Experts, teachers alarmed as India removes evolution, periodic table from textbooks

The changes affect some 134 million children between 11 and 18 years old in Indian schools. PHOTO ILLUSTRATION: FREEPIK

BENGALURU – The removal of critical sections on evolution and the periodic table of elements from some high school science textbooks in India has sparked concerns among education experts and scientists, who said it would lead to a poor grasp of fundamental scientific concepts. 

The changes were made by the National Council for Education Research and Training (NCERT), which publishes textbooks for more than 24,000 Indian schools that are certified by the Central Board of Secondary Education. Private and state-run schools under other boards also sometimes use the NCERT syllabus.

The NCERT has dropped a chapter titled Periodic Classification Of Elements from 2023’s Class 10 science textbook for 15- to 16-year-olds. However, the Class 11 chemistry textbook still has a chapter titled Classification Of Elements And Periodicity In Properties that traces the history of the development of the periodic table of elements.

Passages on Darwin’s theory of evolution and sustainable management of natural resources have also been excised from Classes 9 and 10 study material. Evolution remains in the Class 12 textbook. 

The changes affect some 134 million children between 11 and 18 years old in Indian schools. 

The deletions come amid the NCERT’s syllabus streamlining exercise undertaken from December 2021 to June 2022 after the Covid-19 pandemic led to unprecedented disruptions in the education sector.

About 30 per cent of the syllabus was deleted as an interim measure for Classes 6 to 12 to “reduce the content load” on students and ensure a smoother transition to remote learning. 

The NCERT revisions targeted “overlapping” topics, topics “not relevant or outdated in the present context” and topics that were “difficult” or “easily accessible to children and can be learnt through self-learning or peer-learning”.

However, in April, the permanent removal of some topics alarmed scientists, parents and teachers. 

Pharmacologist Pranav Madapalli, who works in a vaccine production company in Hyderabad, was concerned about his daughter, who is in Class 10 now.

“The periodic table is the foundation of learning chemistry. How else will a 16-year-old systematically understand elements and how they combine to generate different substances like steel, water or salt?” he asked. 

Over the summer, Mr Madapalli taught his daughter a catchy periodic table song he learnt as a child so that she would not “lose out on knowledge due to bad policy”. He asked what less-educated or Indian parents who are not scientifically inclined would do.

More than 1,800 scientists, professors and education policy experts signed an appeal organised by Breakthrough Science Society, a Kolkata-based group promoting scientific outlook, to reinstate the cut content on evolution. 

“Evolutionary biology is an area of science with a huge impact on how we choose to deal with an array of problems we face as societies and nations, from medicine and drug discovery, epidemiology, ecology and environment, to psychology, and it also addresses our understanding of humans and the place in the tapestry of life,” said the letter dated April 20. 

“That evolution is a law-governed process that does not require divine intervention... is a cornerstone of rational thinking,” it added. 

A science teacher who has taught biology for 20 years in a Mumbai school called Darwin’s theory of evolution “the first beautiful lesson in understanding the diversity of living things on earth”, like why a tiger is different from an ant, and why a bat flies but a penguin does not. 

“Sure, it’s there in the Class 12 textbook, but that’s an absurdly late time to introduce a fundamental concept,” said the teacher, who requested anonymity to avoid censure from the government.

NCERT also removed critical lessons from the history syllabus: references to the Cold War, the Mughal courts and industrial revolution, the 2002 Gujarat riots, the contribution of agriculture to the Indian economy, and a section on people’s movements that challenged democracy.

Experts say some of the deletions with overt political intentions are sections on the opposition of Hindu extremists to Mahatma Gandhi’s pursuit of Hindu-Muslim unity, and the ban on the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) after his assassination.

The RSS, whose philosophy seeks to build India as a Hindu nation, is the ideological parent organisation of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party. 

Mr Suhas Palshikar, former political science professor, and Mr Yogendra Yadav, election analyst and founder of the Swaraj India political party, are chief advisers for the political science books for Classes 9 to 12.

They said they failed to see any “pedagogical rationale” in the modifications to the NCERT textbooks. They wrote to the NCERT asking for their names to be removed from the textbooks that were originally published in 2006, but the council has refused.

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