What must social studies teach? An exploration for class six

When I joined Rishi Valley School a little over a year ago, I was introduced to the teachers' resource cupboard, which had files overflowing with reading and reference material for the Social Studies curriculum for Class 6. The topics were centred around 'cities and cultures', but I was told that this was still a curriculum-in-the-making, and that I should exercise my initiative in giving shape to the course and its modes of teaching-learning. I was new to the subject. I was even newer to teaching. After a five-year long hiatus, it almost felt as if I were new to learning itself. It was the classic problem of plenty. A number of questions raced through my mind. Where should I start? What was I to do in my very first class? Even if I acquainted myself with a range of information that I was to share with them, how should I make the curricular and pedagogical choices that would most benefit my students?

Looking back, I realize that I had to start anew with the fountainhead of these questions - why do we teach Social Studies? Since I started introspectively, I asked myself two further questions that could bring in some clarity in my understanding:

What could the term and the subject 'social studies' mean? What must the subject teach the children?

What could the children learn from the subject? What experiences, perspectives or skills could children gain that would contribute to their personal growth?

I reflected that social studies must literally mean the 'study of society'. 'Society' would surely refer to various groups of people and their ways of living, across time. These could be of four types : “ those that include 'me' and those that don't and those that exist today and those that don't. So the subject lent itself to the study of our own culture and that of another civilization or another era. I realized that with these two broad objectives in mind, we could, to begin with, engage in an in-depth study of one civilization from the past, and one from the present; one distant to our sub-consciousness and another, closer home.

But what civilizations or cultures or societies must these be? I had with me reference material and worksheets related to several possible areas of study: Ancient Greece, Rome, China, Banaras and London. Should we study bits of many or many bits of a few? Since these are curious ten- and eleven-year-olds whose imaginations we are aiming to fire, shouldn't we make a choice between breadth and depth of learning rather than try to aim at the delicate balance between the two? As a teacher, I felt my principal aim was to keep my children excited, and thus fuel their curiosity. For, when I look back at my school years, the only lessons I really remember are the ones that I was buoyantly enthused about. I remember most and learnt most, during my childhood, things that I discovered while groping for answers to the questions in my mind. I wanted to give my students the same - not chunks of information they didn't ask for, but little triggers to their curiosity that would lead to discoveries that they could make themselves.

With these ideas at the back of my mind, I began with a study of Ancient Greece and later we went on to Modern Banaras. These proved to be two richly colourful cultural backdrops to delve deeper into specific facets that have contributed to the making of two very distinct societies and legacies.

But what should the study of these societies include and what should it exclude? What ought to be taught through this subject to children of this particular age group? What can children learn through the study of social studies - individually and collectively?

The two basic questions that initially came to mind were:

What comprises culture?

What makes a culture unique?

Understanding the distinctiveness of cultures and human thought

In response to the first question, I came to realize that the canvas of any culture is woven with the threads of the many myths, legends and stories that have sustained the imagination of its people. Each culture has its own distinctive set of ideas and values contained in these stories.

Can we thus weave in storytelling and introduce children to the way myths and legends give us a subtle peek into the minds of a people? The first few classes had me don the storyteller's hat and animatedly narrate to them various myths about the Olympian Gods and other naughty creatures of the Greek world. Some of these stories were bizarre, others seemingly illogical, but all of them gave food for thought - as much for my amused students as for myself. Every story lent itself to heated discussions about the motives of the characters and what they thought the characters should have done. More significantly, the stories led to debates about how they might have been imagined by some Greek grandmother eons ago and, equally importantly, why her children and grandchildren continued to narrate the same stories down the generations. What purposes did these stories serve in representing a world view and in binding the culture together?

The students warmed up with a round of discussions on their ideas about God. Initially, the discussions were impulse-ridden and stemmed from perspectives that gave rise to sharp questions, some born of outrage. Each had their own views on what 'God' or 'gods' ought to be like, and they were alarmed to note the diverse opinions about a question that they thought they clearly knew the answer to. A few of them took longer to accept an opposing view and respect subjectivity in opinion and thoughts. After they had had some time to chew the cud, they began to loosen up in their ideas, and became more open to asking questions. Greek gods were imperfect; they displayed all the human emotions and frailties. Even the idea of perfection in divinity could come under scrutiny. The stories of the origins of gods, beasts and man - seen through the imagination of a particular culture - raised its own set of questions about the place of each in the scheme of things. We later returned to these very questions when stories and myths along the banks of the Ganga spoke of another pantheon of Great Gods of the Indian imagination. Perhaps the students began to hold their idea of 'god' as a question, rather than as a firmly fixed reality.

We also explored another key set of questions: In what ways did the geography of a place affect its culture? How did the forms of human settlements and the manner in which they developed and organized themselves come about? By studying maps and locations, understanding the role of seas, mountains and rivers in human life, we came to understand the distinctively shaped characters of different civilizations - one that bred a rugged people who founded small, fiercely independent city-states, and another whose river bank location spawned another kind of city that built up in layers through several centuries of its history, much of this still lying embedded within its current structures and cultures.

All this gave us clues to exploring the question 'why did people come to think the way they did?' This gave rise to a basic question: how do we know what a people thought? Legacies and relics in the forms of art and architecture, scientific discoveries and innovations, rituals and traditions are great triggers to curiosity. These were seen to be some sources where we could look for answers. But unless we're handed a series of questions to look for answers to, the information about various archeological treasures can become intimidating for children. So without going into too much detail, we explored various facets that made up a city-state in Ancient Greece. The structures of buildings reveal a great deal about their aesthetic sensibilities, how people organized themselves and took decisions that affected them collectively. The structure of the Greek home revealed the chauvinism that pervaded the social structure, even as the location of various temples in Banaras later revealed to us the perceived hierarchy among the gods (and by implication among men!). The relics of yesteryear stood testimony to the distinctly different styles of art that developed in both societies. This led to the obvious question of how archeological relics are unearthed and interpreted. Taking the role of detectives engaged in solving a mystery or attempting to put together a jigsaw puzzle, the children 'discovered' (carefully planted) artefacts, 'found' in our very own sandpit. This was a particularly engaging facet of their learning about cultures.

The place of social studies in the curriculum

Returning to my original questions, I reformulated them as: what could the children learn from the subject? What should the children learn from the subject? On a larger canvas, what must the children learn at this age? Are there any subtle lessons and 'takeaways' for them that might be auxiliary to the objectives of other subjects and can largely be met by this particular subject? These questions began to simplify the challenges that I faced in making curricular and pedagogical choices.

I realized that the ambit of social studies as a curricular area lies somewhere between environmental studies that they study in earlier years, whose scope includes various aspects of the world around us, and the more focussed disciplines of geography, and history into which their learning will bifurcate in later years. What would I want ten- or eleven-year-olds in Class 6 to learn that could build on the explorations of their environment in Class 5 and lay a conceptual foundation for the subjects that lay ahead in Class 7? I found that I could certainly draw on the elements of learning they had already gained from studying various natural and human facets of the world around them (in environmental studies), while anticipating the more focussed skills and scientific approach required in studying landscapes and people on the one hand (in geography), and historical events and causation across time periods (in history) on the other hand.

For instance, we learnt about various geographical features and practised map skills without calling them so. Looking at pictures and simple maps provided occasions for building familiarity with terms such as peninsula, bay, river source, mountain, glacier, and these would be used every now and then in conversation. We ended up having several versions of the meaning of, say, a peninsula, and they did not really have to learn a specific definition. After reading about a train journey across the North Indian plains (to Banaras), they learnt to plot journey routes from their own hometowns to Banaras on an outline map, using symbols and keys.

On another occasion we read through short narratives about the series of wars fought between the Persians and Greeks. These were treated like a game of strategy, with the dates of different battles placed in a time sequence, and the moves by different armies/navies studied, in order to get an understanding of how key historical events were shaped. When the Persians outnumbered the Greeks, what strategy could the Greeks have used to win the Battle of Salamis? We drew a map on the board and created symbols to represent the kind of forces on either side and brainstormed about various possible tactics. The only clue was: it was a 'simple strategy'. The children laughed when one of them suggested that the Greeks could have announced an attack and kept the Persians waiting and finally launched an attack when they got tired standing in the scorching sun. They laughed even more when they realized that this was partly what the Greeks actually did - they announced a 'night attack', and while the Persians waited in vain for the battle, they attacked only after a refreshing and sound sleep! We also discussed the topographical challenges faced by different city-states in Greece, differences between the lifestyles and philosophies of the city-states of Athens and Sparta, the concept of wartime allies and leagues, and the after-effects of war on the rebuilding of society.

While these discussions and activities laid the foundation of a thematic understanding of historical, geographical and sociological aspects, there was also scope for developing several other skills. Could the study of the subject, for instance, also assist children in making the transition from concrete, sensory-based learning, to more conceptual and research-based learning? With a plethora of information awaiting them in libraries and textbooks in the coming years, must we not ensure that this does not overwhelm them? They should learn to separate the wheat from the chaff, focus on key ideas and link concepts. We began with tasks such as reading and summarizing a paragraph or two, and then diagrammatically representing the key ideas in the form of a mind-map. The use of mind-maps was developed further till they could work in groups to sort out wide-ranging and sometimes overlapping reading material based in a common theme, and build more complex connections among ideas. Writing tasks also required them to reflect on their knowledge, figure out reasons and causes, and express their own points of view without hesitation, let alone 'fear'. They were encouraged to put down their thoughts in a 'brainstorm' first, and then begin writing at length. They wrote essays from their own point of view, and wrote letters where they took the role of a Greek God, or a character from the text, enjoying the opportunity that these assignments gave them to let their imaginations roam freely. And I enjoyed reading their thoughts and assessing what they had absorbed from the various class activities and discussions.

Apart from the above kinds of writing and taking on the familiar question-answer format, the children also made creative drawings where they could illustrate an idea, created charts for sharing their research with their classmates, as well as made models and artefacts. After the first few weeks, the children were overflowing with ideas to re-present a newly learnt facet of ancient people depending on their own preferences in art. These began as experiments to make revising and 'revisiting' classroom discussions even more nuanced. They thrilled in decorating their notebooks, began to 'think out-of-the-box' in many ways to present their work and went the extra mile in doing their work. Perhaps it is these work habits and thinking skills that they imbibed on a sub-conscious level of learning that they would carry forward to other aspects of their learning, beyond the subject and beyond the academic year.

Yet the question remained: What could be the distinctive flavour of Social Studies as a subject? How could it step in to help children grow individually and collectively, not only as students but also as people?

Understanding ourselves and human society

Could social studies classes become a platform for loosening up solidified ideas, attitudes, values and beliefs, which are embedded in us from childhood and are soon going to become a strong part of the children's sense of identity? Could we dare to ask some 'strong' questions, without the pressure or assumption of arriving at seemingly 'big' answers? I found, at various junctures, that we had some deeply personal debates. It began with their varying ideas of a 'higher power' in their lives. Later we looked at the significance of myths and their coexistence with scientific thought (as in some of the residents of Banaras). How do the two co-exist - is it tolerance for opposing worldviews or just the uncertainty of our own conviction? And is there a rightful place for both, myths and scientific understanding, so that we need not mix up the two? At another point, while learning about the origin of the Olympic Games, we debated the role of competition. Does it lead to a striving for excellence? A simple laurel wreath seemed to be motivation enough for Ancient Olympic winners. We discussed about how the person who stood second would feel, considering that he may as well have come last in the race. The glory of victory made athletes give their best but could it also make them want to bend the rules and lose their integrity? Also could lack of celebration of victory make athletes complacent and not strive for excellence, leading to a dampening of potential talent? Many points of view were expressed, and we did not come to a settled position on the matter.

Discussions such as these lent themselves to some memorable writings in the children's notebooks; they have been a source as much of my own learning about children as of answering the fundamental question of my role as a teacher of social studies. It is not so much about what they thought and expressed, as what sometimes followed. Some of them wrote to their parents about these questions, for instance, asking them about mythical stories that they had heard from them. Some of them wrote to me, confessing they were confused, but weren't sure if it was okay to say so. They were 'old enough' to know, they assumed! My ten-year-olds were beginning a new phase of discovery - through introspection, retrospection and observation. Many of these led us to long walks in the evenings, discussing other things that were confusing them about life. Small issues, but certainly not trivial.

Just as they were learning to watch their thoughts and putting their opinions forward in class, a lot of other inter-personal issues surfaced. Some of them giggled every time one particular child would answer. Some of them would give a patient hearing to a verbose classmate, regardless of the quality of his contribution to the discussion. Were there already 'images' that they had formed of each other? Did they already have undercurrents of prejudices for each other, for other adults on campus and closer home, for their neighbours in the buildings they lived in?

'Society' in its most limited sense for my children, would mean those within their own class, their dormitories, their school community, as well as family and neighbourhood at home. Can I nudge them into working on their own as well as in small groups to cooperatively accomplish personal and collective goals? Can they, in this process, reflect on their opinions about others, and about themselves? To be able to deeply appreciate that each of them is special in their own way became a pressing concern. This would foster the growth of healthy interpersonal relationships and mutual respect. As various kinds of group work was given and especially when small groups of students attempted to develop a scene from the life of a Greek town, which was to be enacted for others, it was fun watching them feel for each other, fight against the other's word and stand up and take a second look at their own. As the group chemistries developed, with each one playing their part, and the collective drama was performed successfully, children learnt about their own value in relation to others.

A specific theme I introduced was that of 'Diversity and Discrimination' (triggered by the NCERT class 6 textbook on 'Social and Political Life'). Though I was unsure of whether there could be any visible difference in the way they interact with each other after this, I decided to go ahead with an experiment - of exposing them directly to their own prejudices as well as ignorance of their dependence on others. We discussed: what would it be like to live in a world where only potatoes were grown, only two colours existed, and everyone read the same two books while growing up? The two points I wanted to make were: everyone is unique; and everyone's uniqueness contributes to a vibrant world. But then the questions arose: is everyone appreciated, or thanked for being different? Again it was stories of real people, selected fables and a short video film that opened up the children's world to various kinds of differences, and how people might react to these differences. Whereas individuality, inequality, differentiation and discrimination might be terms that my students were unfamiliar with, they could very well catch the ideas behind them, without grappling with the terms themselves. As stories were told and discussed, their responses to these ideas became less impulsive, more thoughtful, with each class. They had heard about children their age not being able to go to school, being forced into work such as ragpicking or factory labour; but after a particular film viewing they came to see how the vicious circle of poverty affected the lives of so many children their own age. I've never seen class 6 as quiet as it was the next few minutes. Slowly a few questions trickled in: what could they do? How could they contribute to bringing a change to the lives of these other children? I smiled at the responses and suggestions this brought from their own classmates.

But this was still in reference to a world somewhat distant from their lives. Can they also consider their awareness of, and approach to, people known to them, people other than those who are friends and family: the servants at home, the workers at school? Can I structure experiences that might help them in being a little more thoughtful, a trifle more affectionate and somewhat more accommodating of others, as they make way for the course of their own lives in the world? Do these children know how many people make an impact on the smooth functioning of their daily lives without receiving a 'thank you'? How are we all inter-dependent? These were moving questions. And in many cases their own answers shocked them. Whether it was the realization of their ignorance during interviews that they took of some of the various 'significant but unseen' contributors to their student lives (the watchman, the dairy-worker, the women in the dining hall, the tailor etc.) or the assignment that asked for writing everything they knew about any of their domestic helpers - their backgrounds, their routines, their families, their dreams - the children were left either pensive or moved by their discoveries.

Other questions that we examined were: How do we make space for other people? How do we arrange ourselves and function as a society? Another kind of experiential learning that I attempted concerned the process of decision-making in human societies, which, on a broader scale, can take place within structures ranging from monarchy to democracy.

While these children may not be able to conceptualise the detailed workings of various systems of governance, they could certainly appreciate alternate modes of decision-making in contexts closer to home and link these to the others. So we discussed issues such as: how do we decide upon what drill or display should be put up by class 6 on Sports Day? How do we decide upon holiday homework for the class?

These decisions could be taken by:

The principal/co-ordinator alone (Monarchy)

The above authority in discussion with the class teacher for class 6 (Aristocracy)

The above authorities along with a few selected students from each section (Oligarchy)

Discussion among all the students and concerned teachers (Democracy)

What would be the fastest way to decide? Which would mean minimum effort, or minimum dissent or maximum satisfaction among the class? After a suitably chaotic uproar in deciding the best options, the children wrote down the pros and cons of each option feverishly to clear their minds. During the debates that followed, they recognized the rationale and strengths as well as some of the loopholes of democracy.

A final theme, which moved many of the students, was a Powerpoint exposition of the beautiful course of the river Ganga. It ended with a story describing the multiple environmental problems that people have inflicted upon it, ranging from pollution to the damming of its flows, to the creeping problem of receding glaciers. The last topic brought up an awareness that even ten- and eleven-year-olds are beginning to have, that of global warming. They demanded that this be explained to them as clearly as possible. In the final class the whole class sat down and prepared posters to raise awareness and suggest action that could slow down the march of global warming.

 

Comments

nrawal's picture

Very good article. I myself taught Social Studies( or Social Science as it is called these days) in various schools to the students of classes 6th to 10th and did use various ways to make the subject interesting as well as informative. I am happy that we have teachers like you in India. Keep it up !

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