Learning rubbish, memorising gibberish

Quality of instruction is bad in most of Nepal's schools, but textbooks and test contents are even worse


'Write a couple of paragraphs to describe the physical appearance of your English teacher.'

This is a 6-mark writing prompt in a Grade 9 question bank for an English exam meant to evaluate the quality of students’ use of language. 

Nepal’s textbooks have long earned a reputation for being sloppy, unrevised, and filled with content that ranges from comical to outrageous. 

New Gateway to Computer Science textbooks for Grades 8 and 9 define computers as ‘100% accurate machine’, adding ‘computer never feels tired or boring but a human being does’, while also blaming computers for ‘creating unemployment problem’, ‘being non-intelligence devices’ and alerting students that ‘damage may occur anytime’.

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New Gateway to Computer Science textbook, Grade 8 (left) and Grade 9 (right), 2077 edition 

To make matters worse, these modern day computer textbooks have several pages dedicated to tautological descriptions of ancient computers and obsolete devices, and only a single cursory reference to artificial intelligence.

Green Books’ Health, Population and Environment Education for Grade 10 offers an easy solution to overpopulation: ‘When females have job opportunities, they have less time in rearing and bearing children. Ultimately, the population is controlled.’

Government-directed exam questions are no better. An SEE science question asking students to reason out why the energy crisis can be ‘pushed up to the next generation’ poorly phrases what it is actually trying to ask. As a result students are left questioning the concept of sustainable development that they have spent hours memorising.

A question from the 2019 Sudurpaschim Province SEE Science exam

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Rajendra Dahal, editor of the Shikshak Monthly magazine for teachers blames the poor quality of government funding in education. “Those who are entrusted with developing the curriculum as well as writing and approving content in both government and private textbooks should be experts in their field, not unmotivated officials who cut corners,” he says.

Outdated content creeps into compulsory English and Nepali exams as well, where time and again students are required to write and design lengthy letters and postcards in exams. Add pretty borders, a stamp, and a neat envelope illustration, and you will get bonus points.

Moreover, not only are questions poorly framed, they are also flawed in how they are asked. As a result, teachers have to decipher questions to students alongside teaching how to answer them. The stark difference between the English and Nepali versions of this SEE science question, where half of the question is lost in translation, says it all.

A question from the 2019 Lumbini Province SEE Science exam

 With such poorly revised content in books and exams, the authors only promote confusion and frustration among students. Sentences are rife with grammatical errors, proofreading and fact-checking are thrown out of the window, and rote learning is entrenched in the fabric of every chapter, every model set, and every question.

Admittedly, every five years, the Curriculum Development Centre (CDC) revises its textbooks, and completely rewrites them every ten years. This academic year, the updated curriculum for Grades 5, 8 and 10 rolled out along with all-new textbooks, but the quality of content is no better.

When questioned about the deplorable quality of school textbooks, CDC Director Kunti Adhikari was indifferent. “Minor errors in textbooks within the first year of publication are normal, and we regularly correct them,” she said. “Besides, our review process is rigorous and extends beyond CDC to a wider group of experts and professionals.”

That is not reflected at all in the content. The CDC-issued Grade 8 English textbook, in the name of ‘speaking activity’ asks students to read out pointless dialogues that do not match the level of intellectual stimulation their age requires. Absent are prompts that ignite critical thinking, and meaningful discussions that allow students to voice their views on topics that actually matter to them.

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Speaking activity assigned to students in the English Grade 8 textbook (2023 version) published by the Curriculum Development Center

Even more worryingly, the 2080 edition of CDC’s Health, Physical and Creative Arts Grade 8 reduces the cause of mental depression to this inane definition: ‘People sometimes are affected by small things and they become sad. This condition causes depression.’

Over 7 million students go to school in Nepal, of which a majority study in rural schools, 80% of them government-run. For these children, such books are the only source of information and education.

“By neglecting the importance of these learning materials, not only do we compromise their right to quality education, we also limit their ability to become competent academics, workers, and leaders,” adds Rajendra Dahal.

Over two decades ago, school teacher Perry Thapa had raised this very issue in Nepali Times. What she wrote in this paper in 2000 still holds true: “Too many young minds are being brainwashed with rubbish. Too many hours are being spent memorising gibberish. Too many hands are slavishly penning utter nonsense. Even discerning students are forced to parrot nonsense if they want to succeed.”

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