifying the rationale behind the changes and the factors influencing them, we shall also try to explain how the content was structured in the framework of the syllabus.

We have also outlined different aspects of a prototype chapter to introduce the reader to the Bal Vaigyanik workbooks. These aspects are discussed in detail, after which a synopsis of all the chapters from the three Bal Vaigyanik editions published to date is presented. To understand how these chapters evolved, we have analysed the lifeline of three chapters in a chronological framework.

The Bal Vaigyanik showcases several dimensions of the teaching-learning process.  We have included a brief chapter outlining our field experiences in preparing and using a series of teacher’s guides to help the teachers understand these processes.

We also present a brief discussion on the development of the kit to conduct experiments in the classroom, which is another important component of the HSTP. One of the concerns often expressed about experiment-based learning is that the requirement of a laboratory and kit makes it an expensive proposition.  We examine the validity of this concern and discuss our attempts to make the kit more versatile and viable cost-wise, a process which saw contributions from scores of teachers and other volunteers.

 As we have repeatedly pointed out, one of the hallmarks of the HSTP was its intensive interaction with the teachers. We have devoted one chapter to detailing our experiences in this area, tracing how teacher involvement and participation grew to become the innovation’s most important component and detailing the different forms this interaction has taken.

We next discuss the issue of educational materials and their use in the reality of today’s school environment, the focus being on our experiences with the kit for conducting HSTP experiments. The main source of data for this chapter is the periodic feedback reports filed by members of the HSTP resource group and follow-up group of their follow-up visits to schools. Information gathered from oral interactions with the teachers and written teacher reports has also been incorporated.

The final discussion in the book is devoted to the examination system – one of the most sensitive aspects of our education system. Apart from giving a detailed explanation of the changes in evaluation and assessment introduced by the HSTP, we also present an analysis of our actual field experiences in conducting examinations for middle school children.