Trails to the Past

Trails to the Past

The ordinary apparatus of historiography … is most at ease when made to operate on those larger phenomena that visibly stick out of the debris of the past…. A critical historiography can make up for this lacuna by bending closer to the ground in order to pick up the traces …” Ranajit Guha 1

Looking at the Ground

One day as my daughter and I sat down in Ponduru, we found in our hands a piece of the ground. It was coming off like puzzle pieces, revealing a layer of moist earth underneath. Someone had laboured to spread this layer on the ground outside their home. Though we knew this, it was so easy pick off, and so hard to resist doing so. What lay beneath? Why had the two layers dried differently? What were they made of and why?

A few neighbours gathered, perhaps amused by our curiosity. They had laid this ground, or ground just like it, adjacent to it. On ground like this they had learned to walk. They thought no more about it than second-generation city-dwellers like ourselves think about the tiles in our house.

Layers of Mud1

Layers of Ground. Ponduru, 2013. Photo: Krishna Yashwanth

But here we were, observing the different properties of the layers of ground. The upper layer was made of cow dung, and we could still see some grass in it. “The cow did not chew properly,” my daughter remarked. Why had they spread the cow dung in front of their home? Fertilizer? Good luck? “Antiseptic,” we heard someone say. How would we know? Could we test these three properties?

Fertilizer, being the most widely known use of cow dung, was also the easiest for us to test, having had some experience with it in our own garden. Last year we collected dung from a local cowherd to make gobbemalu for Sankranti. Afterwards we used these in our garden and saw a marked difference in the growth and flowering of the plants, especially the bougainvillea. We could easily repeat this and even do a controlled experiment using dung in one part of the garden but not the other. How to design a test for good luck? Or antiseptic? How would these tests, and our interpretations of the results, differ?

Feeling the pieces of ground, we saw how the top layer had dried, cracked and curled up at the edges, almost inviting us to pick it up and examine it like a puzzle piece – or like countries and continents. We could make pieces drift apart or come together, as if the moist earth below was the ocean.

Lifting one layer of dirt had sent us far back in time.

What Happened Here?

Sometimes we play a little game. Let’s call it “The History Game.” At home or outside, we look around and ask, what does what we see tell us about what happened here in the last few hours? Or the past few days? What is our evidence for saying so? How reliable is this evidence? Could someone conclude something different from the same evidence? What might possibly make us doubt this evidence? What alternate explanations are there?

We once asked these questions about a round pile of leaves, a few inches high. It was just a few feet outside of our gate. My daughter said, “this pile of leaves has been here for weeks. I have seen it here many times before.” Pointing out the different kinds of leaves, she added, “the leaves have come from near and far trees, because see this kind of leaf did not come from any of these trees.” So we talked about how they might have arrived – by the wind? or did someone sweep them? How long would such a neatly swept pile stay that way? How often do leaves fall? Now did we still think that the same pile of leaves had been there for weeks?

My daughter asked, “Why would anyone want to know the history of a pile of leaves?”

The Lie of the Land

“As it happens,” I warmed to my story, “several years ago, an important question was answered by asking just such questions about a pile of junk in a particular village in the Narmada Valley.” People living in the valley were told by the government that their village was not in the submergence zone of the planned Sardar Sarovar Project, and therefore they were not eligible for rehabilitation. People did not believe this, but who would believe them? It was their word against government records. The indigenous people were unlettered, and spoke Pavri on one side of the river, and Bhilali on the other. Together, they had weathered rains, floods and had observed the changes in the valley as each inch of the dam came up. They had lived there for generations, worked the land with their own hands and honoured the river as their mother. They knew Narmada would rise more than the level forecasted by the Central Water Commission. To challenge the government engineers however, they would need to prove it.

It turned out the location of a particular collection of debris yielded evidence of the level to which the Narmada river had risen during the floods of 1970. It matched levels indicated by people living on the other side of the river. With that piece of data, the people living in the Narmada Valley challenged the government survey records of their villages, that had erroneously resulted in a lower flood level calculation. Accurate land records were crucial in the people’s struggle over land rights and rehabilitation2. To plan for the future it was vital to know the past.

* * * * *

A Critical Discipline

 …. history is a critical discipline, a process of enquiry, a way of knowing about the past, rather than just a collection of facts.

These bold words on the study of history come from the Central Board of Secondary Educationii. But how many students experience history this way, whether in school or out? Are teachers and students encouraged to criticize and enquire? What if the critical enquiry led us to question the very statements presented as “facts” in our history books? Why these facts and not others? Are these facts even facts? What if they are lies?

What if a historian did for Indian History what James Loewen did for American History?  He not only identified lies told and retold in history books but also in museums and monuments across the United States. His two books, Lies My Teacher Told Me and Lies Across America have helped teachers and students seeking to bring out other stories, to challenge the heroic national narrative, and recognize the aspirations of people working against the grain of that narrative, or even crushed in the process. Next door, journalist Raza Rumi has written critically about the textbooks of Pakistan.

Indian history textbooks have undergone an overhaul since I last taught from one twenty years ago, when I found myself explaining and apologizing to students for inaccurate, inconsistent, and injurious statements in every chapter. Today’s NCERT History textbook offers a refreshing approach to the study of history. The book itself acknowledges the limitations in our knowledge and invites the reader to question sources of information and to interpret from diverse perspectives.

And yet.

Are students today asking questions in the class? Or are they waiting for the “Question Answer” sheet to be dictated so that they can prepare for the exam? Can you guess whether the following statements come form a primary or secondary, private or government, elite or international school?

The only questions I heard asked during my classes were about whether the material being covered that day would be on the examiii.”

[Students tend to] focus on recalling the content of the varied materials they read rather than analyzing them as historical evidenceiv.”

The first comes from Thane Richard, a student of St Stephens College, University of Delhi and the second from Victoria Brown, professor of history at Grinnell College in Iowa.

To encourage students to overcome this tendency, Victoria Brown has written a history textbook Going to the Source, that would help students practice history, to think like historians rather than simply read the works of other historians. The Central Board of Secondary Education expresses a similar vision. Here is the introduction to the history syllabus:

The syllabus would help them understand the process through which historians write history, by choosing and assembling different types of evidence, and by reading their sources critically.  They will appreciate how historians follow the trails that lead to the past, and how historical knowledge developsv.

Follow the Trails

Must this approach to history wait until the secondary school or college level?

Reading sources critically involves just the sorts of skills that children exhibit from the time they become verbal. Why? How do you know? Who said? But … What if? Answering these questions requires us to go backwards in time – to explain what came before, and how that is related to this. Children are actually begging for history and answering such questions is our first opportunity to follow the trails that lead to the past.

A persistent “why?” or a sharp “how do you know?” from an upstart toddler makes many an adult cringe. Yet it is this enquiring spirit that blazes the trails to the past by making us remember explanations for customs and procedures we have long taken for granted. Will they withstand the questioning? Or will they have to change? What is history for if not for social change – beginning at home. When we see that potential at home, we gain courage to practice this in the world, to question authority and believe and to have the courage to search for the answers, even as each answer leads to a further question.

It is easy to blame history books and history classes for the dullness of history. But would class be dull if students could talk back? If students could say what came to their minds, without fear of looking dumb or distracting from the lesson? Many teachers recognize the value of the student’s skepticism and offbeat questions but shush them out of pressure to complete the syllabus, even if that very syllabus calls for the encouragement of critical questions.

In fact, it is the refusal to entertain irreverent questions, especially from young people that dullens the sharp inquiring spirit which children express almost as soon as they learn to talk. The National Curriculum Framework textbooks call for that inquiring spirit – in history as well as in science. NCERT Director Krishna Kumar says, “The books are based on the recognition that the children construct knowledge with the help of experience and activities. In every area, from science and maths to social science and language children must be given a space to reflect, ask questions, wonder, and probe sources of knowledge outside the textbookvi 

I have witnessed the potential of freedom from the expectation of giving the right answer. We don’t even realize how much this expectation colours our response to the content of textbooks until we see someone who has not yet absorbed this expectation. A child who is not yet used to the idea that what she is supposed to do in response to a question appearing in a textbook is to “get the right answer” or even answer the given question, may offer a whimsical answer, ask an entirely different question, or find fault with the given question, going off on detours from which s/he may or may not return, sooner or later, to the route mapped in the syllabus. What happens when a child does this? Do we encourage them, listen to them, follow their train of thought? Or do we steer back to the syllabus, and to the (right) answer and on to the next question?

If we do the latter, we will be getting colder and colder on the trails to the past.


1 Guha, Ranajit. ‘Chandra’s Death’. Subaltern Studies V: Writings on South Asian History and Society. Ed. Ranajit Guha. Delhi: Oxford UP, 1987, page 138.  Available online (go to chapter 2).

2 Ravi Kuchimanchi, who helped the villagers expose errors in the government survey records, explains this in “The Height of Inaccuracy,” published in The Hindu, June 17, 2001.

http://www.hindu.com/2001/06/17/stories/13170612.htm

ii Annexure K of the History Syllabus issued by the Central Board of Secondary Education, Ministry of Human Resource Development

http://cbseacademic.in/web_material/Circulars/2012/47_ClassXII/K_History_XII..pdf

iv Victoria Bissell Brown and Timothy J. Shannon, Going to the Source:  The Bedford Reader in American History.  Boston:  St. Martin’s Press, 2004.

vCBSE History Syllabus.

vi“Teaching profession is in a deep crisis.” Interview with Krishna Kumar by Vasantha Surya, Frontline March 1-14 2008  http://www.frontlineonnet.com/fl2505/stories/20080314250509200.htm

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Is there a curriculum in this house?

Is there a curriculum in this house?

1. Day in the Life

Kanti wakes up and starts telling the story of her dream to her mother, Shanti.  The story involves some balls rolling down some hills or steps or slides – she can’t really tell and in the dream they sort of morphed into one another.  She closes her eyes again for some time.  Then she jumps up to find some balls and starts rolling them down the steps and then creates a slanted surface with some pillows and rolls the balls at various angles.  She folds her sheets, lays them over the pillows and rolls balls down that too.  Over breakfast their conversation goes to bicycles, gauging the slope of a road by riding your bike (more easily than you can by walking), how to gain momentum to continue riding uphill without pedalling, and how long that will last.  She also tells her father, Ganti, what her friend told her the other day when they rode bicycles together.  The conversation reminds her of another friend and she goes to skype with that friend.  On skype they play a guessing game for a while and then log in to Khan Academy together to show each other their programs.

At lunch she has pulusu and rice in a steel plate and when she spins the plate she observes the pulusu liquid spin to the edge of the plate while the rice and vegetable pieces remain in the middle.  She then spins faster and sees the motion of the vegetable pieces and rice as well.  She puts the rice and vegetables in different parts of the plate and observes the motion when she spins the plate.

She reads a book and later enacts some of the scenes of the book using some beads (pretending they are the characters).  Afterwards she makes some things out of clay and pretends that she is running a shop.  She makes some clay money as well.  She keeps accounts, tracks expenses and profits as well.  Some objects cost more because they use a lot of clay, some because they require more skill.  Some are made of clay plus other things like toothpicks or cardboard pieces.

In the bathroom she watches the water dripping from the tap into a mug and overflowing into a bucket and observes the ripples as they fall.  Because the mug is tilted the ripples are not circular but in an oval shape.  She recognizes the focal points.  She observes the periodic nature of the overflow from the mug to the bucket.

“Kanti!” her friends calling at the window shake her from her thoughts. “Coming!” she shouts back in reply. She quickly finishes her bath and gets ready to go out to play.  Outside she and her friends decide what game(s) to play using an elaborate decision making process.  They then play the various games until every one has to go home.

Ganti asks her if she wants to go to the store.  She says, “can we take the long cut?”  “Okay,” he says as they go out.  Rather than walk on the main road, she walks across the open lot behind their neighbourhood, around some drainage pipes that she can climb, and through a cluster of houses that have come up near a construction site.  She plays with some dogs along the way.  On the way back it starts raining and she knows where on the open lot the puddles would start to form and goes there to splash and also to look for earthworms.  She can not find any worms and so plans to come back the next day.

When she gets back home her shoes and clothes are thoroughly muddy and she stops first at the bathroom to change and dry off.  She asks her dad not to scrape the mud from her shoes but to leave them to dry like that so that she can walk with heavy shoes and then chisel the dried mud off with a rock, as she had done once before.

She and her mom start making rolls. She plays with the dough for a long time, which is useful because it needs to be kneaded.  Otherwise it will not rise.  “Why?”  she asks.  Shanti explains that kneading the dough combines different proteins to make gluten which makes the dough stretchy.   They place the dough in a bowl, cover with a damp cloth and leave it to rise.  After dinner they punch down the dough and form it into rolls.  These will now rise again for an hour and then bake for half an hour.  But now they are so tired that no one wants to stay up and bake them after an hour much less eat them when they are done.  They decide to make them the next morning, and to prevent premature rising, they put the entire tray of rolls in the fridge.

Her dad tells her a story of Akbar and Birbal.  She interrupts frequently, leading to a number of tangential conversations, but always coming back to the story, until they fall asleep.


In the course of the day a variety of questions have come up – about fluid flow, physical forces, economics, properties of materials, biochemical reactions, emperors, worms, and so on. These questions will remain and help to sort out other experiences and data that Kanti comes across, and in turn she will have further questions.   To prepare for the next time she and Kanti will talk about gluten, Shanti has looked up some information about how it gets activated in the kneading process and is ready to show its molecular structure using paper clips.  Is this conversation about gluten child-led?  Adult-led?  Led by the desire for bread?  Kanti plans to go back to the ground the next day to search for earthworms.  Had she not gone the previous day with Ganti, she might not have made this plan.  If she lived in a house where getting muddy was frowned upon, it would be less likely to happen.  Or more likely – depending on how risk-averse (or frown-averse) Kanti was.

This path, wondering, pondering, meandering as it may be, comes from within.  Suggestions, expectations, requirements and other stimuli come from the outside world but the way one receives and responds to them comes from within. Though the specific things Kanti says and does cannot be predicted in advance, they are influenced by whatever she and those around her have said and done before.  Underlying it all is an intricate fabric.


2. Is there a curriculum in this house?

I ask this question with an echo.  An echo that, like every echo, echoes another.

This echoes Stanley Fish:  “Is there a text in this class?”

“Is there a text in this class?” is a question posed by a student to a teacher who then reported this question to Stanley Fish, who then shared the story in the opening paragraph of his essay titled, “Is there a Text in this Class?”  It is published in a book of essays, under the title, Is There a Text in this Class? The Authority of Interpretive Communities (Harvard, 1980).

You can read the article online here or download a copy of it from teacherweb.

“Is there a text in this class?”

Here is how Stanley Fish encountered and in turn posed this question:

On the first day of the new semester a colleague at Johns Hopkins University was approached by a student who, as it turned out, had just taken a course from me.  She put to him what I think you would agree is a perfectly straightforward question:  “Is there a text in this class?”  Responding with a confidence so perfect that he was unaware of it (although in telling the story, he refers to this moment as ” walking into the trap”), my colleague said, “Yes; it’s the Norton Anthology of Literature,” whereupon the trap (set not by the student but by the infinite capacity of language for being appropriated) was sprung:  “No, no,”  she sad, “I mean in this class do we believe in poems and things, or is it just us?”

– Stanley Fish, “Is There a Text in This Class?” in Is There a Text in this Class? The Authority of Interpretive Communities (Cambridge: Harvard, 1980), p. 305.

The question “is it just us?” refers to the idea that the reader is part of the text, and that the meaning of the text comes from the experience of reading, and is not a fixed and finished product of writing.

But is there such a thing as “just us?” Are we not in turn formed by our interactions with everything around us, including the text before us?  Rather than conclude that a text has no meaning, Fish proposes that we find that meaning in the interplay between reader and text.

“Meaning is an event, something that happens, not on the page, where we are accustomed to look for it, but in the interaction between the flow of print (or sound) and the actively mediating consciousness of a reader-hearer.”

– Stanley Fish, Surprised by Sin: The Reader in Paradise Lost, (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1971), p. x.

And so it is for curriculum.

Curriculum is determined not by the external sources (where we are accustomed to look for it) but by the interaction between the flow of external sources and the actively mediating consciousness of the living learner.

Curriculum is not just that thing that schools and traditional homeschoolers use. Curriculum is a path of thought inherent to everyone who thinks. Like a river charts a course by flowing, and explorers blaze trails by walking, we pursue ideas by thinking, in communication with the sea of ideas that surrounds us.

Nor is free thinking and self-directed learning only (or necessarily) practiced by those who are not in school or not “following a curriculum.” Even those using a rigidly prescribed curriculum must actively mediate in order to draw meaning from it, within the social context in which it is embedded.


What it would it be not to follow a curriculum?
To follow whim?
What is whim?  Does it come from nothing?  What is nothing?  Is there (ever) nothing?  Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “Do not go where the path may lead, go instead where there is no path and leave a trail.”
Is there such a thing as “no path?”
Was Kanti walking where there is no path when she rejected the main road in favour of the open lot and through the neighbourhood?  Let us look at the factors that influenced her decision:
  • open lot route was interesting – pipes to climb, puddles to splash,etc
  • road was same old route, hence boring
These are just facts about the two routes.  These alone might not determine her preference each time.  What influenced her decision that particular day?
  • had time to take the “long cut”
  • had taken it before and hence knew about it
  • wanted to feel the mud on her shoes
  • dogs
  • vehicle traffic on the main road
  • position of sun, which way the wind blew
  • other factors we don’t know
Her path was as much influenced by the existence of the main road, which she found unattractive, perhaps because it was too neat, orderly, paved and fixed, as by any particular feature of the open lot and winding alley paths.
Though the path may not be there on the ground, the path is there in the mind, and that directs one’s footsteps on the ground.  Every time we take a step, there is something behind our step, leading us to take this step and not some other step.  And one step leads to another.
Writing in Mud

Question Answers

Question Answers

Walking around the neighbourhood, I heard a boy and girl talking. Both were in 4th standard, one in a government school and one in a private school.

"Everything they are teaching me in school … I have already learned beyond," the boy commented.

My ears perked up. I caught up with them and casually inserted myself in their conversation. "How did you learn it already?" I inquired.

"Reading!" he said.

"Reading what?" I asked.

He named Magic Tree House, and some other titles.

He continued, "All our teachers have changed this term. Our new teacher for social studies is so slow. We have finished only 4 lessons. There are 8 in all."

The girl had a similar story with certain subjects in her school that were progressing too slowly for her liking as well. Both of these kids are bright and studious, with parents very much involved in their education.

"But you can always read ahead if you want," I countered.

"No but the question answers!" they both said at once.

"Question answers?" I asked, puzzled.

The long and short of it is that for each chapter or lesson in a given subject, the teacher assigns some questions. Apparently, they also give out the answers. Even if the kids read ahead to the later lessons, in order to prepare for the exam, they must wait for the "Question Answers."

From where do the teachers get these answers? I asked

"She will look at last year’s papers, from someone who wrote a good answer and tell us all to write that. For example, if the question is, ‘what happened to the boy?’ We will have to write ‘the boy fractured his leg.’" A sing-song tone automatically came into their voice when they recited the answer.

"What if you write something else that happened to the boy?" I asked "Or might have happened?" I wondered – something I could well imagine my daughter writing.

"No we have to write the answer they give us."

So their answers would all be the same? Word for word? Or could they write it in their own words?

"Only for some answers we can write in our own words. The rest of them have to be in the same words." they replied.

Isn’t this what those students at Harvard got sacked for? "[O]n final-exam questions, some students supplied identical answers …" (The Hindu, 2 February 2013)

However what is different here is that writing identical answers on the exam is not considered cheating, it is in fact what the students are instructed to do. The better they can do it, the higher will be their grade and thus the higher the ranking of the school itself. Who benefits from this?

These children in my neighbourhood have opportunities to learn outside of school. The flaws of the school may have frustrated them at times but on the whole they did not seem to mind and even found them amusing. They had learned how to work the system, much as I had when I was a student. Though no teacher ever dictated word-for-word answers, we often had multiple choice questions, which still amounted to identical answers expected from all students.

We learned how to work the system and we learned to be happy about that. We learned not to ask for more and to save our curiosity till after school. What we did not have was a place to be curious together and in the open, or even know that we were not alone. We knew about what we did from 7:30 – 2:30, and we knew about all the homework we did afterwards … these were all the things we had in common. What in retrospect seems obvious now, is that we must have all indulged in wandering thoughts. After class and even during class …

In school, we had to answer questions. To question answers we slipped into our own worlds of beckoning possibilities, where nothing was dumb or embarrassing or took up valuable time of other students or risked offending authorities. There normal force, set, commutative property – these had to answer to us. What on earth are you and if you are so obvious why are you in our textbook? Clearly there is more than meets the eye … only no one would tell us about it or even admit it – it is so easy, the impatient silence seemed to insist whenever I even began to raise a doubt about these concepts in the classroom, get on with it!

Studying History

“Studying history is …. pretty much useless, isn’t it?” my daughter asked, as if it was fairly obvious.  “I mean why read about Columbus discovering America, when it isn’t even true?”

Alarmed.  All senses alert.
Mission: Rescue the field of history.   Why?  
 
Think.  Think.  
 
Meanwhile, don’t answer.   A weak response merely invites rebuttal.  Then what?  Stay calm.  Say nothing.  No one need get hurt.
 
Ah, now I remember what to do.   Listen. 
 
Do something.  Explain why we need to study history.   Justice – that’s right, we can start with justice.  Rosa Parks.  Freedom struggle.  Forest Rights.   Let’s just take care not get to too complicated.
 
The next morning as my daughter ate breakfast, I combed her hair.  I had my question ready and eased it ever so casually into the flow of braiding and talking. 
 
“Have you ever come across something that is not fair?”
 
“Yes,” she said, wailing.  She tends to take on the mood of whatever she is talking about.   “Like right now, I am finished with my oatmeal but you are only finished with one జడ (braid) and I don’t have anything to eat during the other జడ.”  
 
Okay.
 
As I took that in, she asked, “why did you ask me that?”
 
“Oh,” I chirped cheerily, “I just wanted to hear what you thought.”  
 
“That is nice” she said, genuinely appreciating it.  Trust me, she is not one to say “that’s nice” for no reason. 
 
On that happy note, we carried on an easy banter as I finished up the other braid.  No further inquiry.
 
Throughout the day I kept my troubles regarding the beleaguered field of history to myself.  I think a couple of times she may have continued thinking aloud about how she did not like history.  It was almost as if she liked the sound of it:  “I don’t like history.”  I thought, but did not say, things like, “you like history, you are only saying that because you have gotten some idea that history is boring …. probably picked this up from some character in one of your books[1].”
 
Later that night she asked me, “what does Machiavellian mean?”  She was reading The Penderwicks on Gardam Street, in which Anna had used the word, saying only “I will explain later,” when Batty, another character in the novel, asked her what it meant.
 
I couldn’t resist.  I said, “well I can tell you but it might involve a little bit of … history.”  We both giggled. 
 
In small bits, I explained, proceeding further only as the questions directed. 
 
It reminded me of an incident some years ago when cleaning our pichkari in preparation for Holi.  Branded in the plastic were the words “Made in Mumbai.”   Mumbai … Bombay … English … British … the conversation went all over the world and back.  Language, culture, power, land, water, salt, spice, east, west … we are still talking about it.  
 
Last summer in Maryland, we saw a car with a Delaware license plate.  Across the top it said “THE FIRST STATE.”
 
“Why does that say Delaware – the first state?” my daughter asked me. 
 
By now it was a running joke:   “Just to let you know, this might involve a little bit of history.”  As it turned out, it involved politics and ontology as well.  
 
Were they already called states?  she asked.  Who named it Delaware?  Was it like New York – named by the British, before they decided not to be British? 
 
Or later when they decided to call it the United States did they realize that the first one was Delaware?    What did it do first to become the first state?   Is Delaware also a Native American name?  Did the Native Americans want to name the state?
 
One day we saw Bhakta Prahlad (1967).  While observing the crowning of Prahlad, she asked, “how did the first king become king?”
 
Oh, yeah …
 
*  *  *  *  *
 
Now you may ask, can you really pursue history through the questions that come up while walking around and doing other things?  What about the people to whom you ask the questions … would the meandering route get you anywhere if those people hadn’t ever learned about the European Renaissance, and how the American constitution was ratified?  At some point don’t you also have to do the heavy reading for yourself?
 
And till that fine day comes when your curiosity drives you to read those works, what can you do to prepare?  Sure, maybe you spend years randomly asking questions and getting quick fill-ins from Wikipedia and then suddenly start reading Romila Thapar or Amartya Sen or Howard Zinn or Victoria Brown.  I can well imagine doing that.  I could also imagine missing the boat entirely.  Do we leave it up to chance?  
 
Such questions come up from time to time, especially for those whose children are learning outside of school, and possibly without any standardized curriculum.  Is there a plan to the learning, or is it driven by whim and fancy?  Granted, whim and fancy can take you a long way, usually via the scenic route.  But what about structured learning?  I think that structure materializes in various ways, and if we observe we might find, for example, that a child’s mind goes into active mode while taking a bath or getting ready for bed.  Some kids think better when in motion, or when they are interrupting you (as opposed to when you ask them a question and wait for them to answer).  Some kids cry when they don’t understand something, but that crying is part of their grappling with the problem.  Recognizing and respecting the structure that goes into each child’s learning process will help to keep the channels clear and unobstructed. 
 
Apart from the patterns that emerge, are there practices that we can encourage, that will help to build our capacity to learn various things?
 
This brings me to another answer on structure.  Consider a subject like history.   History is not something that others create and we consume.   History must be questioned at every turn – who said? how do you know? what if…?   But how do we learn how to question history?  
 
In fact children do ask these questions about every day happenings.  We can draw upon this inquisitive nature and apply it to the study of the past as well.  At the very least we can avoid suppressing these questions when they arise.  Questioning authority, vital for investigating the past, starts with questions like “why do we have to do this?” that can spark intriguing discussions. 
 
I believe that one should learn history by learning to work like a historian, to think like a historian.   Before my child reads the history that is written by others, I would like her to try coming up with some of her own questions and finding something out about history.  We have, for example, interviewed people in the neighbourhood.  So far we have found out more about the mechanics of setting up and conducting an interview than about any particular historical or social question, but this is important too.  When we read interviews of others, it gives us some insight into what it takes to set the stage.  We have also looked around the house and neighbourhood and made a kind of game of asking, “what happened here in the last few hours or days and what is our evidence for saying so?”  “How reliable is this evidence?”  “What might possibly make us doubt this evidence?”  “What alternate explanations are there?”  
 
This practice will equip us to ask similar questions while reading history, so that we can evaluate sources and compare perspectives.  At a more elementary level, a game like Chinese whispers, illustrating how a message gets distorted as it passes through various transmitters (people) can also sharpen one’s critical faculties when reading others’ accounts of what happened. 
 
[1] Or was it in one of my books?  I had recently been reading James Loewen, Lies My Teacher Told Me.  Loewen writes,
“[P]rofessional historical organizations for at least a century have repeatedly exhorted teachers not to teach history as fact memorization. ‘Stir up the minds of the pupils,’ cried the American Historical Association in 1893; ‘avoid stressing dates, names, and specific events, ‘historians urged in 1934. . . . Nevertheless, teachers continue to present factoids for students to memorize.”  
I don’t think she read the book, but I am just saying, I need not turn to a juvenile novel to track down the sentiment that history class is boring.  Historians themselves have been complaining about it for years.

What curriculum are you using?

What curriculum are you using?

The question of curriculum often gives rise to unnecessary confusion, perhaps because those often called upon the answer the question, rarely have a direct answer like “CBSE,” or “Waldorf,” or “Khan.”  It ends up as “We are a little Waldorfy” or “We mix and match,” or “Life is our curriculum” or “Why put knowledge into boxes and give your kids worksheets when you can give them the world?” This leaves a beatific smile on the face of the one who answered, but a blank and almost apologetic look on the one who asked the (apparently silly) question.

A prevailing misconception among homeschoolers is that there are those who follow curriculum and those who don’t. And those who sometimes kind of do. And that these two directions towards and away from curriculum, worksheets and structured educational activity define a linear spectrum of those on the one hand who follow curriculum and conventional educational goals, called “homeschoolers,” and “unschoolers” on the other, dismissing them in the name of free thinking.

Let me take this opportunity to step up to the soapbox and say that this is not a meaningful distinction between homeschooling and unschooling. Learning without textbooks and planned lessons will not automatically throw you into the weird wild world of “unschooling” unless you choose to go there. Dissing curriculum (e.g. saying “I don’t use curriculum”) will not automatically make you an unschooler charting brave new paths. Nor will using a worksheet or textbook (or – gasp – bedtime) demote you from the coolness that is unschooling.

When I think of curriculum, I think of currents – roaring ocean currents and also whispering currents as the rain drops through the soil and seeks out other drops through capillary action.  I think of thoughts sailing along rivers and tributaries, or lighting along ever branching out networks in the brain.  I think of roots, rooting deep into the ground, seeking moisture and and drawing nutrients towards themselves.

When we apply fertilizer to a plant, then the roots need not extend as far for us to see results.  The plant grows, the fruit or vegetable gains weight.  Fertilizer can only give a plant the nutrients it contains.  When we nourish the soil, the numerous organisms living in it make not only six or seven micronutrients but hundreds of them and the plant works within that ecosystem.  The fruit or vegetable may gain less weight, but its nutrients come from deep within the soil where the roots have taken time to reach.

Jonathan Kozol writes about a student who was failing tests in school (“The Road to Rome,” in Shame of the Nation, pg . 130.):

He often misses what most others think to be the “main point” of an essay he has read or lecture he has heard, which may be one reason why the comprehension questions on a standardized exam sometimes befuddled him. Instead, he often tends to fasten on a piece of what he’s read or heard that corresponds to something he already cares about and finds his own unusual back-channel to the essence of the work or to the meaning of the man, which leaves him with a sense of intimate association.

Those channels, taking the student from one idea to another, are the student’s own curriculum.  They may lead him to people, places, books, even textbooks, but it is his own inner curriculum that is leading him.  The books may also open up further channels, provoking further paths of inquiry.

Of this approach to learning, that I am calling the inner curriculum, Jonathan Kozol writes,

One result of this, I think, is that his memories of these encounters with a person, or a passage of prose writing, or a poem, linger in his mind …

This inner curriculum is so strong that even if one must go through a program dictated by others, it will still find ways to express itself, just as a river finds its way around a dam or grass still grows through paved roads, and the memories of meaningful encounters linger.  This is the curriculum that you are already using, and will always use.  If you are at the same time following a Standardized Curriculum from a Board of Education, your inner guide will help you latch on to what nourishes you and it will also help you to forget what is useless and keep the mind free to learn, discover and rediscover.