By Dyani Lewis
National Science Day at St Thomas School in Secunderabad, India, in February. Will future students be able to exhibit the periodic table?Credit: Noah Seelam/AFP/Getty
In India, children under 16 returning to school this month at the start of the school year will no longer be taught about evolution, the periodic table of elements or sources of energy.
The news that evolution would be cut from the curriculum for students aged 15–16 was widely reported last month, when thousands of people signed a petition in protest. But official guidance has revealed that a chapter on the periodic table will be cut, too, along with other foundational topics such as sources of energy and environmental sustainability. Younger learners will no longer be taught certain pollution- and climate-related topics, and there are cuts to biology, chemistry, geography, mathematics and physics subjects for older school students.
Overall, the changes affect some 134 million 11–18-year-olds in India’s schools. The extent of what has changed became clearer last month when the National Council of Educational Research and Training (NCERT) — the public body that develops the Indian school curriculum and textbooks — released textbooks for the new academic year that started in May.
Researchers, including those who study science education, are shocked. “Anybody who’s trying to teach biology without dealing with evolution is not teaching biology as we currently understand it,” says Jonathan Osborne, a science-education researcher at Stanford University in California. “It’s that fundamental to biology.” The periodic table explains how life’s building blocks combine to generate substances with vastly different properties, he adds, and “is one of the great intellectual achievements of chemists”.
Mythili Ramchand, a science-teacher trainer at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences in Mumbai, India, says that “everything related to water, air pollution, resource management has been removed. “I don’t see how conservation of water, and air [pollution], is not relevant for us. It’s all the more so currently,” she adds. A chapter on different sources of energy — from fossil fuels to renewables — has also been removed. “That’s a bit strange, quite honestly, given the relevance in today’s world,” says Osborne.
More than 4,500 scientists, teachers and science communicators have signed an appeal organized by Breakthrough Science Society, a campaign group based in Kolkata, India, to reinstate the axed content on evolution.
NCERT has not responded to the appeal. And although it relied on expert committees to oversee the changes, it has not yet engaged with parents and teachers to explain its rationale for making them. NCERT also did not reply to Nature’s request for comment.
A chapter on the periodic table of elements has been removed from the syllabus for class-10 students, who are typically 15–16 years old. Whole chapters on sources of energy and the sustainable management of natural resources have also been removed.
A small section on Michael Faraday’s contributions to the understanding of electricity and magnetism in the nineteenth century has also been stripped from the class-10 syllabus. In non-science content, chapters on democracy and diversity; political parties; and challenges to democracy have been scrapped. And a chapter on the industrial revolution has been removed for older students.
In explaining its changes, NCERT states on its website that it considered whether content overlapped with similar content covered elsewhere, the difficulty of the content, and whether the content was irrelevant. It also aims to provide opportunities for experiential learning and creativity.
NCERT announced the cuts last year, saying that they would ease pressures on students studying online during the COVID-19 pandemic. Amitabh Joshi, an evolutionary biologist at Jawaharlal Nehru Centre for Advanced Scientific Research in Bengaluru, India, says that science teachers and researchers expected that the content would be reinstated once students returned to classrooms. Instead, the NCERT shocked everyone by printing textbooks for the new academic year with a statement that the changes will remain for the next two academic years, in line with India’s revised education policy approved by government in July 2020.
“The idea [behind the new policy] is that you make students ask questions,” says Anindita Bhadra, an evolutionary biologist at the Indian Institute of Science Education and Research in Kolkata. But she says that removing fundamental concepts is likely to stifle curiosity, rather than encourage it. “The way this is being done, by saying ‘drop content and teach less’”, she says, “that’s not the way you do it”.
Science educators are particularly concerned about the removal of evolution. A chapter on diversity in living organisms and one called ‘Why do we fall ill’ has been removed from the syllabus for class-9 students, who are typically 14–15 years old. Darwin’s contributions to evolution, how fossils form and human evolution have all been removed from the chapter on heredity and evolution for class-10 pupils. That chapter is now called just ‘Heredity’. Evolution, says Joshi, is essential to understanding human diversity and “our place in the world”.
In India, class 10 is the last year in which science is taught to every student. Only students who elect to study biology in the final two years of education (before university) will learn about the topic.
Joshi says that the curriculum revision process has lacked transparency. But in the case of evolution, “more religious groups in India are beginning to take anti-evolution stances”, he says. Some members of the public also think that evolution lacks relevance outside academic institutions.
Aditya Mukherjee, a historian at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Dehli, says that changes to the curriculum are being driven by Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), a mass-membership volunteer organization that has close ties to India’s governing Bharatiya Janata Party. The RSS feels that Hinduism is under threat from India’s other religions and cultures.
“There is a movement away from rational thinking, against the enlightenment and Western ideas” in India, adds Sucheta Mahajan, a historian at Jawaharlal Nehru University who collaborates with Mukherjee on studies of RSS influence on school texts. Evolution conflicts with creation stories, adds Mukherjee. History is the main target, but “science is one of the victims”, she adds.