Social studies for a just society

Archna of AID-Chicago and Aravinda visited Avehi Abacus and saw how a social studies classroom is taking on caste and gender issues.  Aravinda writes…..


How do we reflect upon social issues such as caste and gender?  Are these topics we read about in history books in order to write optimistic analyses for elocution competitions and examination questions?  Or do these issues continue to impact our everyday life experience?  How can young people unravel, explore and articulate their own perspectives on these issues?

With such questions in mind a team of educators and artists in Mumbai developed a curriculum on social studies and worked with the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation to implement it in more than 900 schools throughout the city.  Called the Avehi-Abacus project, the program includes a series of books containing lessons for students of age 10-16, called Sangati, along with materials for pre-service teacher training, called Manthan.

Drawing from literature, science and other disciplines, the Sangati curriculum is designed with the aim of helping students make sense of their personal experiences at home and in their neighborhoods in a broader social, political and historical context.  Students read articles and stories, discuss questions and also engage in interactive exercises that help probe and question assumptions about the way things are or are supposed to be.  The lessons also raise broader issues about paradigms of development and sustainable environment.

In the Sangati classes, the students are not graded or tested; moreover many of the questions concern children’s own experiences and so no two answers will be alike.  Students can think about what the questions mean to them, rather than how many marks their answer will receive.  For example, after reading about Savitri bai Phule who worked for the cause of education for women and girls and against caste oppression, children reflected on gender roles in their own families.  They read stories raising caste issues such as Premchand’s Thakur ka Kuan (Thakur’s well) and Eklavya.

In the course of a discussion we observed when visiting a classroom during the Sangati session, the teacher asked students questions such as,

“What have been the conventional roles expected of men and women?”

“Have you ever experienced or witnessed prejudice based on caste?BMC student in Sangati class

“How has society changed?”

“How does education play a role in changing society?”

“Was Dronacharya a great teacher?”  (क्या द्रोणाचार्य महान गुरु थे?).

“If your teacher asked you for such a guru-dakshina what would you do?”

It was interesting to see the dynamics of power in the classroom layered upon those of society at large and to observe children struggling to navigate the two as they responded to their teachers.  Sangati offers students one class period, free from grades and ranks, in which they are encouraged to think about the purpose of education itself, and about how put into practice values of equality and justice in their own homes and neighbourhoods.

More than 2 lakh children and 10,000 teachers in 905 schools of the Municipal Corporation of Greater Mumbai use the Sangati curriculum.   AID supports Avehi Abacus in training teachers to implement the program and in their broader goal of strengthening public education.