First News
Volume:7, Number:33
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COVER STORY
THIS WEEK

Textbooks in Turmoil

| Shova Rahman |

Millions of textbooks rife with information errors, spelling mistakes, poor printing, and fundamentalist influences are exposing children to misguided education.Every year in the beginning of the year, books are distributed amongst schoolchildren throughout the country in a festive manner, but that joy is undermined when it is learned that those books are riddled with mistakes. Once errors get into books, it is very tough to get them out, and it has serious implications on learning if those mistakes-riddled books are textbooks, written, edited, printed and distributed by the National Textbook Board, which is the single largest publisher in Bangladesh.

There may be many examples of mistakes in textbooks all around the world. But blunders are blunders — irrespective of whatever they are, big or small, however they creep in textbooks, and whatever implications they could have on the minds of young learners.

Textbook blunders in 2017

But the textbook mistakes committed all over the world do not compare to the plethora of mistakes found in the textbooks produced by Bangladesh National Curriculum and Textbook Board this year, giving enough reasons for grievances and criticism that made headlines in newspapers, and circulated in the social media and private conversations. The first mistake that invoked strong criticism in the social media lies with the Bangla book for first-grade students, Amar Bangla Boi, first printed in September 2012 and then .reprinted in September 2016 for the 2017 academic session. On page 11, learners are introduced to four Bangla words — aja (ram or goat), ali (bumble-bee), aam (mango) and aata (custard apple) — with sentence examples such as “aja ase” (the goat comes) and “ali hase” (the bumble-bee smiles) for the first vowel of Bangla, and “aam khai” (I/we eat mangoes) and “ata chai” (I/we want custard apples) for the second vowel. The illustration for the ‘eat-mangoes’ example shows that a goat, inclining towards a mango tree on its hind legs, is eating a mango.In the introduction to the alphabets section of the Bangla textbook for class one, an illustration of a small girl demanding a scarf (orna) has been used to introduce the letter “o”, which is accompanied by the sentence along with a picture of a little girl: I want a scarf (orna).

This drew huge flak as, many argued, the word is gender-biased because “orna” is a piece of garment worn by adult girls and women. And it is not something that boys and girls as old as five or six need to learn in their textbook. "I find no rationale behind this attempt to teach students a letter with the help of this particular piece of clothing. What would the teachers say if the students asked them about the use of an orna?" said Kamrul Islam, a parent.

There are glaring mistakes in the order of words in a poem titled Adarsha Chhele (The Ideal Boy), by Kusumkumari Das, mother of noted poet Jibanananda Das, on page 68 of the 2017 Bangla book for third-grade students, first printed in September 2012 and reprinted in September 2016. Three of the four mistakes, now being held to account, are serious while one warrants a further policy decision. The poem begins with “Amader deshe shei chhele kobe hobe” (when in our country will that boy be born), whereas it is written in the original poem as “Amader deshe kobe shei chhele hobe (In our country when will that boy be born) — rearranging the syntax, with the verb in the end as is typical of prose. It is alleged that although the meaning does not vary much, the magic that poems try to conjure has all been lost. Another line of the poem says- “Manush Hoite Hobe Ei Tar Pon” (To become a good human being is his vow), whereas the textbook goes like “Manush Hotei Hobe” (He has to be a good human being).

There are also numerous spelling mistakes in the textbooks. For example, on pages 27 and 46 of Amar Bangla Boi for class five, the words Jaanni (Did not go) and Ashenni (Did not come) were written erroneously. The last letter Ni was separated from the rest, making it look like two separate words: Jan Ni and Ashen Ni. Instead of addressing these obvious errors in most of the textbooks, the authorities are reluctant to correct them in the current year. Even though there have been many slip-ups in the textbooks, there would not be any change in the contents of such books that have been already distributed among students from the preprimary level to Class IX, sources in the National Curriculum and Textbook Board (NCTB) said. The NCTB sources said some of the spelling mistakes would be resolved, but there would not be any change in the content.

The minor slip-ups like spelling or grammatical lapses would be sorted out and then corrigendum would be sent to the teachers. But no changes would be made in the contents, as the experts’ committee of the textbooks had decided it after much discussion, professor Abdul Mannan, an NCTB member, said.

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Nurul Islam Nahid Education minister of Bangladesh

There are some errors in the textbooks, and there might be some in the future. Angels do not make mistakes, human beings do. But some mistakes should have been averted. I can assure the people of Bangladesh that the government has taken some action already and will take further action against those responsible for the errors in school textbooks. We are waiting for the probe reports. Once we get the reports, we will take measures on the basis of the findings. Those who have made the mistakes do not deserve to be spared. We are requesting all not to de-motivate the schoolchildren by harping on the errors only. Mistakes may happen and those involved in the incident must stand trial … but it is not appropriate to keep on pointing to the errors only. It discourages the students. I am not avoiding my responsibility, but I am leaving the matter to you whether handing over such a volume of textbooks is less important than these errors. Some people are trying to say that we have made some changes in textbooks influenced by the ideology of Hefazat-e-Islam. That is out of question. Our education system is influenced by the spirit of the Liberation War, not the ideology of Hefazat-e-Islam.

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Syed Manzoorul Islam Professor of English Department at Dhaka University

Nowhere in the civilized world can anyone imagine that schoolbooks should be filled with errors. But in Bangladesh, the children get their textbooks full of mistakes every year. It is unfortunate that NCTB has woken up only after the books have been published and met with criticism. It is evident that those who compiled these books were not adequately qualified for the task. Their failure to deliver error-free books is unacceptable. There may be some qualified people in the NCTB, but they were sidelined by politically influential people and sycophants. Such mistakes happen when skilled people cannot work properly. And, like in other government offices, a group of fundamentalists is working in the NCTB too. This group tries to implement its agenda whenever it gets the chance. We often see its reflection in the textbooks. Steps must be taken to ensure that the textbooks are printed and published completely free of error.

Error in textbook around the world

The ability of textbook preparing authorities to develop error-free books has always come under question; and thus blunders are not rare in other countries. For instance, in 2016, the Ethiopian education ministry wrongly placed the country’s highest mountain, Ras Dashen, in Tigray Regional state instead of the Amhara Regional State in a sixth-grade book. Following a huge criticism, the Ethiopian education ministry apologized to the nation for that inadvertent mistake.

The same thing happened in Pakistan in 2015 when the Punjab Curriculum and Textbook Board printed Pakistan’s map showing Punjab’s Seraiki belt and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa’s Hazara region as two provinces on the back of a geography book. In a kneejerk reaction, and to neutralize tension, the board terminated the jobs of the illustrator and the assistant subject specialist while a high-level investigation was still under way. Likewise, a textbook for eighthgrade students in India has stated that Japan dropped a nuclear bomb on the United States, which is, in fact, the other way round and that Mahatma Gandhi was assassinated in October 1948, which in fact took place in January that year. The book was reported to have more than 150 factual, grammatical and spelling mistakes, one amongst them placing Pakistan’s capital in the Hindu Kush Mountains.

Moreover, in many countries, the errors are made purposefully and the textbook authorities exclude and modify facts with the preferred reality and include facts that they want students to grow up learning. The textbooks published by the national board for adoption by school systems in South East Asia, especially in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, have generated controversies over the years. They have been accused of reflecting the political views of the political parties in power. For instance, the Bharatiya Janata Party-ruled governments in India have been accused of "saffronizing" the Indian history (i.e., reflecting Hindu nationalist views) and engaging in historical revisionism. In Bangladesh, Curriculum and Textbook Board has placed a photo of prime minister Sheikh Hasina on the back cover of some 105 million textbooks distributed in early 2017. The photo shows Hasina talking to students while distributing the textbooks. The situation leaves students imbued with partisan indoctrination for the duration of mostly primary and secondary educations, without acquiring the judgment to separate what they should learn from what they should not.

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Narayan Chandra Saha Chairman of National Curriculum and Textbook Board

The NCTB did not get enough time to review primary school textbooks as it had to print the textbooks complying with some "additional" conditions imposed by the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank, which bear a portion of textbook publication costs. The mistakes happened in different phases. Entire books will be reviewed to see where and how the mistakes have happened. If errors are found, they will be corrected in the next impressions/editions of the books. We will notify our committee, and they will take care of this issue. A review committee has been formed to correct the mistakes in textbooks. The errors occurred at different points in the process. All the books must be scrutinized to determine where the shortcomings occurred.

Substandard textbooks draw students’ ire

Every year, free textbooks are distributed among millions of students across the country by the government, but it has turned out that the books are of very poor quality, failing to meet the specifications set by the government’s relevant agency. Students, guardians and school teachers expressed their dissatisfaction over the quality of the textbooks distributed among students of classes one to nine.

Some people involved in printing business complained that the pages in the textbooks are very thin as the printers used lighter paper than the grammage prescribed in their work order. They also said the text and images in those books were blurry. “The pages of the English for Today for Class V were cut so hastily during the binding phase that the page numbers and a few lines of texts have been cut out. Also, the printing of some books is so substandard that the page numbers, letters and illustrations have become hazy”, a student of Barisal Zila School said.

A teacher of Chittagong Junior School complained that the printing and page quality of the “Bangladesh O Bishwa Porichiti” book for the fifth grade is so poor that the contents of one page can be read from the other side. “As a result, we have to face hard time while reading these books,” he said. Humayun Kabir, the guardian of a class VI student, said that many pictures and texts of his son’s Bangla book have been misplaced. Moreover, the binding of many books came loose and some pages were virtually incomprehensible. “The cover pages are barely thicker than the inside pages and in some cases, the covers seemed to be made from recycled sheets, and the illustrations in the books are faded,” said Kabita Khanam, another guardian from Mohammadpur area.

NCTB officials tasked with book distribution monitoring activities said it appears the books were printed on 60-65 grams per square meter paper and low color tone. But, according to the contract, printing presses were required to use 80-gram per square paper with a minimum brightness of 80 percent so that the text books were attractive, durable and bright.

“Printing companies were supposed to use 70 percent virgin pulp paper but it seems they did not comply with that criterion. Instead, the printing firms used paper made from materials like recycled stuff,’ said a monitoring officer at the NCTB. Most of the time, the selected printing presses tried to hold the authorities hostage to get undue benefits. For instance, the printing of primary textbooks hit a snag in mid-August in 2016 when the World Bank, which lends around 10 percent costs of primary textbooks, sought to check the quality during printing and wanted to pay the printers only if their work was satisfactory. The global lender also set some conditions regarding the textbook quality. The bidders rejected the conditions and declared that they would not print the textbooks until the conditions were lifted. Finally, they agreed to do the work in the first week of September upon assurance from the government high-ups that some of the conditions would be relaxed.

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Serajul Islam Chowdhury Professor emeritus of English Department at Dhaka University

The deliberate changes in the textbooks were the result of regression and fundamentalism. There is a dangerous spread of communal politics behind this, which has been evident over the last few years. This year's textbooks are a manifestation of compromise of the government with the communal politics. On many occasions, the history of our Liberation War in our textbooks has been distorted. Textbooks are chosen as a weapon to implement evil political motives. Instead of inculcating morality in students' minds, division and communalism are being created. It is a planned error. The errors in textbooks are also related to the so-called millennium development goals. Such education system has kept 57 percent of the highly educated youths unemployed. We urged the authorities concerned to stop imparting lessons through these textbooks to protect the young learners from becoming communal and conservative. We demanded an investigation into the matter and punishment for those who are responsible.

Textbook changes draw huge flak

In a surprising move, Bangladesh's education ministry has made some major changes to the Bengali language textbooks. For example, poems and stories penned by non-Muslim writers have been removed with no explanation from the government, and the pictures of girls in Western clothes have been replaced with the ones in Islamic attires.

The changes were barely noticeable to the general public, but they alarmed some Bangladesh intellectuals, who saw them as the government's bid to accommodate a larger shift towards radical Islam. Many have alleged that some poems and prose texts have been dropped from Bangla textbooks of different classes as per the demands of Hefajat-e Islam, a Qawmi madrassa-based organization, and Bangladesh Awami Olama League.

In an immediate reaction, a group of 85 eminent scholars, writers and cultural workers have demanded that the error-riddled textbooks be withdrawn and actions be taken against those guilty for these blunders and changes. They alleged that materials insinuating fundamentalism and extremism have been intentionally inserted into the textbooks. They have found faults with distributed textbooks on three counts: "(1) spelling and factual mistakes; (2) problems in sentence formation; and (3) injecting communally sensitive ideas.” They believe that the first two are the results of mismanagement while the third is a planned outcome. "We strongly demand the immediate withdrawal of the books. At the same time, we demand that the young minds be saved from being fed with ideas of extremism and negativism," cultural activist Kamal Lohani said.

Action taken so far

The education ministry on January 9 put chief editor Pritish Kumar Sarkar and senior expert Lana Humaira Khan of NCTB officers “on special duty” for their failure to check errors in the textbooks. They also suspended the artist-cum-designer of NCTB Sujaul Abedin, who drew the illustration of the goat climbing a tree to eat mangoes in the class I Bangla textbook, which has been widely criticized.

Besides, the secondary and higher secondary divisions of the ministry on January 9 formed a three-member probe body to identify those who were responsible for the mistakes in the textbooks. Ruhi Rahman, additional secretary of the division, was made convener of the committee while the joint secretary of the divithesion and the director of the secondary and higher secondary divisions were made members of the factsfinding body.

Moreover, on January 6, NCTB had formed another three-member committee to review the mistakes in the textbooks provided to students of pre-primary to secondary levels. NCTB member (finance), professor Kazi Abul Kalam, was appointed convener of this three-member committee. The committee has been asked to submit their report within seven working days but they were unable to hand over the report till now. Furthermore, the parliamentary standing committee on primary and mass education ministry on January 25 constituted a three-member subcommittee to scan the errors and mistakes in primary school textbooks handed over to the students for 2017 academic year.

In spite of the mentioned initiatives, a group of people still think that the government is going slowly and showing leniency towards the culprits. Some people believe that no investigation report will see the light of the day. Moreover, some left-leaning student organizations have demanded the resignation of the education minister for his failure to supply error-free textbooks. “We think that the education minister should resign by taking responsibility for the failure. We also demand the trial and arrest of those people who are directly responsible for the mistakes found in the textbooks”, Saikat Mollik, president of Bangladesh Chhatra Federation, said.

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Dr. Md. Akhtaruzzaman Pro-vice chancellor (Administration) of Dhaka University

The mistakes in textbooks happened mainly because the NCTB did the job in such a hurry that the authors and the editors got little time to go through the texts. From my experience of editing a textbook, I can say that the people who do this job do not get enough time to go through each line properly. Writers and editors should be given adequate time and honorarium. At the same time, their accountability must be ensured. More alarmingly, NCTB does not have professional people for editing and proofreading. Moreover, the volume of textbooks is increasing every year and, therefore, the time has come to revisit NCTB's role. The NCTB should be divided into two parts -- one will deal with the quality of textbooks and the other will look after the printing jobs like procurement of papers and tendering.

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