Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Practicality of Gandhi’s vision of “education through the hands” today

“The old idea was… the craft was to be taken in hand wholy separately from education. To me, that seems a fatal mistake… The brain should be educated through the hands. Why should you think that the mind is everything and the hands and the feet are nothing?” Mahatma Gandhi said while addressing the teachers gathered in Wardha for a three week training program in February 19391. Is this still relevant today? Let’s explore.

Gandhi illustrated his point through the example of hand spinning. He said, “Take the instance of hand-spinning. Unless I know arithmetic, I cannot report how many yards of yarn I have produced on the takli… Take geometry next. What can be a better demonstration than the disc of the takli? I can teach all about the circle in this manner, without even mentioning the name of Euclid.” He said one could teach history through the history of cotton.

Gandhi’s address is more than 70 years old. So let’s first check if the basic claim still holds according to the state-of-the-art research. Nobel Laureate Daniel Kahneman writes in his best seller Thinking, fast and slow, “As cognitive scientists have emphasized in recent years, cognition is embodied; you think with your body, not only with your brain2.” For example, when you hold a warm cup of tea, you are more likely to think that the other person at the table is trustworthy after only a brief interaction. So looks like the basic claim still holds.

I feel that a more general principle underlying this vision is related to experiential learning. How do you create opportunities for students to experience the new concept through the body? In my lecture on introduction to design thinking at IIMB last week, each student re-designed a wallet for his/her partner. At the end, everybody prototyped their best idea using craft paper and got it validated from the partner. When students are learning about empathy, they actually interview shopkeeprs, people on the street or whoever is relevant to the topic. Case study method is another form of creating an experience, though it is somewhat weaker than “doing by hand” method.

What about literature? How do you create an experience? One low-cost medium is theatre. When you enact a literary piece, you are creating experiences especially for the participants. However, I am sure there are topics for which it may not be easy to create experiences, say for example, wave functions in Quantum Mechanics?

Gandhi held a strong view on this. He said in the same Wardha address, “I have said that all instruction must be linked with some basic craft. When you are imparting knowledge to a child of 7 or 10 through the medium of an industry, you should, to begin with, exclude all those subjects which cannot be linked with the craft. By doing so from day to day you will discover ways and means of linking with the craft many things which you had excluded in the beginning.” I feel that such exclusion is neither necessary nor practical.

For me the key take-away is this. For every concept that is being taught, I ask, “How can I create an opportunity for the student to experience the concept?”

1.     Gandhi’s address in Wardha is available online here. Also in “Mahatma: Life of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi” by D. G. Tendulkar, Volume 5 (1938-1940), The Publications Division, Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, Govt of India, pages 41-43.
2.     Kahneman’s statement is in “Thinking, fast and slow”, page 51.

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