Experience at the centre of all learning

Smita Vats

ITIHAAS began with the idea that heritage is a huge and unexplored source of knowledge and wisdom. We deliberately use the word ‘heritage’ and not history, as heritage encompasses several subjects in its fold. For us, geography is the mother of all subjects. The terrain, the soil, the winds, the amount of rainfall, all decided (not anymore), eating habits, dress codes, even religious practices, colour of stone used in construction of our monuments, etc., revolve around geography. This can all be explained through another article.

Here I just wish to make the point that at ITIHAAS, it is heritage we decode and not history. So, through our curated experiences for students, they meet math, science, geography, language, political science, current affairs and more, all along one path.

Students must engage on the field, with their cities past and present, as at most places it intertwines and is visible to see. That intertwining is where knowledge is wrapped up and needs to be decoded. The more intertwined relationships of the past that we find, the easier it often becomes to understand where we are today.

His-story, is just the story around the past. It’s only a beginning.

I have been asked to write about the value of experiential learning. I wish I could bring to you several interviews that we have of students and case studies of how this on-field, inter-disciplinary and experiential learning impacted young minds. There are so many case studies, that I find it challenging to cull out a few. I will in the next few paragraphs, try and share those which immediately come to mind.

To do this, I will need to explain what ITIHAAS does, in short, as this article is not about our organization. So let me make it simple…we really do what our parents did for us a generation ago, i.e., gave us real experiences, took us outdoors, let us have it tough – not always easy, and this is at the centre of all our programmes. Diversity of experiences is what we try and create. Take students and teachers (I may add) to areas which are out of their comfort zone. Let’s explain this with an example. For those of us who are familiar with Delhi, let me take you to the Nizamuddin dargah. For most students and teachers, it is the first time that they have visited a dargah. Our only goal is to ensure that the teachers and students return with their body language having changed, and that they become more comfortable. Most come with pre-conceived ideas of what an Islamic space would be like. There is a fear of going into the unknown. A space we are not familiar with or have biases against. It’s to these spaces that we like to go. Spaces filled with things to observe…at a dargah, it is about smells, flowers, colours, varied socio-economic groups of people, a new script, a new language, new words, differently dressed people from what the young student is used to seeing. Sometimes actual grief, occasionally joy and thankfulness…it’s a melting pot of cultures and feelings. I have in my 18 years not known of a child who forgets the dargah. While details may not remain, as newer experiences pile up, very rarely do they forget the essence. That’s why I prefer living heritage to museums and monuments.

What a student said:
Geetika from a Delhi school came up to us last week, on a school visit at the dargah. We were there with another school and she happened to be there as well. She’s now a 25 year-old, working in advertising. She had come with us to visit the dargah when she was in class 9. Nearly eight years ago, this at that age, is a lot. The other day she was there with her friends celebrating her birthday. In today’s polarized world, it’s important to note that this was Geetika, a girl whose family is Hindu and she’s the first person to have been to a dargah ever. It was just one visit that impacted her. A two-hour visit with 190 school mates. Yet, despite all the distractions of a school visit, almost everything stayed with her and then she kept the memory reinforced by visiting again and again. For me that was some change…that was the power of having experienced, meeting people very different from yourself, observing the rituals at a dargah that she had never seen, looking at meat being sold, agarbattis being lit, people singing a qawalli, singing not performing – chaadars being offered, those who live at the dargah sleeping alongside, langars being arranged and so much more. Everyone was polite to her, the people at the dargah totally accepting.

Now this isn’t history.
To this experience, let’s put subjects.
The dargah also throws up the name, the life and stories of Hazrat Amir Khusrau. He was a successful businessman, a poet, a sufi, who invented the tabla and sitar, the urdu language….
What subject should he have taken in school in class 11, I wonder often – science, commerce or arts?
Well, as I tell the students, luckily he didn’t go to a CBSE school.

Geetika hasn’t yet managed to bring her parents here, as they resist. But you see, Geetika may well bring her children here and her friends’ children, or just neighbours and extended family.
This is just one such story…there are thousands others.

Having worked with over five lakh students in all these years, there are just so many student voices. But this rings out the loudest when I start to pen them down. I wonder how many voices we don’t even have a record of.

For me, this is change. This is what we set out to do…

It’s not the details of the information you give children. They don’t need some rare facts, nor do they need knowledge of a hundred books. They need to be taken to spaces, where they feel safe and they need to be given time to sit there, to walk around to take in the smells and the sounds….

Indira, my colleague, always changes the usual sections of a class from A, B, C, D to Suno, Dekho, Sumjho, and Mehsoos karo.

Children are often asked to write down what they heard, smelt, felt, tasted, and saw. It is important to experience it for yourself.

Once when some of our Delhi students met the Imam of a mosque we go to….one of them said, “Ma’am BUT he’s normal.”

That line is more than an encyclopaedia for me. When I asked what he expected, the child imagined a harsh, stern man with gun-toting guards.

Let me just end by saying that experience is at the centre of all learning. If the experience (of course carefully curated) has diversity of people, ideas and thoughts, it makes learning more meaningful and definitely more individualistic. Each one will experience something different and hence each child will learn based on their experience. This brings variety into the classroom as well. As a teacher I now have so much to draw from.

Heritage is a magical learning space and not just a spot for sight-seeing (a word I detest).

In the images shown, students actually study the graves, try and read them, touch them, just be around them.
Similarly the girl with her head covered, is drawing Urdu, not writing.
It is just observations that come together as the day at the dargah unfolds.

The author is the founder-director of ITIHAAS. She can be reached at vats.smita@gmail.com.

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