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Meet modern India’s first applied education researcher

At Innerkern, we work on applied education research projects involving school leaders, teachers, and parents to design schooling and parenting approaches rooted in Indian realities and practical in the Indian context. Modern India's first applied education researcher inspires us.

When Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi described Nai Talim in Harijan for the first time on 31 July 1937, he was not pushing for that educational approach in a vacuum. In India, we had misconstrued Nail Talim as an educational approach that revolved around students making handicrafts, gradually lost our interest in it, and decided to sustain schooling approaches that the British had left behind for us. Once a particular learning culture sticks, it is difficult to discard it.

We eventually reduced Nai Talim to forcing students to stitch senseless patterns on white handkerchiefs in our schools and later forgot about it. For the uninitiated, most Indian schools used to set aside 40 minutes, once a week, for Socially Useful and Productive Work (SUPW). Way back in the 1980s, SUPW used to be about knitting mufflers and stitching patterns on handkerchiefs. However, contrary to the popular notion, Nai Talim is beyond engaging in socially useful and productive work like handicrafts. Nai Talim was a revolutionary and scientific educational approach that emerged from a series of experiments Gandhi conducted in South Africa.

Where did it all begin?

In 1896, Gandhi realised that his work in South Africa would take longer than he thought. He returned to Durban in 1897 with his wife, nine and five-year-old sons, and a 10-year-old nephew. Now, Gandhi had to address the question of their education. He was clear about three things while trying to answer this question: First, he did not want to send them to a residential school because he believed that children should live with their parents. Second, he wanted them to learn in their home language. Third, he did not want them to have any privileges other Indian children could not have. However, Gandhi did not want to homeschool them as he could not dedicate sufficient time to teaching them and believed that homeschooling might eventually prove inadequate for their learning needs.

In 1904, Gandhi decided to put into practice a revolutionary approach to living inspired by John Ruskin's Unto this Last. It is an essay critical of economics. It explained how the life of an artisan is a life worth living. To put Ruskin's theory into practice, Gandhi founded Phoenix Ashram, fourteen miles outside Durban, and invited his friends to join his mission.

Though the children from families that joined Gandhi worked alongside their parents while they were at Phoenix Ashram to learn farming and handicraft, it took a few more years for the education experiment to evolve. After six years at the Phoenix Ashram, Gandhi joined hands with Hermann Kallenbach in 1910 to launch Tolstoy Farm. Soon, sixty or seventy people joined Gandhi, and they needed a school.

An Indian education revolution in South Africa

In 1909, Gandhi wrote Hind Swaraj and borrowed the following lines from Aldous Huxley to explain his idea of an educated human being:

His (their) body is the servant of his (their) will and does its work with ease and pleasure....his (their) mind is stored with knowledge of the fundamental truths of nature; his (their) passions are under the control of a vigorous will and a tender conscience; he (they) has learned to hate all vileness and to respect others as himself (themselves.) Such a man (human being) and no other has had a liberal education.

In their Tolstoy Farm School, Gandhi worked alongside Kallenbach to design a schooling system by experience and experiment, which would allow people to practice the ideals he had put forward in Hind Swaraj. The schools in Johannesburg were teaching reading, writing, and arithmetic. At Tolstoy Farm School, Gandhi and Kallenbach designed the first maker space for learning, where children learned the three Rs and more, engaging in carpentry and sandal making, among other things. Though the Tolstoy Farm School had many shortcomings, as Gandhi did not have sufficient time at hand to keep track of the experiment and take immediate corrective action, he said that the school was the most substantial result of the Satyagraha Struggle.

Now, the big question in front of us is this: was Gandhi merely using Nai Talim as a plank to advance his political agenda, or was there any scientific basis to the ideas he was promoting in the name of schooling, good enough to call him modern India's first applied education researcher?

Is Gandhi modern India’s first applied education researcher?

We had deconstructed the notions that inform Nai Talim's approach to learning and reviewed them in the context of contemporary research in education and cognitive science. What we found might surprise you. We picked four out of the several notions that drive the Nai Talim philosophy to show you how cutting-edge applied research informed Gandhi’s approach to education.

Notion One

Formal education should begin at the age of seven.

Gandhi wanted Nai Talim to be a seven-year course for children, starting when a child is seven years old. In 2013, Sebastian P.Suggate, who currently works in the Department of Education at the University of Regensburg, found that when compared, children who started to learn reading comprehension at the age of seven performed better than those who started at the age of five. Suggate and his team also found that those who started learning to read at the age of five developed comparatively less positive attitudes towards reading, by the time they were seven years old. We must add that in Finland they do not make children sit in formal classrooms until they are seven.

Notion Two

Playful activity is central to learning.

Gandhi wanted children to play until they turned seven and even after. Life at Tolstoy Farm was about play as much as it was about learning and work. Since Gandhi designed Nai Talim around the idea of children engaging in handcraft, much of their learning was about engaging in playful activities. Sergio Pellis and Vivien Pellis reviewed several studies in 2009 to write the book, The Playful Brain: Venturing to the Limits of Neuroscience. The book explores how playful activity encourages the brain to develop more connections in the frontal lobe, the part responsible for higher-level mental functions. Of course, Gandhi did not mention playfulness or play directly anywhere in his thesis for education. However, the description of Nai Talim is full of examples of how learning experiences were designed as playful activities.

Notion Three

Literacy is just a means to an end.

Unlike in the English Schools, Gandhi did not want to teach children to read or write as they joined school. In July 1937, he wrote in Harijan, "Literacy is not the end of education nor even the beginning. It is only one of the means whereby man and woman can be educated. Literacy in itself is no education. I would therefore begin the child's education by teaching it a useful handicraft and enabling it to produce from the moment it begins its training. Thus every school can be made self-supporting, the condition being that the State takes over the manufactures of these schools." Pie Corbett, the English educational trainer who pioneered talk for writing approaches, established that teaching oracy first can be instrumental in better reading and writing. We are sure you also appreciate that the Montessori Approach to teaching introduces reading, writing and arithmetic many months after a child starts schooling.

Notion Four

Learning must happen through dialogue.

Gandhi believed in teaching children maths, literature, culture, and history through dialogue. He mentions in one of his descriptions of Nai Talim in Harijan, "Then as to primary education, my confirmed opinion is that the commencement of training by teaching the alphabet and reading and writing hampers their intellectual growth. I would not teach them the alphabet till they have had an elementary knowledge of history, geography, mental arithmetic and the art (say) of spinning. Through these three I should develop their intelligence. Questions may be asked about how intelligence can be developed through the takli or the spinning wheel. It can to a marvellous degree if it is not taught merely mechanically. When you tell a child the reason for each process, when you explain the mechanism of the takli or the wheel, when you give him the history of cotton and its connection with civilization itself and take him to the village field where it is grown, and teach him to count the rounds he spins and the method of finding the evenness and strength of his yarn, you hold his interest and simultaneously train his hands, his eyes and his mind. I should give six months to this preliminary training." In the book, Dialogue and the Development of Children's Thinking, Neil Mercer and Karen Littleton explains the rationale for such dialogic learning, "Communicative events are shaped by cultural and historical factors, and thinking, learning, and development cannot be understood without taking account of the intrinsically social and communicative nature of human life. Education is seen as a dialogic process, with students and teachers working within settings that reflect the values and social practices of schools as cultural institutions. A sociocultural perspective raises the possibility that educational success and failure may be explained by the quality of educational dialogue, rather than simply by considering the capability of individual students or the skill of their teachers. It encourages the investigation of the relationship between language and thinking and also of the relationship between what Vygotsky called the ‘intermental’ and the ‘intramental’—the social and the psychological—in the processes of learning, development and intellectual endeavour. Partly through the influence of these ideas, social interaction has increasingly come to be seen as significant in shaping children’s cognitive development."


About the Lead Researchers

Rosama Francis

Rosama Francis started her career as a teacher and soon found herself motivated to help students find their potential. She went on to head schools soon after and found all her work centered around finding people's strengths. It was an intuitive understanding that everyone has their unique potential and only by focusing on that, will that individual find success. She soon gravitated towards her career as a coach and still wake up to a life that she loves. Rosama Francis is the co-founder of Innerkern and you can read more about her work here.

Sojo Varughese

Sojo Varughese is an educator with more than a decade and a half of rich and varied on-field experience behind him in Teacher Training, Instructional Coaching, Academic Audit, Education Technology Integration, and School Improvement. Over these years, working with international, national & state board schools (government and private), he would have by now trained and coached 46000+ school leaders and teachers across India and the Middle East in contemporary classroom teaching, student assessment, and school management practices. Sojo Varughese is the co-founder of Innerkern and you can read more about his work here.


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