Thinking of Education beyond Textbooks By Ritesh Khunyakari & Shikha Takker

Challenging the Notion of Confined Classrooms: Thinking of Education beyond Textbooks

The schooled mind may tend to lose its spontaneity and sense of wonder making learning an extremely alienating process. If creative methods are used and innovative ideas implemented learning can become a celebration beyond boundaries. The article explores its many dimensions.

Ritesh Khunyakari teaches at Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Hyderabad.
Shikha Takker teaches at Homi Bhabha Centre for Science Education, TIFR, Mumbai.

Classroom learning is one of the most salient features of the contemporary formal school learning experience. In fact, formal education across all levels (pre-school to higher education) is difficult to imagine without classrooms. An imagination of classrooms without textbooks seems even more difficult! Textbooks, indubitably, continue to be the most fundamental resource for students and teachers (Advani, 2009). Moreover, textbooks serve as an immutable, resounding core of the functional Indian school education system. We outline two vignettes on the differential use of textbooks in Indian classrooms.

Case 1: Teaching acids, bases and salts using the science textbook

A Grade 7 science teacher from a private school initiates a lesson on acids, bases and salts. She reads aloud the properties of acids and bases from the textbook. Students underline the statements read by the teacher in their textbook. The textbook then suggests an activity on the litmus paper test to identify whether a solution is acidic or basic in nature. The teacher uses soap water solution kept in a conical flask on her table and dips the red litmus paper into it. She shows that the red litmus paper turns blue and infers that soap water is basic in nature. Then, she provides students with examples of solutions and tells them the color change when a litmus paper is dipped in this solution. Students are expected to say whether the solution is acidic or basic based on the color.

Case 2: Multiplication problem context

In the chapter on multiplication in Grade 5 mathematics textbook, there is a problem context on wages of two workers (a male and female). The wage given per day to workers varies depending on their gender. The textbook has a small note for the teacher suggesting a classroom discussion on differential treatment based on gender for the same amount of work. Classroom observations of several teachers teaching this chapter reveal that a majority of them modify this context to a multiplication word problem where two workers earn different wages for the same amount of work. The problem question is modified to calculating the wages of the two workers for a given number of days and then finding the difference in the wages.

The vignettes do not imply portraying every school learning experience, be textual or activities driven, as routinized and pedantic but bring to light the centrality of textbooks in both initiating and shaping classroom discourses. Reflecting on the vignettes one is coaxed to think whether textbooks indeed confine the learning discourses within a classroom. If yes, in what ways do they confine? If not, in what ways do they help teachers and students to go beyond and explore realms of understanding, knowledge and critical reflection? This article attempts to draw from experiences of teaching perspectives on the relation between textbooks and classrooms.

Textbooks in Indian classroom discourse: A contrived affordance

The centrality of textbooks can be adjudged by their use and position in classrooms across the globe. Analysing the status and use of textbooks in schools, Kumar (1988) classifies the education systems into two different types. The first type of education system offers freedom to teachers to decide materials, prepare curricular plan, assessment modes and pedagogic decisions that inform a teacher’s everyday functioning and teaching practice. The second type mandates teachers and students to follow prescribed textbooks, thereby setting up a ‘textbook culture’. Such a usage posits latent, symbolic feature expressed in terms of bureaucratic control, power and authority that govern quality of teacher’s daily routine and pedagogic transactions. He argues that the Indian education system falls within the second type.

           In the Indian context, the ‘textbook culture’ imposes itself as a structuring device being an operative part of the syllabus at all levels of school education. At the same time, the historical legacy of dependence on textbooks has institutionalized educational discourses like centralized examination system, English language as the medium of instruction (Kumar 1986), role of the teachers as implementers of textbooks, etc. Debates on teacher agency in process of textbook design and implementation (Batra 2005, Takker 2012) have recently gained grounds in a system, which imposes itself through an adherence to textbooks. An engagement with the intent and role of textbooks in an education system reveal its purposes and problems.

(a) Knowledge dissemination: Textbooks serve as sources for passing on the selected information, skills, and values from the teachers to students. A centralized nation-wide curriculum proposes the knowledge to be passed on to all the students of a particular age in a uniform manner. A uniform textbook surpasses several contextual factors, which might interfere with the selection, organization, or implementation of a curriculum. In the process of curriculum transaction, ideologies, assumptions, stereotypes, etc. get communicated not explicitly, but in hidden ways.

(b) Learning trajectories: A definitive, sequential character of content in textbooks orchestrates learning as well as assessment. A stronger adherence to textbook promotes linearity in learning of concepts and does not allow appreciation of different routes to learning specific ideas or concepts, pacing learning for individuals, and for examining possibilities of different ways of learning the same concept.

(c) Prescriptive guide: Following the textbook closely makes it binding to reproduce examples, situations, language which are formalized and selected. While this selected set may be relatable for some, it often is alienating for a majority whose outside school experiences do not align with these. Further, it manifests itself in lack of confidence among teachers in bringing in examples from outside school context and serves as a demarcation between outside knowledge and school knowledge.

Textbooks do not just communicate information. They represent curricular discourse and embody the larger aims and philosophy that guide educational thinking and practice. The eclectic culture of our country makes the process of textbook design and development extremely challenging. The plurality of traditions, forms of practices, meanings and values makes the question of representation salient. The relevance of content, rigour and authenticity to meanings attributed to historical events, and a conscious effort to represent different perspectives are significant to this process of development.
In the recent past, there has been a growing concern about the relevance of the curricular content, and the need for rethinking about the process and role of textbooks in learning. Rampal (2002) observes that with the reforms in contemporary educational discourse, there has been a perceptible shift from a monolithic mechanism of curriculum design, through an apex centralized body, to many more agencies involved in the exercise. The demand to develop regional resources to support learning by engaging the state and district departments has been realised. Attempts to develop an appreciation of local knowledge, heritage arts, and practices of the socio-political milieu in school learning are yet to be conceptualised.
The National Curriculum Framework 2005 explicitly states that the primary aim of education is social transformation (NCERT 2005). Textbook concerns mirrored in principles that shaped the curricular framework include
(i) connecting knowledge to life outside school;
(ii) emphasis on processes over rote memorization;
(iii) shift from teacher or textbook centric to child-centric learning;
(iv) flexibility in the examination system; and
(v) nurturing democratic values.

The challenge then has been to translate this vision to realisable textbooks or handbooks with primacy to students’ experiences, voices, and active participation in classrooms. Unfortunately, teacher education initiatives did not flow from the reforms in school education (personal conversation Kumar 2015).

In historic as well as contemporary times, textbook continues to guide classroom discourses. While communication of concepts, progression of ideas, engagement with socio-cultural aspects and need for synchronising observations and experiences of students with academic learning can be presented systematically through textbooks; the salient role of a pedagogue in maximising the learning opportunities cannot be denied or singled out. The information driven ‘textbook culture’ has shunted the role and contribution of the pedagogue and the learning situations. As argued by Rampal (2002, p155), “Textbooks may pretend to be activity based but actually discourage any exploration or activity. Children are asked to observe the ‘picture’ of an object, rather than go out and look at the ‘real’ thing, be it a common sparrow or leaf of a plant.” Such a kind of typical pedagogic discourse misses out on learning opportunities and presents a rather contrived affordance for learning.
The anecdotes cited in the beginning of this paper illustrate ways in which teachers use the textbook in classroom. In Case 1, the teacher adheres to textbook and uses demonstration for reinforcing scientific inference. While in Case 2, we notice the decision taken by the teachers of deleting a part of the problem. Probing the teachers further, we find that the teacher decision is guided by dissatisfaction with the new textbook telling too many (real-life) stories to students and engaging in conflicts, which is not suitable for a mathematics textbook. At the same time, the pressure of abiding to textbook is manifested in extracting the computational aspects of the problem. Although the use of textbook varies in these two situations, teacher’s negotiation with content and interactions with the textbooks is noticeable. The textbook use by teachers provides an insight into the legitimacy of the selected content.

Re-envisioning the role of textbooks as mediational tools

We propose that the perception of textbooks use be challenged from being the sole resource guiding the classroom discourse to attaining a mediational character. We use ‘mediation’ in the sense used by Vygotsky (1978) to argue that both the tool (textbook) and the individual (students, teachers, parents) change in the process of interaction. In other words, the development of textbooks is not an end in itself or the tail end of curriculum design process rather it becomes an iterative experience of interactions with its stakeholders. Two ideas emerge from this proposal: (a) development of textbooks needs to become a sustained activity drawing from dialogues with practitioners, educationists, researchers and other stakeholders from across regions and contexts; and (b) discursive analysis of how textbooks interact with students’ cognitive and social experiences in different classroom contexts need to inform textbook content and processes. In this imagination, textbook becomes a means of eliciting and connecting with different knowledge systems, variety of methods in knowledge generation, perspectives and historical contexts, cognitive and social experiences.


We provide below instances of engaging with the textbook content differently in two different settings. The first instance is about teaching DNA structure to social science undergraduates, some of whom have knowledge of the structure and function of the biomolecule as part of their schooling. Although the experience does not come from school education, we believe that a similar activity can be planned and tried with school students. The second instance relates to designing and making a windmill that involved Grade VI students from tribal (rural) and urban contexts.

Instance 1: Modelling DNA


DNA is the master biomolecule, which governs life processes and is foundational to several concepts in life sciences. The concept of DNA molecule is abstract and necessitates students to visualise and assemble structural features of it in their mind’s eye. Many a times the molecule is related as merely an image which does not help them relate to it and make sense of its functioning. Social science undergraduates, coming from all streams including arts and commerce, experience the same distance in internalising the DNA molecule as the secondary school students. A model-making activity encouraged students to work in groups towards assembling the paper-cut outs representing the components of biomolecule, namely; deoxyribose sugar, phosphate and nitrogenous base. Students when assembling these components realise critical features like double-strandedness, macro & micro-grooves and why the structural assembly affords for a coiling around itself. Besides, it created opportunity to discuss other important concepts of chromosome, gene, replication and so on. The entire atmosphere of engagement not just created positive learning opportunities but also generated a sense of excitement for peers (see Fig 1). Textbook oriented presentation of DNA rarely goes to investing in a hands-on experience of build an appreciation of structural features piece-by-piece that will enrich structure-function relationships.

Instance 2: D&T education experience on windmill

Consider the exposure of students to a windmill in class VI science textbook of NCERT. Presented as a device run by wind or at best exemplifying renewable source of energy, which is accompanied by description of its uses (see Fig 2) is quite alien an idea for Indian students.A design-and-make experience that got initiated from a story-line involving curious children exploring possibilities of lifting water from the well or lifting weights without electric power posits an interesting design challenge. Students collaboratively worked in groups on aspects of design and later making workable windmill models. They later evaluated the artefacts they made using an experimental set-up with a blower placed at a distance. The process of designing and making afforded integrating knowledge and skills from across disciplines. For a detail of learning outcomes and value of such an engagement that extends understanding beyond textbooks can be referred to in Khunyakari (2015).

The two instances from teaching are used to suggest possible ways in which textbooks can be used as mediational tools to initiate discourse and explore possibilities of bringing different kinds of knowledge systems in the classroom. Assimilating insights from the body of knowledge and experience, the need for harping potentials through initiatives and innovations that allow scope for encouraging students’ voice and engagement in class, recognising the value of their ideas and thinking to build knowledge and understanding and allowing scope for mistakes, building up norms for engaging with student mistakes – seem to be solid pillars to dismantle the monologous and hegemonic usage of textbooks in learning. Sharing of pedagogic initiatives will bring upfront the valued contribution of practitioners in orchestrating the learning experiences. This article presents some experiences and argues the need for systematically engaging with different stakeholders as a community, which supports dialogue on textbooks. More importantly, experiences from practice can become salient pivots of entry in rethinking about classrooms, textbooks and learning in pragmatic ways.


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  3. Khunyakari, R. (2015). Experiences of design-and-make interventions with Indian middle school students. Contemporary Education Dialogue, 12(2), 139-176.
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  10. Vygotsky, L. (1978). Mind in society: The development of higher psychological processes. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

This article is published in The New Leam, MARCH 2017 Issue( Vol .3  No.22 – 23) and available in print version. To buy contact us or write at

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  1. Article is interesting. But I want to esquire that really there is any way to get educated beyond textbook?


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