Learning to Dandi

Right off the bat, if you have not seen it yet, check out Building a New Culture of Teaching and Learning by Dr. Tae.

The movement started with the Dandi March in March 1930. The British had a monopoly or complete control over the manufacture of salt. Indians were not allowed to collect salt from the sea. Instead they were forced to buy it from the British at high prices. Gandhiji decided to defy this law and he along with 78 followers marched the over 300 kilometre distance from Sabarmati to Dandi on the Gujarat Coast. On the coast he picked up a handful of salt breaking the Salt Law. This was an open defiance of the British.

This excerpt from an Oxford School Education Primary Social Studies book (Book 5), for children of Grade 5, authored by Vibha Roy and Reena Jain, provides an introduction to the Dandi March. Just like this excerpt, the book is made up of many others on many different phases of our History.  Typical questions asked of the reader are factual, concerned with date, place, names and events.

And just like the excerpt above, those paragraphs introduce many complicated terms – “monopoly”, “manufacture of salt”, “price”, “law” etc. – that if the reader does not understand, will make it difficult to fully understand the story being told.

The Instructional Designer would hopefully find faults – the mention of the Salt Law is left to the end while it is being described at the beginning; there are assumptions about prior knowledge not substantiated here or anywhere else in the curriculum in Grade 5, how does one pick up a handful of salt on a coast?; why is it important to know the number 78? and so on. The Visual Designer would want a map from Sabarmati to Dandi or an early photograph or clip (if it was a WBT) from Attenborough’s film on Gandhi, to help the reader visualize the context.

Children also learn how October 2, his birthday, is celebrated through a UN resolution, as the International Day of Non-violence. A quick search on the web does reveal that world leaders are inspired by Gandhi’s strategy of non-violence and civil disobedience.

Irrespective of whatever else, the excerpt would need to be backed by an array of explanations for an inquisitive child. Personally for me, these few lines took over 30 minutes to build context for and introduce. There was a lot of passion too that I have about how Gandhi did all this and that needed to be translated.

Building on another fact, that Gandhi was born in 1869, I asked two uncomfortable questions which I had never asked before:

  1. What was Gandhi’s age when he embarked on the Dandi March?
  2. Why did he walk all the way when he was so old and alternative means of transportation were available for a man of his age and national importance?

If you do not know the answer, Gandhi was 61 and frail. And he walked all that way to do a few very strategic things:

  1. He started with 78 followers but many hundreds joined him from villages and towns on the way to Dandi when they understood what he was up to.
  2. These followers went through the hardship of walking with Gandhi (and he was a fast tireless walker), spent days and nights together, perhaps chanting national revolutionary songs and having heated debates on the British.
  3. Several leaders must have emerged who handled administrative and other tasks as well as showed resilience, courage and ability to manage other people
  4. Put a slow pressure on the British government. It was like a slow boiling kettle of water that threatened the defences of the British system and introduced uncertainty within their system of how to handle this.
  5. Gave Gandhi a chance to take multiple opinions on what exactly to do when they reached Dandi. If Attenborough’s film is to be believed, Gandhi’s people had it organized very well. The British had barricaded the entrance to that particular beach. The people organized themselves in rows of 5-6 people each and approached the entrance while the women went about frantically arranging makeshift beds and medical supplies. When they were ready to start, they simply disobeyed the waiting police phalanx and walked into blows on the head and body by heavy police lathis (sticks) which left them injured and bleeding. The injured were ferried to medical care and the next batch of 5-6 people stepped forward to receive their reward. This kept on happening minute after minute, hour after hour.
  6. He also achieved multiple objectives here, not the most unimportant of those was highlighting the hapless atrocity of the British colonial mindset.
  7. Very importantly, the March exemplified how a strategy can be supported implementationally by tactics. For example, look for a similar strain of thought in the Swadeshi (indigenous) movement, which exhorted people, in a non-violent manner, to stop buying British goods.

Most of these ideas can be connected to many other parts of the History book’s description of the Struggle for Independence in India. Those parts that explain why Gandhi was really a great leader.

However, for most children, these are a group of paragraphs and a set of factual questions waiting to be memorized for the Unit test around the corner.

What are we doing to our children?

The brilliant teacher can not spend too much time on these lines, bound by the pressure of introducing 5000 years of history books paragraphs in a single academic year. No amount of out of class activities and building posters on India’s Independence Movement can recreate the passion or understanding. The less brilliant teacher would perhaps not even know the meaning of “strategic”. 

Certainly, most of them would not have a degree in Instructional and Visual Design or even group collaborative methods. Perhaps one of the most painful things, by way of acknowledging the presence of the Internet, are a few long web links “printed” at the end of the chapter, which the student has to type in to a browser, if she ever has time left over.

I am treating this in agonizing detail because the Grade 5 student studies such books across language, maths, science and social studies as part of their ever expanding curriculum.

Frankly, I think I am missing the point here. Either we should be exposing to children the passions, experiences, concepts and people around us in a way that both informs and generates reflection, or we should stop this waste of precious time – maybe focus on core skills – communication, team work, critical thinking, problem solving etc. – building in them the capability to comprehend more advanced topics later in life.

Maybe the way to teach history is to take a few case studies or topics indicative of the phase or area and let children build the skills to explore and comprehend different aspects in an academic year. They will learn more and retain much more.

Same for curriculum design. If one area cannot build up on another in a mutually reinforcing manner, we are actually enforcing an unnatural specialization upon children. Why, at least in the initial formative years should there be so many different subjects – silos artificially created that compartmentalize and constrain knowledge and learning?

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