Living democracy

Shobha Bajpai

Teaching social science at the middle school level is a challenging task. You not only have to talk about facts while developing an understanding of causal relationships, you also have to understand individuals and circumstances and instill sensitivity towards them. Whether the topics are from geography or history, to do with civics or economics, they are mostly abstract, incomprehensible and from outside the children’s experiences. However, if they are taught in an interesting manner by relating them to their experiences along with thought-provoking discussions, then you can get encouraging/ positive results. Here, I will share with you my experiences while teaching civics. However, I’d like to be clear that my experience is a comparative study and that it was done using textbooks developed during Eklavya’s innovative social studies programme between 1987 and 2000 and the books prescribed by the Madhya Pradesh government for social studies at that time.

Before sharing my experience, I’d like to describe a small episode, which will give you an idea of the teaching methods of that time. In 1984, I was appointed to a rural government school in the middle of the school year to teach social studies for the 8th class. In geography, I had to teach cyclones and anticyclones. According to what I had prepared, I had just begun drawing graphs on the board to teach the direction of the winds, their speeds, etc., when a student stood up and said, “Madam ji, this is not how these things are taught.” I was a bit rattled but I asked him, “So then how are they taught?” He said that I must help them mark the answers to the questions given in the exercises at the end of every lesson, and they would then write them out and memorize them. That’s how things were taught.

Obviously, it wasn’t the child’s fault. He thought that the right way to study was how he had been taught all along. Anyway, I told him that if he understood what was given in the chapter then he could answer the questions all by himself regardless of whether they were from the exercises or not. Perhaps, along with the teachers the students too believed that they could not answer the questions on their own, not until they were given the answers. And this is the situation even today.

Now, I’d like to tell you about some of the important aspects of the books developed by Eklavya. The most important thing about these books was that they had been written in an extremely simple language, avoiding technical terminology and when necessary explaining them. Difficult concepts had been explained in the form of stories, making them interesting and there was also the practice of moving from stories to understanding reality. Illustrations and maps were clear, there were also discussions about them. Another special feature of these books was the diverse questions posed in them. These were given at various places in the middle of the text and they were opportunities to understand the subject better, to help students relate the subject to their surroundings and to help them share their experiences, to give them a chance to express their ideas and opinions. All this made these books very different from the government prescribed books. In short, instead of giving numerous facts all at the same time, when writing and explaining using elaborate examples, understanding of concepts becomes easy and permanent. Let us try and understand this with the help of an example.

Elections, the forming of governments at various levels, their components, work and rights, the role of the public in a democracy, etc., are all important aspects of the study of civics. In general, this information is given in books in a cursory, plain way. For example, who can contest in an election and who can’t, who can vote, what are the functions of the legislature and the executive arms of the government, how cabinets are formed, how presidents and vice-presidents are chosen, etc. The students find all this information, and only information, very boring, and because of this they find it difficult to understand and remember. In the textbooks developed by Eklavya, these topics are all developed by explaining with the help of examples, and by linking them to the experiences of the students.

Firstly, the process of formation of the village panchayat and municipality (the local government) was presented in the form of a story. Then via questions asked at various points in the chapter they not only connected students to their own surroundings, but also tested their understanding of the topic at the same time. For instance:

  1. What is the population of your village?
  2. How many wards are there in your gram panchayat?
  3. How many villages are there in your gram panchayat?
  4. What is the name of the ward you belong to and who is its head/panch?
  5. Your paternal aunt’s son has come to your village. He is more than 18 years of age. Can he vote in your village? Answer giving reasons.
  6. Find out what is the greatest problem in your village. To solve this problem, whom will you first approach?
  7. Find out and write about all the work done by your panchayat in the past one year.

Whether they were terms that were defined, or logical reasoning, topics that were thought to be of a more difficult level than what could be tackled by the students were made easier by urging them to discuss it with their guru ji. For example:

Question 1 – Why should scheduled castes and backward classes or women have reservation in the panchayat?
To understand the meaning of reservation here we would link it to the children’s experiences, like when there is a programme, how do you reserve seats for your friends, and why? Children would excitedly say that they would spread mats and then stretch their legs out so that no one else could sit and only their friends could get a place to sit.

This is reservation; to block space for a specific person is called reservation.

Question 2 – To whom does it make a difference if there is no playground in a school?
There is no delay in their reply, ‘to the school children’ and then, to who will demand a playground, the answer given was ‘children’ or ‘those who are concerned about children’. In this way, that reservation should be there to give opportunities to various groups in society and to take up and solve their problems would get discussed.

Children used to face a lot of problems when trying to understand the domains and limits of the central and state governments. To understand this we used to get the children to play a game called Bhaarat Jod. In this game, by putting together pieces of cardboard of the various Indian states, the children would easily understand their names and borders. Several activities were conducted and discussions were held while observing a map of India, by which the domains of the central and state governments would be understood.

  1. For example, colour yellow all the regions where India’s laws are applicable.
  2. All the regions where the laws made by the Madhya Pradesh government are applicable, fill with red dots.

Q. Can the government of Punjab make any laws for Tamil Nadu?
Q. Will someone living in Uttar Pradesh accept the laws of Andhra Pradesh?

To understand the election process, mock elections were held in the class. Three to four children from a class became candidates, and they would campaign for their parties. Preparation for voting would be done and an empty box would become the ballot box. The children in the class would systematically vote, their identities would be confirmed, their fingers marked. Sometimes, other children would be brought in to which children would respond saying that he/she is not from our area, so how can he vote here?

Children would often get confused as to who elected representatives were and who government servants were. To understand the differences between them, we’d get them to prepare a list which would include the local representatives and would also list out which of the government servants at the village or town level worked for the state, and which of them worked for the central government.

In addition to all this, an activity we used to conduct as a rule was for the children to read sections of the book and give answers to the questions in their own words. These questions were not in the book, they had to be made by reading the subject matter. This had the effect of instilling self-confidence in the students and the ability to learn by themselves kept increasing.

Q. If people are not happy with something the government has done, what can they do?
Q. To be able to keep an eye on the government what qualities should the public have?

I have found the use of activities and discussions with children to be particularly useful in teaching civics. The children open up during discussions and become more articulate. I remember quite well that when in the 8th class we were studying the history of democracy and it was also being compared to a monarchy, I had asked a question whether democracy was the only form of governance and everyone had answered, yes, what else can there be? The children were then taken aback when I asked whether from decisions made at home to how decisions are made at school, everybody’s opinions are taken into account. We pondered over questions like where decisions are made without taking everybody’s opinions into account, is there democracy? That, when we listen to what everyone thinks and then take a decision, that too is a democracy. And then what was to happen – even the rules on how the class should be run were made with everyone’s agreement, and when the rules were broken a few times, there were punishments, and occasionally, pardons.

The children of our village had the habit of cussing at every possible instance. Despite my several attempts, this habit stayed with them. They’d get scolded several times, and they’d ask for forgiveness each time. Once, when this came up in class yet another time, I said I was sick of it and they should decide what I should do if this complaint is made again? The boys said that if any of them swears at any of the boys in school, they should be kept out of the social studies class for one week. One of the girls then asked what if the boys swear at girls? Taking into consideration the seriousness of this crime, the decision to keep that boy out of the school was taken. Now, everyone began being very careful, and a slip-up would be avoided just in time.

The board exams for class 8 were quite close and one boy in our class, who was quite all right in studies and in behaviour, made a mistake. During an argument with a girl he used an obscenity. On reaching my class, the matter came to light. Everyone said that now he would have to stand outside the school for an entire week. I was also not in a position to do anything. Upset, the boy went and stood by the gate. Inwardly, I was feeling bad that at the time of exams he had been sent out and that his studies would suffer. The next day, just as the period on social studies began the boy went and stood outside. I spoke to the students saying, see, he has already accepted his mistake, accepted his punishment and he has gone out on his own. At the time of exams when you need to study with greater focus, he is outside. What shall we do? Then everyone decided to pardon him and called him back into the class. In a way, we didn’t just study democracy at that time, we practiced it.

Note: This article was originally written in Hindi by the author and was translated into English by Vinatha Vishwanath. Vinatha is an ecologist by training and is currently working with Eklavya.

The author works as assistant teacher in Government Middle School, Uda, Harda. Apart from being a teacher, she is also a learner and loves to work with children. She always looks to teach her subject innovatively. Besides teaching in a school, she also works with less privileged children in her community. She can be reached at [email protected].

Leave a Reply