In an age where there is constant manipulation of the senses, of decisions regarding lifestyle taking place, the young person is under constant threat to conform or else fall out. The media, the general trends of the times, the value-system of a consumerist society is relentless in its pressure on the young mind. If you have purchasing power, you have lost out completely, for you succumb to the pressures of a lifestyle dictated by media, and friends, of course. The person without this purchasing power falls by the wayside, not really free, and frustrated as well.

In this scenario, teaching social studies, and other humanities subjects is a big challenge, especially when you want children to be able to make intelligent choices, to learn to think independently, to recognise patterns within and outside themselves. When I came across the Avehi-Abacus materials last year, I was deeply impressed by the kind of work the organisation had done and also the scope and width of the work. This then was the answer to the paucity of good Indian materials for school children. As I went through the materials, my impressions intensified and I found myself feeling that at last here was an answer that addressed the curriculum needs of the growing, thinking, evolving middle-school child.

Abacus began in 1952, when Shanta Gandhi, Director of Avehi-Abacus was working with a mixed group of adivasi and non-adivasi childen in Gujarat. The curriculum evolved in response to the needs of the group and the kind of questions that these children asked. In the last three years the Abacus project has focussed largely on the government school system and has helped influence overall curriculum modifications in Maharashtra. It has been able to successfully demonstrate innovations in curriculum in the Mumbai Municipal Corporation schools. The Avehi-Abacus project is committed to empowerment through education and to using the potential of audio-visual media to facilitate rational thinking, social awareness and social change.

The three-year course called Sangati comprises six teaching-learning kits, each on a specific theme, two each for classes 5, 6, and 7. They consist of a teachers’ manual, and set of visual aids. The titles are:

  • Myself, my body, our needs
  • Our earth and the web of life
  • How societies developed
  • The way we live
  • Understanding change
  • Preparing for our future

Reading through the titles of the various kits, it is clear that the kit is not about social studies alone but one that provides a new way of thinking for children, of looking at and interpreting the world around them and themselves; of helping them see the links between everyday experience, and what is formally learnt.

I went through the kit for class 6: How Societies Developed, and The Way We Live¹. The Teachers’ Manual contains detailed plans for the sessions to be conducted during the year, background and supplementary information, and skill building inputs for teachers. I found the materials and the suggestions for the teachers immensely well thought out and sensible. For instance, teachers are asked to help build confidence in the children that they will be heard, their views are valuable, that there is space for differences and divergent opinions.

The structure of the class is built into each kit: there is a component of information dissemination, a lot of discussion and debate, a concrete space for individual questioning and learning and for exploration. In the kit are several modules, titled and planned out for the teacher with great care with step-bystep guidelines.

The kits have teaching aids such as posters, flip charts, picture cards. The beauty of these aids are that besides being attractive and interactive, and providing scope for discussion, these aids are designed to be used in a variety of classroom situations without any external facilities such as projection, electronic equipment, electricity or any tedious preparatory work on the part of the teacher.

In addition to the teachers’ kits, material for students also forms part of Sangati. Worksheets to help students develop their language skills, as well as skills of observation, survey and assessment are included. These worksheets enable the students to apply what is learnt in the classroom, and also to include community/family experiences, as valuable learning resources. In addition, there are fact-sheets and stories, copies of which are made available to every student in the municipal schools in the vernacular. There are also materials to help the process of evaluation and also to help the students see the changes in themselves.

The kit is explicit about the teacher’s role, about why there is a need for this approach to teaching-learning, and for complete honesty and total participation on the part of the teacher.

I found some things very remarkable in the kit.

  • The project makes no apologies about the issues that are dealt with. In fact the manual for class 6 on ‘The World We Live In’, deals with a wide range of issues such as: families, gender, stereotypes, communal violence, about caste and caste-related issues, about economic differences, war and the costs of war, democracy and democratic processes, patriotism.

    The note to the teachers does say that these may seem like adult, or even controversial issues but the reason for inclusion is deliberate and necessary. The main focus has been to make these as relevant as possible to the children’s reality and ensure that the discussions do not remain at a theoretical level, but actually draw on the experiences and opinions of the students.

    StoryFor instance, the story-cum-discussion based on the flip card ‘Maya’s Story’ is about a young girl Maya who tells her story about the male-dominated and autocratic family structure which does not allow her to make decisions about her life. A 16-year-old, she is unhappy about the fact that her father is deciding to get her married. Her mother gives her all the old arguments such as, ‘...put up with it, that is the way the world is and it is all for your good...’ her uncle tries to intervene on her behalf but he is not given any space. Maya thinks of how her father had loved her when she had been younger. She wonders if she could draw out that affection and talk to him about her feelings.

    The story ends there. Children are invited to imagine what happens when Maya steps out to talk to her father, and then through a discussion, look at gender-based discrimination over a wide range of ideas.

  • The project draws on the intelligence of the child, allows for exploration and leaves room for open-ended conversations without labouring a point.

    For instance, to emphasise the point that society is a complex and interconnected web, and that studying some of these threads would help us understand society better, a simple activity is conducted. The children come up one at a time striking a pose and at the same time connecting to someone else already frozen in the ‘people sculpture’. Simple, understated, and clear.

  • The project deals with issues that are contemporary. For instance, when looking at the costs and consequences of war, one of the activities is based on a letter written by American soldiers who had fought many wars and this letter was addressed to soldiers who were to attack Iraq in 2003, asking them not to participate in wars and not to repeat the same mistakes. The questions asked after that are intelligent, reflective and relevant:
    • Are you surprised that soldiers would write a letter like this?
    • What effect do you think it would have on other soldiers who read it?
    • In what ways does war affect other people?
    • If war is so terrible, why do you think governments go to war?
    • Can you think of any other ways in which conflicts between countries can be settled?

    This is then followed by a careful, factual and a well thought-out summing up by the teacher who narrates many peace and antiwar movements. After this, statistics of war and war-related issues are shown through the flip chart. A passage on the plight of women, young students, of ordinary people of Kashmir is read out, where children relate to the fact of the number of killings, maiming, and the psychological toll on young minds in the ‘paradise’ state.

  • Most significant, the teachinglearning process, as brought out through the materials, clearly emphasises a ‘dialogic’ approach, through creating opportunities to express opinions and ideas without embarrassment or fear. This can be seen as the beginning of a process of problem solving, by identifying points of disagreements and moving towards consensus of opinion, by valuing and redefining the problem and finding solutions. And of course, to nurture in children tools to tackle problems together, in a democratic manner. This is possible because the entire curriculum has immediate meaning and relevance to the child.

What more can a teacher of social studies ask for?

¹ How Societies Developed and The Way We Live: Units developed as part of Sangati—an Avehi-Abacus Project, Mumbai