We as a society barely ask a basic question, what are schools and books for? To help students adjust in the competitive and dynamic society? Or, to model them into our social frame? Perhaps, for both. For simplicity, let us not indulge in defining different but related jargons—education, teaching/learning, literacy, curricula, aims, objectives, outcomes, achievements, ethics and the like.
Schools are considered essential. State, society and parents invest in them, trust them with training young minds. The governments designate ministries, bureaus, councils or departments to take care of the schools (‘school’ here includes all levels and categories of institutions providing education or training). These designated governmental bodies, schools and communities develop and implement the modalities, contents and other details. Students are rarely involved in decision-making; most parents are considered unknowledgeable and required to oblige to what the system offers. Both the parents and children are helpless when the system does not allow the student’s promotion to next grade for his failure to achieve minimum competency in a language that is not his own!
Besides what the students are being taught and how they are being helped, the weight the students have to carry in the form of books, stationery and other supplies is alarming. A grade seven Nepali student weighing 29 kg carries an average burden of 6.5 kg as a schoolbag, 8.5 kg if the melodica is included. Even kindergarteners have to carry bags! While the majority of kids in urban areas either have access to school bus or are helped by guardians, those in remote countryside have to carry the load themselves, walking up and down the hills and sometimes crossing rivers on the way.
The detrimental effects of disproportionate bag weights are clear. A 1994 Scandinavian Journal of Rehabilitation Medicine article based on studies in 1,178 school children in France discussed musculoskeletal problems (lumber, thoracic and leg pains) associated with backpack use, which has become an increasing concern with school children. A 2005 Applied Ergonomics article found as many as 77 percent of secondary school students in New Zealand experienced musculoskeletal symptoms, including upper and lower back pains, due to their heavy school bags.
Indian students suffered no less. As Awantika and Shalini Agrawal report in International Journal of Research (2015), most of the 10-13 year-old students in Lucknow, India, felt pain from carrying a bag comparable to pain from physiological stress.
The 2006 Children School Bags (Limitation on Weight) Bill passed by the Indian Rajya Sabha asked the government to ensure that there would be no school bag for a child studying in nursery and Kindergarten. For children in other grades, the weight of the school bag should be no more than 10 percent of body weight. The law, never implemented, would have made the schools violating the rules liable for a fine of up to three lakh Indian rupees.
As pressure builds, regulations and policies limiting the weight of school bags are finding space in India, which also addressed this issue in its National Educational Policy, 2020. It suggests the weight of a school bag for students between grades 1-10 should be no more than 10 percent of their body weight. Now onwards, Indian schools are required to keep a digital weighing machine inside school premises and monitor the weight of school bags on a regular basis.
What makes the bag heavy?
First, ignorance and a misguided mentality. Schools, the sources of ‘light’ are full of ignorance. They act as if the volume of books their students carry reflect the education, skills, discipline, wisdom and creativity they impart; it is comparable to their majestic-looking, fearful, English, ‘suit and tie’ culture aimed at mercilessly collecting high education fees from poor parents who make the payments hoping their kids will escape the hardships they were forced to bear. Misguidedly, parents and kids do not complain against the bulging of the school bags.
Second, profit motives. The indirect, mean, greedy intentions of those promoting the sales of such books become visible if the whole of business is seen in detail. Consumerism is encouraged; no, it is injected, in the book market. Even if the curriculum remains the same, the publishers revise the textbooks, although they know such revisions are cosmetic, just to ensure the students cannot use old books. They want to add both the number and volume of books.
Third, the bookworm culture. For centuries, learning and memorization of vocabulary, mathematics, classical grammar, facts and figures formed the bulk of school education. It was the best way to educate students in a mostly illiterate society. Now that most of our population has become literate, the bookworm culture should be replaced with a system more conducive to the building of a harmonious society, one which sows creativity in pupils and prepares them to cope with an unseen future.
Recently introduced computers and internet should not (and have not) replaced printed books, but unfortunately, these have added to the burden in the sense that the pupils are asked to prepare and print so called ‘project reports’ and ‘powerpoint presentations’ on this and that topic, which the kids prepare with the help of the Wikipedia and guardians.
Fourth, unnecessary homework. Schools and parents don’t realize that children need free time, time for physical activities and entertainment, and time to communicate with family members and friends. Students in lower grades should not be given homework at all; for them, learning should be a game, a pleasure. Students in higher grades can be given limited assignments, just enough to encourage their independent learning, no more.
Fifth, lack of lockable drawers for students. Letting students leave their heavy books in the classroom would help reduce their burden. Schools should provide such facilities.
The author is a professor of pharmacy at Tribhuvan University