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From Instructive to Inquisitive: Re-imagining History Classes

Every day, we are inundated with news regarding international disputes, political upheavals, social changes and religious zeal. There’s something common between the Saudi-Iran conflict, abrogation of Article 370, reservations for marginalized groups, and the emergence of ‘Corona Devi’– they all have causes lying in history. History provides context to the world we live in today and conditions our choices, decisions and ideologies. Studying history is indeed the best way to know why we are who we are. Yet, the subject is characterized as boring and subsequently dismissed by many school students today.

The blame for children’s disinterest in history can be attributed to a one-way, passive instruction. There is a need to make history classes engaging and participatory by facilitating open-ended discussions. By contextualizing a given historical period, students can be made to engage in discussions surrounding alternative possibilities that could’ve been realized at crucial junctures in history. It is important to understand how Manichaeism also had a fair chance of being made the official Roman religion even though Constantine adopted Christianity in reality. These discussions provide rich detail and promote active learning. But more importantly, they do away with a very prevalent fallacy in history – historical inevitability. In our study of history, we focus much more on what actually happened and how. In retrospect, that outcome tends to look inevitable. But paying attention to other probable options helps us understand that our present world is not an inevitable outcome of the forces of nature or history, and this realization is empowering, especially when it comes to fighting ‘inevitable’ outcomes of history, such as the caste system. 

Another problem with history teaching is the premium placed on the ability to recall cold facts. It is often perceived as a subject that needs to be rote memorized and regurgitated in the exam. To change that, our history classes need to shift focus from just providing facts and information to also cultivating critical historical thinking and method, the ability to infer from primary sources and supporting arguments with evidence. Of course, by AD 632 prophet Muhammad had consolidated a following, but how did his monotheistic ideas appeal to a largely pagan, idol-worshipping world? Can we rely solely on Islamic sources to reconstruct the history of Islam? Does it emerge fully formed from the mouth of the Prophet, or as evidence indicates, does it develop as a religion gradually, absorbing influences from Judaism and Christianity and responding to new political situations?

A good way to start historical thinking is to supplement textbooks with the work of historians. Textbooks create a façade of omniscience and objectivity and tend to gloss over competing narratives. Instead, reading a diverse set of historians who are writing about the same set of events can help students discover subjectivity in history. A Marxist historian prioritizes a materialist analysis of historical developments. A feminist historian adds the dimension of gender relations. Subaltern historians seek to uncover the historical role of marginalised populations. After reading the second historian, it’s easy to see the shortcomings of the first. Teaching historiography can thus also make students wary of simplistic, one-sided narratives that are often employed for political ends.

The sources that we draw upon to teach history in schools have been produced or patronized by the powerful and hence present a top-down view of history. This can be corrected by adopting subaltern historiography, which emerged with the objective to study the historical roles and experiences of social groups excluded from dominant power structures. Inclusion of oppressed voices in history helps children check their own (unearned) historical privilege and sensitizes them to the difficulties that marginalized communities continue to face.

Lastly, we need to address the issue of making history relevant for today’s learners. By tying past developments to present concerns, we can move past the view of history as an exercise in memorizing seemingly irrelevant names and dates. Viewed with a historical lens, caste-based matrimonial ads are the result of endogamy practised by caste groups for centuries. The killing of George Floyd has roots going deep into slavery and racism. The past is never dead and buried, it’s always there with us, shaping our practices, prejudices and perspectives. As our world plunges into a conflict-ridden era and the political atmosphere gets penetrated with false narratives of historical wrongs, cultivating interest in history and developing historical method among children can be a good start towards building a better, more ‘historically correct’ society.

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Making a (trans)ition to inclusive education

Schools are complex social environments that reflect the diversity of our communities. In liberal democracies, the responsibility of ensuring a safe, supportive, and inclusive learning environment for all students is shared by all stakeholders involved in the education sector. This is especially important with regard to transgender and other gender non-conforming students, with a growing body of evidence indicating that these students are often targets of discrimination, harassment, bullying, and violence in schools. A recent report by UNESCO on sexual orientation and gender identity-based bullying in Chennai revealed that 60% of students who did not conform to the gender-binary faced bullying in middle and high school while 43% were sexually harassed in primary school. Further, only 18% of the victims could report such instances of bullying to school authorities. The consequences of this reality are grim: over 70% of the victims suffered from anxiety and depression, and 33% dropped out of school.

Transgender is an umbrella term used to describe all individuals who diverge from the roles associated with the sex they were assigned at birth. This continues to be a problem for a cisgender-normative society like ours, where rigid definitions of masculinity and femininity are reinforced by parents, teachers, and other adults. Students who don’t identify with the gender binary are bullied and harassed by their peers and teachers alike. The UNESCO study, in fact, found that a culture of victim-blaming surrounds transgender students in Indian schools.

Given the pervasive bullying, the first step towards making schools trans-inclusive is to have comprehensive anti-bullying and anti-discrimination policies that protect students from harassment based on their gender identity, expression, and sexual orientation. Health professionals, particularly psychologists and counsellors in schools can support trans students by helping them develop and enhance coping mechanisms aimed at building resilience and facilitating positive socio-emotional development. Facilitating access to safe spaces including washrooms and common-areas helps make the educational environment more conducive. 

Furthermore, doing away with the need to specify a child’s gender identity at the time of enrolment can go a long way in dealing with the pressure of gender-conformity. Students should be allowed to participate in sex-segregated classes or activities in a manner consistent with their gender identity. The same goes for dress codes and pronouns, as reforming small practices are key to achieving the larger goal of a truly inclusive education. Inclusion of LGBTQIA rights and movements, as well as nuances surrounding the community in the school curriculum, can go a long way in eliminating stigma. Giving a voice to their historical presence and experiences, articulating their specific needs and expectations from state and society, and normalising transgender sexual orientations in social sciences and biology textbooks can potentially challenge entrenched structures of heteronormativity that dominate Indian society. 

Some state governments have initiated action aimed at making schools accessible to trans students. In Delhi, a pilot project called ‘purple board’, aimed at eliminating transphobia and trans-bullying, held sensitisation workshops for nodal teachers, which were followed by sessions with high school students. This was the first step in a year-long process of training and evaluation that led to the awarding of the ‘trans-friendly’ certification to 27 schools. The Kerala government has directed all state and affiliated universities to reserve seats for transgender students in undergraduate and postgraduate courses. These initiatives show that it is possible and necessary to transform our schools that have been unsafe and intimidating to trans students into inclusive spaces that facilitate holistic education.

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Creativity

Creativity, in the words of Sir Ken Robinson, is a motivator, the essence of innovation, and absolutely important for the evolution of self and humanity. Even though it is recognized that creativity is valuable for society and critical for economic growth, people often feel that they are not living up to their full creative potential. In fact, many believe that schooling has stifled their creativity.

Because exam scores, unfortunately, are the admission criterion for higher education (and are perceived to be a measure of a child’s intelligence and ability), teachers often ‘teach to the test’. The emphasis is no longer on learning, questioning, exploring and enjoying the process of education but rather on scoring more. 

For instance, if you look inside a classroom, where, Indian Judiciary is being taught, chances are that you’ll find the teacher dictating notes, asking students to memorize ‘important features of the Indian Judiciary’ and emphasizing on frequently repeated questions in the paper. As a result, students end up rote memorizing, instead of thinking critically about the fundamentals – ‘Why do we need justice systems with codified laws?’, ‘How/Why do societies agree to be governed by laws?’, ‘Is the current system the best there can be?’, ‘What can be an alternative model?’ and so forth. This habit of not questioning and taking current systems for granted curbs children’s capacity of becoming active members of a dynamic, progressive society and they often fail to take an informed stance and action in times of social, political or moral crisis, let alone think of creative solutions for resolving them.

But, behind this dominant culture of testing lurks another, bigger evil: standardization. It begins when a kid is scolded for painting Santa Claus blue, instead of red.  Children are never given the avenue of thinking about different ways of interpreting a question and coming up with lots of possible answers to a question. Often, students are left with little choice but to conform to the ‘standard answer’, because the stakes are high: a deviation from the standard (perceived as an error) in Board Examination can cost a student her dream college.

Worse still, these high-stakes standardized tests are backed by a one-size-fits-all curriculum. We all had that friend who hated mathematics but was a gifted artist. The current curriculum doesn’t enable children to develop their natural creative power. Because students have to conquer an ever-more demanding, predetermined syllabus, there is very little scope for finding and developing passion for a discipline and using one’s creative genius to open new avenues. As children increasingly find themselves restricted to textbooks, their innate creativity suffers.

It’s not surprising then that children in school often feel disengaged from education, that they find it stressful, not enjoyable.

Here, there are some important lessons to learn from Finland, which, according to many international comparisons, leads in education. There are no mandated national standardized tests in Finland, apart from one exam at the end of students’ senior year in high school.

The Finnish education system has recognised that to foster creativity, children need to be given the opportunity to think beyond test scores and deadlines, along with some agency in deciding what they want to learn and how. It has moved beyond the watertight compartmentalization of  subjects by making projects interdisciplinary, and has pooled in creative talents of different children by making them collaborative. In comprehensive schools (7-16-year-olds), students work collaboratively on interdisciplinary projects, and can even contribute to the design of these projects in upper classes. In the final 2 years prior to university, there are no set classes nor grades. Students design an individual education plan and are expected to complete it at their own pace.

It might be useful here to remind ourselves that not just in education, Finland has also retained the top spot in the UN’s World Happiness Report for the third time in a row, thereby demonstrating how embracing each individual’s creative genius can create happier people.