Teaching like Gandhi

Krishna Kumar

If we believe that Gandhi was on the right track in education, we need to extend and elaborate the ideas that we associate with Gandhi. If we don’t do this, and merely stick to what he said, we will remain mired in the doctrinaire war that had already started during his lifetime.

There are two sides to the Gandhian idea in education. One is the emphasis he laid on crafts as a means of learning in a general sense, i.e., not simply learning of a craft. The second side has to do with Gandhi’s broader approach to life. This approach contains a number of points that a teacher can put to use in the classroom. Marjorie Sykes reflected deeply on both these sides. She wrote a book specifically on education, The Story of Nai Talim. This book (recently reprinted by NCERT) provides a lot of insight into the richness of experience and habits that the learning of a craft during childhood brings. Another book by Marjorie Sykes opens up Gandhi’s life and ideas into a broader frame of life and learning. This book, Gandhi: the Gift of the Fight, also attempts to create a bridge between the educational ideas of Gandhi and Tagore. Unfortunately, this book is no more in circulation, but perhaps it will come back into circulation if we talk about it and decide to use it as a resource for exploring and expanding the scope of Gandhi’s educational theory.

Now, if we join the two sides I have mentioned, (i.e., craft-centred learning and Gandhi’s broader perspective on life), we come closer to developing a full-fledged curriculum framework. Let us look at craft first. The key idea in craft-centred learning is: experience that brings its own satisfaction. If we make something with our own hands, the product needs nobody’s certification or praise because we can ourselves see and feel the product with pleasure. Try making something and you will see what I mean. Make an envelope with paper, scissors and glue. No matter how imperfect the product looks, the experience of producing or creating something makes a wide-ranging or all-round impact on our dexterity, confidence, and the ability to derive pleasure from a small thing. These gains are even more powerful during childhood. Any teacher can see for himself or herself that the more things children do with their own hands, the more self-confident and careful they become. The rigour they acquire from making small things extends to every other activity.

Making-things Let us turn to the other, broader side. Gandhi’s lifestyle and the concerns he pursued show that he saw things in totality. His politics was like health: it was a comprehensive effort. If we read the accounts of his routine in Sewagram, we notice that he took all aspects or events of an average day equally seriously. From writing a letter to having a meal to meeting a visitor or taking a walk, Gandhi did everything with great energy and enthusiasm. This comprehensive interest in life’s diverse needs demonstrates a theory or philosophy of thoroughness. One can see in it an important principle of education. Gandhi’s generalized care and energy point to the relatedness of everything. We can give it whatever name we like. Some of us might prefer to call it a holistic view; others might choose a term like ecological awareness. The basic idea is what we need to grasp and the idea is: nothing matters less or more. If you want to educate children to be self-reliant and happy in their lives, give them experiences that require all-round care and exercise of responsibility.

As teachers, we can think of any number of experiences that will fulfil this condition. Let us take a few examples. Writing is both a craft and an intellectual activity. Every child needs to learn writing, and after developing the initial ability, every child needs to practice and develop further the ability to write. It is both a means of expression and communication. In our system of education, teachers are obsessed with correctness in writing. They obsessively chase correctness in every aspect of writing: in shapes of letters, spelling, syntax, grammar, dictation, and so on. The one thing they ignore is the child’s desire to express. They also don’t understand communication. Teacher training programmes also fail to explain what communication means and how it works in writing.

If you see this problem from the perspective of Gandhi’s life, his personal skills, and his educational theory, you will end up doing what Devi Prasad did. He was a teacher of art at Sewagram and Santiniketan, and he treated art and writing as a basis of education, not as means or medium of education. (This idea has been explained in his book, Art: The Basis of Education; published by the National Book Trust). He made children write their own books. Children in his class pursued a writing idea for a long time (i.e., several weeks or months). The pride of writing and completing one’s own writing projects took precedence over correctness. Self-editing and talking about what one was trying to say became the means of improvement over the years. In our schools every teacher tries to accomplish the goal of correct writing at the earliest possible age. They need to understand that writing-related capacities grow incrementally and slowly over the years. Over eight years of elementary school education, every child can master basic writing skills, but it has to be seen as an eight-year project, not subject to weekly or monthly evaluation.

Also, writing has to develop both as a craft and as a means of expressing and reaching out. Every aspect of writing carries these two aspects. Aspects like legible handwriting, shaping a paragraph, and varying the length of different paras can be seen both as a craft and as decisions. Children learn both aspects if we allow and enable them to write frequently and extensively, without correcting them all the time.

This example indicates that a teacher who tries to practice Gandhi’s ideas will face criticism from people who don’t understand these ideas and are driven by conventional ideas and practices. This will happen because Gandhi’s inspiration inevitably pushes us towards change and pursuit of greater self-satisfaction. Schools are stuck in flashy ideas, and most principals serving in private schools today follow what the management and parents want (government school principals, on the other hand, have little room to make decisions). Teachers lack the power and status to assert their view. Also, they are too busy to reflect, read, and absorb.

Communication If you are a teacher and you are reading this article, you are most likely an exceptional person. If you don’t mind being exceptional, you are ready to pursue Gandhi’s approach to change and progress. The title of Marjorie Sykes’s book, Gandhi, Gift of the Fight, captures it all. The fight he inspires us to accept is our own: each one of us is free to shape our life’s fight in our own way. You don’t have to announce it in words. Your principals and management need not know exactly what you are trying to do. If you persist and the children you teach learn and progress, they will be the evidence of your approach and its correctness. It will, of course, take time. Good ideas always take time.

Another subject
Let us take another example. It concerns a subject most schools have dropped from the curriculum. Some practice it as an extra curricular activity, rather than as part of science and nature study. I am referring to gardening. Last year, Nyla Coelho wrote an excellent book on it. This book (Tending a Schoolyard Garden)(Review published in Teacher Plus, September 2015) is so comprehensive that its publication can be described as a revolutionary return of gardening into the mainstream curriculum, under the highly respected subject called science or environment studies (EVS). These are just names, so it does not matter where you fit gardening as a subject. If you are a principal or head of the primary division of your school, and if the school has a small patch of land, you can introduce gardening under Coelho’s excellent and detailed guidance.

Alternatively, you can send your teachers to Sevagram (in Wardha district of Maharashtra) where Anand Niketan is located and where gardening is being practiced as a science. This school was started by Gandhi. Both Marjorie Sykes and Devi Prasad taught here long ago. It was revived and brought back into its full glory, with many new ideas added by Sushama Sharma a few years ago. My doctoral student, Nidhi Gaur, has studied different aspects of the daily routine and the curriculum followed in this school, including gardening and spinning. I have myself seen the depth to which the benefits of gardening have been achieved in terms of the learning of science and EVS. The children of Anand Niketan practice gardening and learn about plants, crops, irrigation and soil, butterflies and bugs, seasons and climate, more competently than any textbooks can teach them. And yes, they also use textbooks, but not in isolation.

Teachers who understand the unified nature of learning and who integrate the diverse resources available for teaching are actually teaching like Gandhi. As a political and social leader, Gandhi used ideas, individuals, resources, and opportunities in an imaginative mix. He was a relaxed man who seldom worked to convince anyone other than himself that he was doing his best. When his ideas worked, they seemed ‘big’, but in his own scheme of things, they were small, everyday steps unified by his urge to satisfy himself that he was doing his best.

The author is Professor of Education at Delhi University and a former Director of NCERT. His latest book, ‘Choori Bazaar mein Larki’, examines the childhood and education of girls. He can be reached at anhsirk.kumar@gmail.com.

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