V is for Victory, Vygotsky, and the Vedas

Vinod's problem is that he is frozen up inside. He knows perfectly well that soft means mulayam or naram. When I say "find something soft/mulayam" he looks out into the distance or at the sky or clownishly scratches his head. Then I say, "Well, what's the opposite of soft/mulayam/naram?" He again looks at the expanse, the sky, scratches his head.  


To be Frozen-Up-Inside is a common problem for village children and city children, poor children and rich children if they have, as Vinod has, been scolded and beaten as children for doing or not doing things that were never properly explained to them in the first place. A Frozen-Up-Inside child cannot learn because the simplest thing told him which he knows well cognitively hits against the wall he has erected in his head and does not permeate into his consciousness. 


So with Vinod you go back still further to the basics and adopt humour. Is a cow soft or hard? A house? A bottle? A river? His hair? You realise that there is ambiguity about these concepts. It's a great thing to learn to categorise. But what about hard hair versus soft hair? Water in a bottle versus water in a river? A quilted bag versus a bag made of hard materials? So then you realise that all you have to do is teach the labels for everything. Thus-and-thus is soft, thus-and-thus is hard—for us adults. Children can get the hang of that. It's sort of "Okay, I get it. That's how you name things in the adult world and I can figure that out." 


Vinod has learnt how to read phonetically. If he can be forced to look at the words, and not at the sky and the fields, he can sound out each letter, join sounds, and even guess at the final word. The whole trick is to get him to look at the word and not elsewhere. 


By now, as you can guess, in our particular lesson I have forced him to pay attention to letters and sound them out. He can get "The door is hard"—but after fifteen times of going back to correct the initial "soft" that comes automatically to his mouth. After he reads sentence two, I ask him to repeat one. After three, to repeat two. 


We have started at 10 and it's 12.30. 


Victory is ours. Vinod has drawn a palm tree with five fronds holding five objects, coloured them beautifully, written five sentences, conceptualized hard, smooth, sticky etc., and practiced a lot of phonetic sounds. 


Has it been worth it? 


That depends totally on what the goal is.  


If the goal is that Vinod should learn some concepts of touching and feeling, or some similar "Environmental Studies" topic, then—no, this has not been achieved and this is not the way. The terms and the categories are too ambiguous. There is no humour or fun and no connection to anything in life. Vinod should make connections between what he is learning and the world around him. I strove to make it relevant to him above by making him run around to every door banging it and shouting "Door!" By discussing his hair. By bringing in cows and buffaloes. But it should be done fearlessly from the beginning to the end. 


If the goal is that Vinod should become fluent in oral English—then yes, he is on the right track. In one year he could be fluent. But we could make it easier and quicker for him and definitely for ourselves by giving him more direct work: picture—word, picture—word. Cartoon—words. Activity—words.  


Vinod should learn how to read and write English and take pleasure in doing so. With some—correction—with a lot of  hard work on our part, he could do that. But he could do it easier with more planned work that uses scaffolding patterns. 


If the goal is that Vinod should develop self-confidence as a learner and know that he can tackle a variety of tasks—yes, in one month, he could learn that. 


If one works with him. 


10 to 12.30 is just the beginning. We have to have endless patience. Plus, humour and lightheartedness. We have to glimpse the potential. We have to make slowness and stupidity the enemy, and studies into a lark that, together with being fun, will defeat the enemy. Then we can together march in this crusade.  


            Coming back to the technique of "scaffolding," it was the remarkable Soviet psychologist Lev Vygotsky, who discussed the scenario of "proximal development." Children are typically on the verge of a conceptual discovery, and a little help from friends makes them reach it. Instead of random teaching exercises, and established gradations of teaching that have not been revised with good observational data, we could have beautiful plans that provide just the right scaffolding for children to develop. They would still learn to work independently, which is the goal, but be supported in their learning with the right materials and teacher input.  


            If the goal is to prove that village children in India can learn as energetically and successfully as city children, then of course Vinod's case proves that. Many educators, including Maria Montessori and Rudolf Steiner, first worked with disadvantaged children, and, ironically, their techniques are now applied in the most elite schools. Scaffolding for Vinod and his village peers could provide the design for education at all levels in India. 


A thought about the Vedas. An example about the way the Vedas enters our education in India would be a teacher effortlessly sliding into a Vedic narrative about the fire sacrifice while teaching the Hindi alphabet 'ya' that starts the word 'yagya' (the ritual) or the letter 'a' that starts 'agni' (fire). The teacher may not know many stories but reference in a vague way the corpus of religious storied for children published by the Gita Press, stories that are not particularly imaginative or child-centred. 


            While we say that to teach with reference to your environment is a necessary and good thing, and while both fire and the fire ritual are alive in the chlld's environment, there is a problem with an reflexive use of Vedic stories. The anthropologist Agehanand Bharati puts it succinctly when he explains what he calls "the Hindu Renaissance," 


"A radical statement of the tenets of the Renaissance would be…India has forgotten her marvellous past; this past contained not only material and cultural wealth, it also offered a complete solution of all problems of the individual and of society. There is nothing—material, spiritual, or cultural—which ancient India has not brought forth…. India was the home of perfect men—men who owned wealth and renounced it for the quest of wisdom and purity.... India now can and should have both the worlds: She can learn the tricks of the West, but she must live the teachings of perfection as only her ancients knew it."      (Bharati 1970:176) 


            This ideology may sound amusing to some of us but has pernicious effects when used solemnly by millions of adults in India. It defeats all efforts to teach children academic rigour and critical thinking. It contradicts the procedures of History, Literary Criticism, Religious Studies, the Sciences, and the Social Sciences.  


            So, educate yourselves, teachers. Read more stories and sift them for yourselves! 




Nita Kumar

Hon. Director, NIRMAN

N 1/70 Nagwa, Varanasi, India

Brown Family Professor Emerita of S Asian History

Claremont McKenna College, CA 91711

My new book: Women, Gender and History in India 


Read my blog! https://nitakumar.wordpress.com/


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